COVID-19, the future of work, and second-order thinking

Published on
April 7, 2020
Chandar Lal
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COVID-19, the future of work, and second-order thinking

COVID-19 is an immense human tragedy. We feel its reverberations not just in public health, but in almost every aspect of the wider economy, as it impacts jobs and industries in ways that few anticipated.

The heroes of this crisis are those on the front line: healthcare professionals, educators, supermarket staff, warehouse workers, delivery drivers, and local volunteers bringing food and medicines to the isolated and vulnerable members of our communities. What would we do without the tireless efforts of such dedicated individuals, many of whom have long been under-recognised as critical participants in our economy? The philosophical question about how we might (re-)value specific roles in our economy is not the subject of this blog post, yet we cannot begin to write about the future of work without acknowledging it as a profound topic that needs to be addressed.

How should we think about the future of work in the context of COVID-19? Some near-term trends are now well crystallised. Livelihoods are being disrupted at unprecedented scale, while those fortunate enough to retain stable employment must adapt to new ways of working. It's clear enough, for example, that we're seeing a spike in demand for software that facilitates more effective remote work. Few would dispute that it's an opportune time to market videoconferencing products or collaboration tools for the enterprise. And it has become self-evident that being a gig economy worker is a highly precarious existence.

These first-order trends are interesting but obvious. What comes next?

Early-stage investing rests on building deep, long-term conviction about the way markets emerge and evolve, over a time horizon that's often measured in decades. COVID-19, on the other hand, seems to focus our attention on the here and now. We find ourselves assimilating a live stream of market volatility, and urging founders to concentrate on extending their runway, all while adjusting to the new ways of working and living that have been thrust upon us.

At Mosaic, our core business is to step outside this time frame: to anticipate the non-obvious, second-order effects on the global economy. What will happen once we have the option to return to our offices, and beyond? Which forced behaviours will become voluntary in the long run? What might the unintended consequences be? How will the world of employment be changed ten years from now?

Here are a few questions we're exploring. We'd love to hear your take on them:

Is remote work here to stay?
The rise of remote work is not a new phenomenon - but historically, in the absence of a forcing function, it has been gradual.



We're searching for the early signals that might tell us whether COVID-19 catalyses an enduring mass transition to remote work. Are there certain sectors, or types of organisation, that will be quickest to revert to prior ways of working? Conversely, which ones are most likely to stay remote? If this can be estimated, we can build clarity on the size and nature of the long-term opportunity for startups that enable remote work.

If face-to-face interaction diminishes, how will employers measure and manage talent?
As people acclimatise to hiring and managing their teams without face-to-face interaction, what new behaviours will emerge? How will these be manifested in software? In the absence of a 'human touch', it's possible that organisations will leverage new sources of data to build happier, higher-performing teams, and to become better managers. Could this trigger a wave of intelligent HR software, that augments or displaces current approaches to people management?

As some sectors expand and others contract, how do workers retrain at scale?
The recent unemployment figures in the US (and universal credit statistics in the UK) bear witness to unprecedented change in the labour markets. Industries will contract and expand at different rates, potentially creating a generation of re-skilled workers. What will be the scalable mechanism for retraining? This might imply a growing addressable market, hiding in plain sight, for software that supports professional (re-)education and accreditation.

How do we rethink the protections afforded to workers - especially contractors, freelancers and the gig economy?
It's clear that independent workers face difficult circumstances, with a weak safety net to protect rapidly diminishing incomes. We're excited to identify the long-term product and policy answers to this problem. The balance between 'contractor' and 'employee' may tip, perhaps supported by stronger digitally-organised unions. What tools will organisations need to manage contingent workforces, and how will they gain the visibility to better support and engage them? Will innovative fintech products emerge to provide flexible insurance and credit facilities, tailored to the needs of the gig economy?

What happens to cities?
Globally, most central business districts have been emptied as the world experiments with remote work en masse. In the longer term, will we see a dramatic repurposing of urban real estate, driven by lasting changes in working behaviour? What happens to office space as demand patterns shift dramatically? What are the ripple effects on the way we travel, the places we live in, and the way that global supply chains and transport networks are constructed? We may see a 'deglobalisation' effect, as supply chains shorten, migration decelerates, and localised services gain value. Conversely, might it be that individuals travel more freely in a work-from-anywhere world?

How will governments rethink labour market policies?
As labour markets are destabilised, this catalyses new policy conversations, including those around universal basic income and minimum wages. Will governments introduce stronger non-wage protections for workers - and if so, in what form? Do we expect a further tightening of immigration controls driven by public health concerns, and how would that affect the tech ecosystem?

The COVID-19 pandemic has already profoundly altered how the world works. Rather than a quick return to normal, we hypothesise it may initiate or accelerate longer-term changes. As new work behaviours emerge and opportunities arise, we are deeply curious to understand what forms of value are created.

If you're building conviction on how this new future of work develops, we're excited to share perspectives. If you're an entrepreneur shaping this future, we'd love to hear from you. Please get in touch.