Robots are here to stay
These changes are likely to be permanent. A 2012 study found that easily automated jobs vanished during the 2008 financial crisis and never came back. Once robots have been installed to disinfect hospitals, ferry packages, or provide checkout services, it is typically much cheaper to keep them than to go back to human workers.
For businesses, that will provide an element of future-proofing. It is possible that there could be future COVID-19 outbreaks and those companies will be better able to handle a future lockdown with less disruption. What works for industry leaders like Amazon often filters down to other businesses, which will displace more workers.
As a society we need to begin thinking about those displaced workers, because this pace of change will exacerbate the problem. A new social contract is needed to ensure these people have a safety net while they look for work. However, many of the jobs for which they are qualified are gone for good, so we also need options for them to upskill and reskill.
This applies to workers whose jobs have not been lost, too. Working alongside robots or AI is a skill in itself and companies will need to train their workers to get the most out of their roles, as well as to emphasise the skills that are hardest to automate – specifically, soft skills.
The changes that we have seen in recent months are not a surprise. They have been predicted by business thinkers for years. What is unexpected is the speed with which automation has expanded. We need to start thinking now about what the world of work will look like afterwards.