It has been over a year since our daily lives were modified by the COVID-19 pandemic. The shutdown of our countries’ activities has already had heavy effects on the economy, education, mental health, and has brought to light models that are probably here to stay, at least in some forms.
The possibility of home office a few days a week has been seen as a positive element for the work-life balance of employees, gender equality and the environment. In a survey of thousands of British employees who became homeworkers during lockdown, 88 % wanted to continue doing so in some capacity, report scholars from Cardiff and Southampton Universities. However, as confinement left us with no choice, we also noticed that it was not always easy to make the transition, as it requires a complete rethink of firms and equipment.
As the UK plans to ease gradually its Covid restrictions, companies such as Nationwide, Lloyds, Knight Frank or NatWest keep making new announcements about flexible and hybrid working models, in which staff could split their time between office and home, combining the advantage of flexible working with the benefits of spending time together in the office. PwC goes even further and will offer half a day on Fridays this summer. If successful, this could become an annual policy.
This is not something totally new, in 2019, Microsoft in Japan tested a four-day week and Unilever in New Zealand implemented the same in 2020. At country level, Spain declared last week the launch of a similar working time reorganisation around a four-day working week, an experiment already made in some places in Denmark.
The future of work is evolving rapidly, and the post-pandemic workplace is going to be very different. However, the potential for remote and flexible work is highly concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in some specific industries and geographies.
During the pandemic, many people left big cities for the suburbs or even countryside, which boosted discussions on how to make cities more attractive to people.
Some cities have remodelled themselves, laying bike paths or promoting local living that could help decentralise services, reduce pressure on transport and tackle the consequences of congestion in large urban areas.
The increasing development of pedestrian streets as well as restaurant and bar terraces in major cities such as London or New York is an example of the new attitude responding to health measures. From Berlin to Kampala, Denver to Budapest, cities have set up cycling programmes, added “cycle lanes”, offered free bike repairs and other incentives to change mobility habits. In France, the EUR 50 grant to refurbish a bicycle has attracted a million bike lovers. For the first time, bicycle sales in Switzerland have exceeded CHF 2 billion according to Velosuisse. As a result, bicycle manufacturers are struggling to keep up with this unprecedented demand. Due to a shortage of several components, waiting times are getting longer and prices are rising.
Many urban planners see the post-pandemic period as an exciting opportunity to redesign city centers. It would not be the first time that a crisis has contributed to the development of the urban environment. For example, Central Park in New York was created after cholera epidemics in the 19th century.
Rethinking our supply chains
From the start of the crisis in China, Covid-19 has showed many countries extreme dependence on imports and vulnerabilities to trade tensions. The lack of masks, respirators and certain drugs caused serious problems at the beginning of the pandemic, and today we are facing a shortage of electronic chips and vaccines. The recently stuck container in the Suez Canal highlighted the weakness of global supply chains.
These events show the importance of reorganising and rethinking the globalised world in building up inventories and stocks for certain essential components. The response to both geopolitical risk and the vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic has been to diversify sourcing and encouraging home production. Many European politicians have already announced their willingness to repatriate certain production stages to reduce this dependence. As an example, the French government in November implemented relocation of strategic sectors and released an envelope of 680 million euros for five “strategic and very high added value” sectors: health, agrifood, electronics, essential inputs (chemicals, metals, raw materials) and 5G.
Adding to that, a growing pressure on better transparency of supply chains is requested by consumers, and manufacturers are asked to carry out greater due diligence on their suppliers. As part of a more general push in financial and business areas to assume ESG responsibilities, governments are more insistent that foreign suppliers meet acceptable standards. For example, Germany, at the beginning of this month took a step towards forcing companies to take responsibility for any labour or environmental abuses in their global supply chain and the EU is intending on doing the same. These measures should incentivise companies to have shorter or simpler supply chains over which they have better oversight.
As the way out of the pandemic remains uncertain, it is clear that this surreal period will have modified our lifestyles and economies.