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Coronavirus/COVID-19 and the Future of Work

Welcome to the new normal!  Are we having fun yet?  Have we invented new forms of fun yet?  I don’t mean to make light of a very serious situation but I also don’t want to fall into a gloom and doom scenario either.

As a Christian and as a state employee tasked with prognosticating on the “future of work”, I find this time we are in most interesting.  While that is easy for me to say as I work from home, the current situation allows some time for reflection and in a sense, renewal.

These types of seminal events that impact literally all of us in some way are, for Christians and others of faith, a call to look first to Our Creator God for guidance, hope and answers.  We know that God allows events like the coronavirus to occur so that we will look to Him and not the things of this world for comfort and strength.  He is also watching how His people react—will we be lights in the world for others or allow darkness to overtake our hearts and minds?  True character comes out during difficult times.  For Christians, we must be faithful and useful.  I know that sheltering in place can feel very un-useful but there is much we can do for others, just with our attitude, outreach to others and of course constant prayer.

As the Co-Manager of Washington’s Future of Work Task Force, this viral outbreak is shoving the future of work right into the present.

When discussions of the “future of work” occur, it is often in the context of how AI, automation and robots will take our jobs, either freeing us from drudge work, or relegating us to serving the new machine masters.  There tends to be a science fiction-y aspect to it, particularly as we see videos on social media that show robots doing back flips and more complex human-like activities, leading us to believe the robot revolution/jobless future is about to arrive.

Other aspects of the future of work relate to the need for many U.S. workers to upgrade their education, skills and credentials to fill the digital, technology and emerging jobs that are being created by the digital and technological transformation of business, commerce and social activities.  Angles from this theme move into the “silver tsunami” phenomenon of retiring trades workers with a paucity of those coming behind, along with the other baby boomer-led trend of tens of thousands small businesses going up for sale over the next decade as the post-WWII generation exits the workforce permanently.

Another critical component of the future of work is fully addressing diversity, equity and inclusion issues from the boardroom to the classroom.  There is greater awareness and action being taken within society’s key institutions to understand how to move forward in a truly inclusive manner, ensuring the starting line for opportunity is the same for everyone.

While we may indeed have some time to prepare ourselves for that “future of work” that we cannot quite get a grasp on yet, we now have upon us an “unseen force” putting the world on its heels, spreading sickness and death across the globe at a furious pace, requiring limitations on human and social activity and mobility not experienced for a century since the Spanish flu pandemic just following World War I.

For Americans, who pride their mobility and freedom, and who regularly thumb their nose at the government and media, taking the spread of the COVID-19 disease seriously is a challenge.  In Washington state, we are under a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, for good reason.  Think of this like Passover so the angel of death passes by your home.

Anyone that can work from home is doing so but many cannot.  Warehouse workers, manufacturing workers, health care workers, fire/EMT/police, certain government offices and many more have to be on the job, which means at a specific place that isn’t home.  Many folks in the gig economy, brick and mortar retail and hospitality industries have seen their livelihoods simply dry up.  These are the folks that we Christians and others of faith really need to support right now—by being responsible, by praying, by helping out in any way possible.

Notwithstanding the inconvenience, disruption and difficulty this brings to many, what can we learn and what can we do right now to increase our individual and community resilience?  Notwithstanding some at the fringe, this virus outbreak is bringing us together as a nation and as communities—clearly welcome at this juncture.

In order to beat this virus from spreading out of control, we have to make very intentional, and hard choices about what our priorities are.  This is not a time to take undue risk with one’s health or finances or blithely ignore exhortations from political leaders.

These types of hard decisions will have to be made in the not too distant future when it comes to how much automation and technology we want to use, how it impacts work itself, how it will be deployed, who will decide its use and deployment.

Make no mistake, we need to be using advanced technology and AI right now in this current scenario.  AI- based models are being used to understand how this coronavirus spreads and to find a vaccine.  There are many areas where AI, automation and robots will be the right choice for a task.  There will be job disruption because of this.  This is not “bad” as it is the inevitable result of adopting labor saving technology.  The question is how prepared will those who are disrupted be for what’s next.  Do we really know what’s next?

Answer that question in the context of the situation we now find ourselves in.  What will be the key factors of those who come through this pandemic relatively unscathed?  From a work and income interruption standpoint, those of us able to work from home with reliable internet connections and still get paid regularly will be fine.  Those who are in good health and take precautions have a better chance of staying well than those in poorer health and do not limit their exposure vectors.

But for those with school age children and work in place bound jobs or in higher risk scenarios, what are their options?  What role does government play in ameliorating circumstances that are beyond any individual’s control?  How can we flexibly deploy our citizenry in times of national or global stress that provides needed services when and where needed, improving the chances of weathering storms such as we are experiencing today?

Improving the financial health of both individuals and the government to handle sudden shocks that inevitably occur on decadal basis is something we need to prioritize.

Improving personal and community health will reduce the strain on the health care system when there are sudden surges in the need for health care services and facilities.

We have to make improvements in both of these areas if we are to increase our ability to survive unexpected events and be able to thrive once these events are behind us.

What we have to work on is finding the proper role of government and it being able to respond to unseen situations.

Washington’s first-in-the-nation Future of Work Task Force worked hard on many of these questions.  Our final report has a number of recommendations that we believe will help our citizens, business and communities survive and prosper.

May God Bless You and Keep You In His Grasp, now and always.

Lewis McMurran

is presently the Co-Manager of the Future of Work Project for Washington State’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board. Lew has over two decades of experience in government relations, advocacy, and external affairs for a wide range of employers in the private, public and non-profit sectors, including as COO of a software startup. Most notably, from 2000-2013, Lew was the first Director of Government Relations for the Washington Software Alliance (now WTIA), rising to Vice President of Government and External Relations. He is a graduate of Georgetown University in International Relations.

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