The pandemic has served to catalyze and accelerate seminal changes. In this three-part article series, we will highlight some of the important themes and concepts that we believe will shape, and are shaping, the Future of Work in the post-COVID workplace.
In Part I, we assessed the pandemic’s influence in redefining where and how work gets done. And we discuss the implications across domains ranging from Real Estate and Commerce to Socializing and Education.
In Part II, we shared our views about how the nature of work itself is evolving in a world of remote collaboration, hyper-specialization, and human-computer symbiosis. We presented a framework to evaluate Artificial Intelligence software applications likely to gain traction, with examples from the Software Development industry, Molecular Biology, Healthcare, as well as Prediction Markets.
Part III (below) introduces the Pandemic Response Co-Lab, an initiative we are working on with MIT to mobilize innovators, communities, businesses, and others to develop actionable AI-enabled solutions to real problems post-COVID. To that end, we highlight a few introductory examples of products and services that stand to benefit the workplace and workforce of the future.
Part III: What Should We Do?
What should we do about the future of work in a world shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic? There are some obvious new kinds of products and services that companies or governments can provide. We need to fulﬁll short-term needs for things during the pandemic like masks, ventilators, tracing the contacts of people who are infected so you can deal appropriately with people who’ve been exposed, providing home delivery of groceries, and lots of other things.
In some ways, more interestingly, there are long-term opportunities after the pandemic to develop products and services based on the kind of things we’ve just been talking about such as digital tools for working remotely, neighborhood oﬃce buildings, as well as online versions of lots of things we have been accustomed to doing in-person, including education and concerts.
A Digital ‘Works Progress Administration’
A question we think about is not just what can individual organizations do, but what can we as a society do about the things that are happening in the COVID pandemic?
The ﬁrst idea is that we can treat the economic symptoms of massive unemployment caused by the COVID- 19 pandemic, perhaps, using an idea from the history of the Great Depression. The basic idea is to have a digital version of the program created by the US government in the 1930s called the Works Progress Administration or the WPA.
The WPA was a government program that provided government funded jobs for millions of unemployed workers. Most of them doing physical tasks like building roads, hospitals, and other kinds of public infrastructure.
But today, we have an option that wasn’t available in the 1930s. We can have a digital WPA, where the work done is digital not physical. That also means, very importantly, the work can be done from anywhere. And this work also provides a bridge from unemployment today to the digital jobs of tomorrow.
What could these digital WPA workers do? Well, many of them, we think, could do tasks that are desperately needed to cope with the pandemic, like tracking the context of people who are infected, coordinating care for home-bound seniors, remote monitoring of various sorts for things like mobile security cameras and government buildings or X-ray scanners in airports. Other people might do detailed labor-intensive work needed to convert manual medical records to electronic ones. And lots and lots of other things are possible.
Interestingly, another thing the original WPA did was include paying people to do various kinds of art, music, and other kinds of cultural work, like the nighttime symphony. In fact, they supported a number of artists who later became household names like Orson Welles, Saul Bellow, and Jackson Pollock. What if today, instead of paying unemployment, we could pay a talented young musician, who just got laid oﬀ from a job waiting tables, to perform in one of the live online symphonies that are springing up during this lockdown period?
Matching Workers with Work
Another question is, how can we match workers to the work? One way of doing this is with traditional employment, whether that’s by the government directly, as it was in the original WPA, or by companies who are paid by the government.
But as the pandemic evolves, there will also be many tasks that are desperately needed for a time and then replaced by other newly urgent ones. So how can we manage these extremely dynamic needs?
We think we’ll still need people to manage the online workers. But today’s online labor markets can greatly facilitate ﬁnding and recruiting workers in just this kind of ever- changing environment.
For example, Amazon Mechanical Turk specializes in paying relatively unskilled workers to do small micro tasks, like simple data validation. While other sites like UpWork, 99Designs, and Freelancer.com focus on larger tasks that require artistic, technical, or other skills.
Now, whether or not these online labor markets keep the digital WPA tasks separately from other tasks on the platforms, there is an important potential advantage of using such platforms. And as unemployed workers do this work, they could become familiar with new ways of working online. And they might ﬁnd more and more tasks they could do for other paying customers besides the government.
In other words, they’d be learning new skills where the increasingly digital jobs that will emerge as our economy restarts after the pandemic subsides. Of course, a digital WPA isn’t a panacea for all our unemployment problems.
People in 1930 sometimes felt the WPA employees didn’t work very hard. And it won’t be trivial to determine the right mix of pay levels and work requirements to motivate workers while still providing incentives for them to return to the private sector when they can.
In this government supported version of a gig economy, it will also be important to avoid creating digital sweatshops and other things that are kind of undesirable– instead, to provide livable incomes and reasonable working conditions for the workers.
The Pandemic Response Co-Lab
With MIT, we are planning to soon launch something called the Pandemic Response Co-Lab—a way of helping individuals and groups work together online to solve practical problems created by this pandemic. By leveraging an open online collaboration platform, we hope to mobilize innovators, communities, businesses, and others to develop actionable solutions to real problems.
To start, we expect to help people prioritize the problems that need to be solved. For instance, anyone who wants to—whether that’s a person or a company or a government or any other organization—can identify what they think are pressing problems related to the pandemic. After these problems are identiﬁed and deﬁned precisely, the online platform we expect will be able to help people develop solutions for those problems.
For instance, there might be a challenge on how to do contact tracing. People might submit new ideas like how to use closed circuit TV and machine vision to do that in public places or other things like that. In some cases there’ll be good ideas for how to solve the problems. But some resources will still be needed. The online platform could also be used to help recruit people or ﬁnd funders or discover where other resources, including datasets and algorithms, that could be used are available.
As COVID-19 impacts all facets of our work and lives, we are seeing years’ worth of digital transformation taking place in weeks. This is a moment for technology entrepreneurs to shine. The technology sector has been the single greatest creator of value in the U.S. economy over the past 30 years, and it is no coincidence that Technology and Software stocks have been leading the recovery in the public markets. Indeed, many software companies are hitting all-time highs. The scientists, engineers, domain experts, and entrepreneurs at the helm of technology companies are poised to play the biggest role in shaping the future, and most certainly The Future of Work.