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Creating an Environment for the Future of Work

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Workforce of the future
Image: metamorworks -
As the pandemic drags on and we face a new spike in cases, we’re starting to see more discussion of long-term solutions and ideas for systemic changes to try and alleviate the current situation, as well as to create new conditions that help individuals, enterprises, and societies deal with the ongoing potential for future crises. A couple of recent items highlighted this for me.
This article from Wired takes a fascinating look at the history, culture, and challenges of, well, air circulation. It’s a great read that recounts how the need for air circulation has influenced architecture over the centuries, and how the development of HVAC systems upended these practices in ways that make fighting the pandemic today much more challenging.
The upshot here is that solutions for more frequent air exchange or purification — widely seen as key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 — could require a huge amount of expensive retrofitting, and ironically could indirectly have a negative impact on the broader climate even as they improve the local, indoor environment. Ventilation-related HVAC upgrades “might need more power, and that’d be a bummer, because buildings are the biggest users of power in the US and are responsible for as much as 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of global climate change,” the author writes.
Another macro issue for the work-from-home (WFH) movement got a surprising argument thrown into the mix this week, when policy strategists at Deutsche Bank proposed taxing workers who choose to WFH. They suggest that employers pay the 5% tax in cases where the employee works from home because the company doesn’t provide office space and that employees pay if they WFH by their own choice.
The argument behind this proposal is that people who WFH end up contributing less to the economic life of the community. “It has taken decades and centuries to build up the wider business and economic infrastructure that supports face-to-face working,” Deutsche Bank points out in its proposal. The funds raised by the tax would go to assist lower-income workers who can’t WFH.
Those of us who understand how lucky we are to be able to keep doing our job remotely shouldn’t dismiss this idea out of hand. Assuming we do see a long-term shift to more WFH, businesses that have relied on office workers — and which manage to survive the current crisis — will likely see a decline from their pre-pandemic levels of business. And there should be some attempt to make whole those whose livelihoods suffered during the most profound social and economic dislocation of our lifetimes.
The logical thing to do would be to tax the employers in all cases, based on their likely savings in real-estate costs when employees WFH. Given legislative priorities, at least in the U.S., this almost certainly won’t happen. But Deutsche Bank’s proposal at least starts a conversation about who gains and who loses as the future of work evolves.
The pandemic has brought our societies to a crossroads where many of the biggest fears and challenges of policymakers over the past several years appear to be converging: the impacts of globalization, climate change, personal technology, and changing social hierarchies. Enterprises will feel pressure from these macro trends as they work through the solutions for their own way forward.