Are we about to enter the golden age of the worker?

How the pandemic has highlighted the importance of critical jobs and normalised flexible working for some.

A lorry driver shows documentation to officials for both customs clearance and COVID-19.
A truck driver shows documentation to officials as he arrives at the Eurotunnel at Folkestone, UK [Toby Melville/Reuters]

The pandemic has disrupted all facets of our lives, including our relationship with work. With global economies having shut down to contain the virus in the past two years, consumer behaviour has drastically changed, putting entire sectors, such as travel, the arts and hospitality in jeopardy. Many have lost their jobs, with the more fortunate having access to furlough schemes, a government programme employed by many wealthier countries, to subsidise salaries and keep people temporarily on the payroll.

Yet despite the world continuing to battle through the pandemic, with the full extent of the economic damage still to be realised, some workers are finding themselves with unprecedented bargaining powers to influence their employment conditions. They are either finding themselves in higher demand, with access to more job opportunities and higher pay, or discovering new ways of working that better fit their lifestyles. Could this herald the golden age of the worker?

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of critical jobs, which have often been under-appreciated, such as nurses, warehouse workers, truck drivers and retail workers, roles that essentially keep the rest of society functioning. These heroes had little choice but to continue to go in to work in-person to keep supply chains and essential services alive, even if it meant increasing their risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Perhaps for some of these essential workers, it might finally convert into better, if belated, benefits. For example, there is a global shortage of truck drivers. To prevent the empty shelves crisis in shops, employers have ramped up financial incentives, including pay increases of 10 percent in the space of five months in July 2021, to lure in drivers, with some salaries and bonuses exceeding those for lawyers and architects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the US, hospitality salaries have also gone up to their highest rate for 20 years, as restaurants reopen, but staff seems less willing to re-join the sector.

Fierce competition for talent

COVID-19 has also led to a deeper reflection of personal priorities for many workers. Insurance provider Prudential reported in 2021 that as many as one in four workers are planning to look for a new job, driven by burnout, the hunt for work-life balance or pursuing passion projects.

Alain Dehaze, the CEO of staffing giant The Adecco Group, recently said that the border closures have been hampering talent mobility and with more workers retiring or leaving the workforce due to the direct health impact of COVID-19, there is bound to be fierce competition for talent.

In the short term, employees in key sectors may well be enjoying unprecedented bargaining power, but this may not last. In the longer term, the increased labour cost will accelerate the trend of automation, particularly for routine tasks, which could boost productivity but lead to a decline in job opportunities.

According to a 2021 survey of 800 senior executives by consultancy company McKinsey, two-thirds of companies globally are stepping up investment in automation and artificial intelligence. As an example of the scale of change awaiting us, McKinsey expects the number of customer service and food service jobs to fall by 4.3 million in the US alone, heavily impacting the 13.3 million currently employed in the hospitality industry and the 14.8 million in the retail industry. We can see visible signs of this already, with supermarkets’ increasing prevalence of “self-checkout” services.

White-collar employees who can do their work online have also seen a change, with remote working ushering a new era of work flexibility. Working from home was introduced as part of COVID-19 government restrictions, forcing companies to embrace it and invest in remote technologies.

‘A great transition’

Many continue to mandate or recommend their staff to work from home due to a surge in cases of the new Omicron variant, thereby continuing to normalise the concept of working remotely. McKinsey calculates that this new workforce behaviour might lead to four to five times more people working from home than pre-pandemic. It would drastically change the geography of the work commute, potentially favouring suburbs, which offer more space and lower housing costs, over the larger urban centres.

Working from home has obvious benefits. Not having to do a long commute could save staff time, money and carbon emissions. Being at home might also help with work-life balance, especially for working parents juggling chores and children.

For introverts who dread social interactions in the office or do not like being distracted, being in the quiet safety of their own home probably feels like a blessing. Remote working means companies could now also hire staff from a wider geographical distance, further increasing employee choice and leverage for better benefits. Employers may benefit financially too, particularly if they could cut expenses by reducing office space.

However, being away from the office has its downsides, as well. Business leaders may consider if video calls can truly substitute the natural relationship building and collaboration necessary to build a positive work culture, especially for creative projects. Managers may also find it harder to monitor performance. And if there are biases of performances being linked to face time, regardless of the output, it could lead to an unfair disadvantage for employees who work from home more than those who work from the office.

Working from home might also be somewhat less enjoyable if you are not fortunate enough to have a pleasant environment to live and work in. The reality is that not everyone has access to a lovely garden or in-house office space with a good internet connection and sufficient quietness and space to focus.

Working and sleeping in the same house all day, without the natural boundaries of when work starts and ends, could also play havoc on our mental health. The UK-based Royal Society for Public Health reports that 56 percent of people found it hard to switch off from work.

As companies digitise, there may be a higher security risk, including from cyberattacks. The tech-consultancy company Accenture reported a 125 percent increase in cyberattacks such as ransomware, credential stealers and digital extortion. Without considerable understanding and investment in cyber-defence, both staff and customers could become more vulnerable.

The workforce is currently going through a great transition. For some, lockdown and furlough have been the catalysts to reflect and pursue new passions, and workers in some sectors can now work with more flexibility and higher pay. For others, great uncertainty lies ahead, with McKinsey suggesting more than one in 16 people needing to find a different occupation by 2030.

We need to embrace new patterns of working without leaving people behind, and that includes investing in retraining programmes to ensure we all have an opportunity to participate in the new digital economy. If done right, we may genuinely be in the golden age of the workers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.