Locked down in the bacon factory

How covid-19 has accelerated change in the world of work

I will remember 2020 as the year I chaired an international conference from a small bacon factory in the English countryside. Had this gig come up in 2019 I would have been at a large conference centre in Athens. But in 2020, everything changed.

When news of a novel disease emerged, I was primed to think of viral outbreaks as distant tragedies. In just two decades, we had seen SARS, Ebola, Swine flu, MERS and Zika sweep through Asia, Africa and the Middle East, but cases were rare at home.

It was commonplace in Asia to see people wearing surgical face masks on the streets. I thought they were overreacting. They needed to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

We believed ourselves to be prepared and maybe that is why we were so unprepared. In a matter of weeks, it became clear that Covid-19 was a local emergency. My daughters were backpacking in South America. My son was studying for his final school exams. My wife was teaching Spanish in local schools. As the epidemic hit, we had a tense few days liaising with the embassy in Quito to get our girls home. My son discovered he had endured his last ever day at school and there would be no exams (he hid his disappointment well). My wife was taking a crash course in teaching five-year-olds over Zoom from the kitchen table.

Of us all, I was least disrupted. I had already turned my back on office life and was working exclusively from home. A few decades earlier it would have been a different story, but I was able to stay in touch with clients by webcam and e-mail, and I found myself busier than ever as the world struggled to keep up with developing trends. But physical meetings at home and abroad ground to a halt. Conference duties were now conducted strictly online, my laptop replacing airport lounges, business hotels and conference halls. Instead of networking in coffee breaks, I was networking on WiFi. (The ancient copper wires connecting my house were not up to the job; the bacon factory nearby has a much better signal.)

Like me, The Economist Group was well prepared for the crisis, as much by luck as by judgment. With a liberal attitude to office working and staff spread all over the world, the Group had established a robust system for working from home. It was fortuitous that these efforts had been completed months before Covid-19 hit, and the Group was able to close its offices overnight with little or no impact on clients. Like a swan, the business sailed on serenely through choppy waters, even if the feet were kicking furiously under the surface.

Many other companies found themselves in a similar position. Preparations had been underway for the expected arrival of a new, more virtual world of work. It had simply arrived sooner, and more suddenly, than expected.

Some businesses boomed. Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime cashed in as locked-down households distracted themselves with hit shows like The Crown and Succession. The usual traffic on our roads was replaced by vans bringing supermarket deliveries and Amazon packages (Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, increased his net worth by Eurotk10bn in a single day). Financial services, already gradually retreating from the high street, sped up their move online; Europe saw a 72% jump in the use of financial apps and online banking in March alone. Zoom became the meeting place of choice for businesses, families and parish councils. (For a while, Sweden was an exception, and I remember the slight sense of panic as I walked through a crowded, maskless Arlanda airport on my way to my last overseas engagement).

Tempted by the possibilities presented by digitalisation, lockdown spurred companies and consumers to discard caution and embrace new styles of living and working, and some of the change at least is permanent. Companies are eyeing big savings from relinquishing office space. Workers are reconsidering their housing choices and going for bigger properties further from big cities. PWC, an accounting firm, says London could see an exodus of 300,000 people, the first annual drop since 1988 (though some of the decline is related to Brexit).

The benefits of digitalisation were spread unevenly. Airlines, hotels, bars, restaurants, non-essential shops and cinemas were paralysed. Most business sectors that rely on human footfall were put into hibernation. Some of these will rally when restrictions are eased — in many cases kept afloat by fiscal handouts — but some are gone for good. More than 40 airlines declared bankruptcy in 2020. Retailers were also hit hard, and much of their business will move online permanently, another slow-burn trend that exploded in lockdown. When Arcadia Group, the London-based multinational retailer, went into administration, its leading brands were bought by online rivals, but the associated shops were not.

We are facing a dramatic period of ‘creative destruction’, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase for the replacement of outdated modes of business. It was coming anyway, but covid-19 has quickened the pace. In the world that emerges, many companies will switch to ‘remote first’ employment: it’s cheaper, opens up a global talent pool and is probably more productive. All forms of retail will move increasingly online, with implications for high streets, restaurants and out-of-town shopping malls. Bank branches will be replaced by apps, doctors will consult remotely and universities will teach over video.

Of course, just because something can be done digitally does not mean it should, and some of the migration to digital will be reversed when the epidemic subsides. While teachers have been able to deliver classes online through the emergency, many pupils are desperate to get back to the classroom (and many parents no less enthusiastic to send them there). Pubs, clubs and coffee houses will bustle, cinemas will flicker back to life and sports fans will crowd through turnstiles.

Closer to home, my daughters can’t wait to swim with turtles, my wife misses her pupils and my son needs a break from Call of Duty. And I will turn my back on the bacon factory and go back to the airport.

First published by InPress (Uppsala) in The Economist’s The World If, Världen Om.

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Alasdair Ross

Alasdair Ross

I am an author and speaker specialising in global affairs, geopolitics and risk with more than 40 years' experience in journalism and analysis.