DURING the life-changing Covid-19 pandemic, millions of people were fortunate enough to work from home during lockdowns while others were called upon to put themselves at physical risk to keep cities and economies from collapsing. As the world re-emerges from Covid, we are seeing renewed attention in the workplace to issues of social injustice, economic inequality, corporate social responsibility and diversity and inclusion.

Earlier this year we asked a small group of leaders in various professions: Is the world of work forever changed?

Their answers have been edited and condensed.


'People are looking for true fulfilment'

By Vicky Lau

OVER the past two years, the food and beverage industry has evolved rapidly.

Restaurants and bars have scrambled to adapt to and survive the unprecedented rules and regulations brought on by the pandemic that have ultimately led to the demise of thousands of establishments around the world.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 lockdowns and new technologies have pushed workers to switch jobs or pursue entirely new careers.

There has been a noticeable shift away from the traditional career restaurant worker to one preferring to juggle multiple jobs or jump from one to the next. People are looking for true fulfilment in their lives and careers, and with e-commerce businesses easier to set up than ever, workers have become their own bosses and have even started their own enterprises.

HeraldScotland:

Restrictions on indoor dining, coupled with the fact that many people are working from home, have created a new pattern of habits with regard to how food is both approached (rediscovering a love for home cooking) and consumed (the mushrooming use of food delivery apps).In Hong Kong, consumers have adopted much healthier eating habits. A new global focus on self-care means many people want to be the best version of themselves coming out of the pandemic. More business owners are also sourcing locally, connecting with regional farmers and experimenting with their own creations.

Aligning with shifting consumer needs while taking on waves of lockdown restrictions are just two of the many ways in which the industry has struggled to stay on top of the game.

In the future, our relationship with food will have to go back to the very beginning: good ingredients. For chefs, whether we’re preparing a traditional meal or adapting to a new way of dining, sourcing will be critical. The future of the industry depends on it.

(Vicky Lau is the executive chef and owner of Tate Dining Room in Hong Kong.)


'The validation of the crowd'

By Billy Bragg

I’VE always been an itinerant worker. Some musicians earn enough money from their recordings, but most of us make our living out on the road. Since I turned professional 35 years ago, I’ve plied my trade all over the world. When the pandemic hit in 2020, I had dates booked in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. As clubs and theatres went dark and my tours were postponed, I felt certain that this thing would all be over in time for the summer festivals. Then the cancellation of the annual Glastonbury Festival in Somerset, England, brought home the seriousness of the situation.

When the first lockdown in Britain was announced, like many musicians I was confronted by the steep learning curve facing any performer who chooses to work live on the internet. As a young man I’d enjoyed watching myself in the bedroom mirror, striking rock star poses while strumming furiously on a tennis racket.

These days, playing an hour of songs with nothing to look at but my own reflection staring back at me from a smartphone screen hasn’t been quite so engaging, and the only discernible crowd reaction has been the stream of emojis bubbling up silently as I play.

HeraldScotland:

Yet it’s not only performers who need the validation of the crowd. Music has a way of making us feel that we are not alone, and gives us a sense that others also face the emotional quandaries we do. That feeling of empathy is never more powerful than when it’s experienced at a live concert.

To have a song that has fortified your resolve to rise above your problems, and then find yourself in the presence of the artist who provided that impetus, can be an energising experience. When they sing your song, and hundreds – maybe thousands – of other voices join with yours in response, the sense of validation is euphoric. This is a moment of blessed communion, during which doubt and disconsolation are swept away. You leave the venue with your resilience recharged.

While the pandemic may transform the way we see the world and lead to long lasting changes in the way some people work, I’m convinced that in my line of business, things will remain much as they ever were. The emotional solidarity of the live event is not something that can easily be replicated online.

(Billy Bragg is a British singer, songwriter, activist and social commentator.)


'A more humane labour market'

By Betsey Stevenson and Justine Wolfers

PRIOR to the pandemic most of us tried to maintain a boundary between our work lives and our lives at home. Children were seen rarely, and then mostly in desktop photos. Parents quietly adjusted their schedules without drawing attention to their caregiving obligations.

The pandemic shredded these porous boundaries. Suddenly, kids were in full view on Zoom; a barking dog or dancing cat might provide a moment of levity.

Employers adjusted to scheduling around our caregiving responsibilities.

HeraldScotland:

Pulling back this curtain on our personal lives has transformed our relationship with work. The results are reflected in both our actions and our intentions. Job resignations hit an all-time high in 2021, and workers are changing industries and occupations more frequently than they did before the pandemic. Surveys show that more than half of US workers have an eye towards new employment. Only a quarter of US fathers and a third of mothers surveyed said that they plan to keep on working as they did prior to the pandemic — the rest aspire to change the number of hours they work, or look for a different type of job.

Necessity has forced change, and led each of us to reimagine what’s possible.

And that reimagining has led workers to see more control for themselves, and better opportunities ahead.

For some this will mean not returning to the office full time. The typical worker whose job can be done there is likely to continue working from home at least part of the time. The time saved (in billions of collective hours) and convenience (say, throwing in a load of laundry between meetings) generated benefits too great to give back.

HeraldScotland:

Beyond working from home, many people are looking for something new.

They are negotiating where and how much they choose to work, and are walking away from low-paying, high-risk jobs. Some want to strike a better balance by working less or finding a less stressful or demanding position. Others are seeking better opportunities to build the career they truly want. The shifting pandemic economy, in which there are a record number of job openings, has given workers the bargaining power to demand – rather than merely hope for – these changes.

Every economic upheaval needs a name.

Call this one The Great Reallocation. It might be disruptive for a little while, but the result just might be a more humane labour market.

(Betsey Stevenson, an American economist, and Justin Wolfers, an Australian economist, are professors of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan. They are experts on the economics of marriage, divorce and child-rearing.)


'Tech enables, but humans make the rules'

By Rosabeth Moss Kanter

COVID disruption could be the turning point for adopting – finally – quality work life practices proposed for decades.

Flexible schedules, equal opportunity for women and minorities, a good balance between work and family, and socially responsible companies have long been on the horizon as distant hopes.

One driver is technology. Tech contributes to change by enabling work from anywhere. It transforms institutions and makes services more accessible, whether education online or healthcare through telemedicine, robotic surgery or home health monitoring. Labour shortages in poorly paid rote jobs make room for robots, such as the robotic restaurant in my tech heavy neighbourhood.

Goodbye, wage slavery.

But tech won’t create a workers’ paradise without bigger reforms.

In-person face time is still an advantage for workers who can get to a workplace, which means that they need accessible child care and transportation, which have yet to materialise on a large scale. And a tech-dominated world carries troubling possibilities for control through increasingly sophisticated surveillance techniques, unless worker autonomy is protected.

HeraldScotland:

Another potent driver of change is worker activism, led by younger top talent. Emboldened by competition for their skills and fuelled by a mistrust of establishments, they protest against undesirable customers, environmentally unfriendly products, rigid work requirements, discriminatory treatment and serial harassers. They seek greater participation in decisions, self-organising to act directly rather than waiting for permission. They reinforce external pressure groups in holding businesses to ever-higher standards, and thus help corporate social responsibility programmes and environmental, social and governance reporting become mainstream expectations.

That’s not enough. Unless workplaces better help workers realise their family priorities and personal values, jobs will cease being a central source of identity.

The Great Resignation could continue, especially if entrepreneurship becomes a viable path for women and racial minorities – when they can break through the white male hold on venture capital.

Without workplace transformation, paid work will be purely transactional, a loyalty-less survival necessity with loose ties akin to gig work. Even for the well paid, jobs will be a sidetrack, dispensed with quickly so that the real business of living can begin. The charity road race will replace the rat race. The best work situations will offer opportunities for community service.

Work won’t morph from wage slavery into a workers’ paradise without a culture and public policies that require accessible child care, flexible schedules, a voice in decisions and social responsibility. Tech enables, but humans make the rules.

(Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a professor of business at Harvard Business School who specialises in change leadership and innovation. Her latest book is “Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time”.)


'People felt profound digital burnout long before Covid'

By Tina Brown

THE more the virus refuses to go gently into the night, the clearer it becomes that a post-Covid world is simply an illusion. The workplace is less a place than an elusive, shape-shifting locus of professional self-doubt; even more of a mirage for bosses than it is for employees.

The boss may think she has a staff, but what she’s got are ghost soldiers – push them a little and they melt away. This leaves managers powerless in the face of demands for a hybrid office, a creature which only works if employees come into work simultaneously. If they don’t, it’s impossible to hold a meeting without critical gaps at the table. It means having a sprinkling of nominal participants who log in and are forgotten about, and a no-show or two who later explain, “I’m sorry I missed that one — the wi-fi in Vermont is really bad.”

And let’s not forget Facebook’s virtual reality technology, in which absent co-workers appear as avatars, forcing the others to wear clunky headsets just to see the assistant marketing director as (perhaps fittingly) a nodding cartoon.

HeraldScotland:

One misbegotten takeaway from the “new workplace” discussion is that many employees prefer to stay at home because they are more productive. Uh, no. People felt profound digital burnout long before Covid. If there is one common denominator in the elusive post-Covid mood, it’s that most sane people don’t want to work much at all. They prefer to do just enough to keep the wolf from the door and uphold a dash of professional relevance.

Old-school human resources departments are a thing of the past. Ghost soldiers don’t want to share their work problems with a suit whose role is to pacify you on behalf of government. Work and personal life have been irretrievably blurred in the Zoom world.

I predict a growing use of pastoral care agencies like Sarah McCaffrey’s Solas Mind, which provides mental health support to freelancers in the creative sector.

Lockdown life revealed how fragile we all are – and how much we want to talk about it. The answer to office work in the future is clear: Employees should commute to the office for the same three day week, then melt away to their newly treasured secret worlds.

(Tina Brown is a journalist and author and the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker magazines.)

© 2021 The New York Times Company.