It took a global pandemic for remote work to happen at mass scale, and with it comes a visible shift in the workplace. There’s no denying it: technology is reshaping the world of work.


At the recent Future Series FU.SE 2021 event, Carl Benedikt Frey, an Oxford Martin CITI Fellow, Founder and Director of the programme of the future of work at Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, shared his insights on remote work and its challenges, the importance of innovation and what employers can do to future-proof their talent, and productivity growth.


“The one thing that we do unfortunately know about the future is we are rather bad at predicting it,” Frey said.


The opening statement from Dr. Frey leads us to look at our past to consider our future. During the 1990’s, the masses predicted ‘the end of the office’ and the demise of cities at a time of some very rapid technological change, the worldwide web and email had just arrived, and organizations were becoming increasingly more decentralized as they began to adopt ICT technologies. It begs the question, will we have a repeat of the 1990s where we will eventually return to ‘normal’, or are we at the brink of a new future with remote work?



Will tech end spontaneous interaction?


As a society, we’ve made massive leaps and bounds in technological innovation since the 1990s. Video conferencing like Zoom, for example, have made it much easier to substitute face-to-face interaction, but Frey argues that it cannot truly replace in-person communication.


“One thing that digital doesn’t do very well is spontaneous interactions,” Frey said during FU.SE 2021. “and we know that spontaneous reactions are highly important to innovation.”


One of the big concerns tied to remote work and in-person communications continues to be promotion rates. Those who come into the office more often are more likely to build up relationships with colleagues and superiors, building up managerial and social capital, Frey said. Those who work remotely are less likely to strike up those spontaneous interactions and conversations.


According to Frey, the groups more likely to opt to work from home include mothers with small children or ethnic minority groups who are more likely to live farther from the office. These groups will save money (and time!) on a lengthy and costly commute by working remotely.


But the suffering promotion rates may perpetuate the growing inequalities in the workplace, which can lead to less innovation and a less diverse managerial team. To fight this outcome, Frey said, more companies will want to mandate certain business hours to ensure inclusion and innovation across the entire workforce.


“There is a real concern over remote work versus on-site, exacerbating already growing inequalities in the labour market. For that reason, I think most businesses will want to have some mandated office hours because of inclusion and also because of innovation,” said Frey during FU.SE 2021.


“Even though remote work is great for productivity growth, that productivity boost is likely to be a one-off if innovation suffers as a consequence, as future productivity growth depends on current levels of innovation,” Frey said.



Blending Technology And Employee Security


If future productivity growth depends on current levels of innovation, the challenge for the future is being able to combine newfound flexibility in our work life and security for employees whilst also seeking ways to improve our AI technologies.


Covid-19 has accelerated digital transformation with automation and AI playing a key role. For example, medical workers in Rwanda have deployed robots to minimize the risk of medical staff catching Covid-19. The robots perform tasks such as checking temperatures and monitoring patients to reduce human exposure. There has also been a big rise in the number of bars and restaurants using automated ordering systems, an especially important improvement during the pandemic.


However, this type of technology has instilled a fear that low skilled workers will suffer at the hands of new technology, but that’s not necessarily the case.


Frey pointed to current labour shortages in the U.S. and U.K. as a modern-day case study. In the U.K., there has been a huge shortage of lorry drivers. Whether the cause is Brexit and its policies on migration or perhaps, covid travel restrictions, Frey believes that embracing automation tech would solve these dilemmas.


In order to feel more at ease with AI technologies, there needs to be more transparency around the tech and what it does, how the algorithm works, and the ability of regulators to understand when there may be biases happening at the expense of others, Frey said.


“I think it’s important to remember that before the pandemic AI adoption rates were extremely low. Even in the United States which is the leading economy when it comes to artificial intelligence, only 3% of companies reported having adopted some sort of machine learning before the pandemic took hold. And I think the reason for that is that artificial intelligence is not yet a mature technology.”


If we look at the decline in labour mobility more broadly, personal preferences play a significant role in dictating employee’s work decisions. People who moved back home to their families during the pandemic may not be as likely to move again, at least not just yet, Frey said.



A worker-centric post-pandemic future


It seems that if in-person interactions are needed for innovation and creating new things, and remote working lends well for executing tasks later in the project life cycle, it is perhaps no wonder that the hybrid model is being adopted by so many organisations.


However, how will organisations entice people back to an in-person work environment?


“In times of labour shortages, people have more bargaining power,” Frey said.


There’s truly no one size fits all solution here, Frey argues, and employers need to take a holistic approach to improving employee engagement.


It’s not just about salaries, either, even though salaries remain an important part of the equation. Companies should also focus on giving people better career prospects and career development. Campaigns, attractive salary packages, offering upskilling, reskilling and training all need to be examined and correctly implemented to ensure the future-proofing and sustaining talent.


“When workers have more bargaining power, that essentially means that businesses need to lift the standard that they are providing in order to compete for talent and that is a very healthy thing in the labour market.”