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A Virus in a Viral Age

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Viral Age
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Future of Work

A Virus in a Viral Age

Unless you’ve been totally off the grid you’ll probably have noticed the world is all-a-twitter about Coronavirus....

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Unless you’ve been totally off the grid you’ll probably have noticed the world is all-a-twitter about Coronavirus.

As of the time of writing this piece, I am (thank …. insert name of your personal deity here …) well (thank you for asking), and have felt no ill effects as I’ve travelled from Boston to Austin to Boston to London to Boston and back to the sanctuary of Cape Code in the last few weeks.

As I’ve been moving about and watching those straddling the fine line between genius and lunacy (see photo above) I’ve been musing on what Covid-19 may mean to the future of work.

Here are a few of those (fever free) thoughts …

How about it (Covid-19) adds further impetus to anti-globalization, makes the “Chinese century” less likely, increases momentum towards a material reassessment of social media (perhaps the most potent virus in this whole story), and inches “working at phone” (let alone “working at home”) towards being a norm, not an exception. Funnily enough, I wrote about this for a recent blog piece on an anniversary I’ve just celebrated

Working @ home still doesn’t work apparentlywhen I left Tamesis (the name of the Gartner office in south west London) in late 1999, 90% of analysts worked in the office 90% of the time. A few years later when I spent an unanticipated summer back there (visa problems, don’t ask), 90% of analysts weren’t in the office 90% of the time. The gestalt switch was very noticeable to me, because by that time I had been working at home quite routinely in the US, where it seemed quite normalized. Fast forward to today and most people that I work with work (like me) at home all the time (when we’re not all travelling for meetings and conferences etc.). And yet, folks like me/us still represent a very small proportion of the overall US workforce. I thought years ago that certainly by now working at home would be completely common and yet it isn’t. I’m not really sure why. I guess people like being stuck in traffic or on the subway, like having to hang with their colleagues, like having somewhere to go, other than their converted bedroom or family room.

Coronavirus could be the catalyst to the change I thought we were going to see a long time ago …

My biggest takeaway from the whole scare though is that it illustrates the downsides of our “wired” world – that a global 24/7 news industry is incentivized to make the death of a relatively small number of people on the other side of the world a huge issue, that social media amplifies (through its own incentive mechanisms) the “macro” “breaking news” into “micro” “freaking out”, and the unholy alliance between MSM and SM (Zucker and Zuckerberg) creates a vicious cycle at which Churchill would weep (nobody’s keeping calm, and nobody’s carrying on). Layer on top of this a global airline industry that can whisk anyone (and their bugs) from anywhere to anywhere else within 24 hours, and a global financial industry that is a) carrying unprecedented amounts of capital b) astoundingly professional and/or cutthroat (depending on your POV) and c) so tightly wound in fiber optics and algorithms that the “ships of state” roll wildly around like supertankers without stabilizers in a typhoon (up 7% one day, down 8% the next etc.), and you have a late stage capitalist world that is heading to the ER.

On top of all the other Black Swans of the last few years, Coronavirus seems like a plot twist straight from a Hollywood writers’ room – just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water

Another few months of breaking news and freaking out and airlines will have folded, tier two and three universities will be in proverbial ICUs, the 2020 Olympic Games will be an asterisk, and Liverpool will have been denied their first Premier League title.

Maybe President Joe in Waiting will place a steadying hand on the tiller. Maybe four more Trumpian years will unleash animal spirits that see America revert to the mean.

I guess we’ll see. I’m sure there is a future of work. But it’ll probably be quite different from the present of work. (You didn’t know it was a present, did you? But we may come to regard it as such in the months ahead).

Coronavirus is literally and metaphorically a bug in our system. In the coming days, let’s keep our fingers crossed that the world’s best scientists and medical professionals can find a way to isolate it and wipe it out. In the longer term though, I think we need to think more about the system, not just the bug; IMO, the current (and accelerating) transmission speed of people, viruses, news, opinion, and capital is unsustainable. Brakes are needed before we crash and burn.


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