Hands up those who can name three winners in the pandemic. Here's mine - pet owners, hobby modelers and mountain runners. Here's what I've found and what I think it means for the future of work.
While patterns of activity at a point in time are not necessarily predictors for the future, a few apparent, perhaps unlikely winners coming out of the pandemic are worth considering.
Even before the pandemic struck, the UK as a nation of dog and cat lovers was well known. It should therefore come as no surprise that Chris Middleton reported in Paws for thought - how pet food-as-a-service has boomed for PetShop.co.uk during COVID-19:
We were turning over about £1 million in sales a month pre-COVID. Then at the height of lockdown, which was 22 March through to 1 May, we were doing about £3 million a month. Now we have settled down to a run rate of about £1.5 million to £2 million a month.
It was definitely something we had never experienced before. It required us to react very quickly. We had to scale up very quickly, that was one of the biggest challenges, and outmanoeuvre our competitors.
In my hobby, that of building model armored vehicles, there's been something of a bonanza. At the height of the pandemic, model suppliers reported a surge in demand, a trend that seems to be continuing. Last weekend for example, I made my first local hobby shop visit since last winter. The owner said he'd never known trade to be so busy and if what I observed is any indication, the future seems bright as the cash register was ringing with the frequency of Easter church bells. Elsewhere, Andy's Hobby HQ based in Arizona sold out its entire delivery of around 300 Wing Nut Wings (WNW) model aircraft kits inside a few hours. To put this in context, WNW was an early casualty of the pandemic and has ceased production. But its kits are widely considered the best of their type that fall into the 'collectors' category. It's no surprise then to find kits advertised on eBay at multiples of their original sticker price.
In the Daily Telegraph, Jim White reported How fell running is booming in the age of Covid-19 noting that:
Even with all its competitions cancelled because of the pandemic, the Fell Runners Association has seen a huge surge in membership inquiries.
Equipment manufacturers are barely able to keep up with the sudden demand for trail shoes. National Park wardens have said they have never seen so many people running in the Lake District. With numbers involved already on an upward curve, the Covid-19 crisis appears to have accelerated the sudden growth in fell running.
That message about supply chain delivery issues is true across the board. During an evening Flory Model livestream last month, Phil Flory said that physical problems inside supply chains was causing delays in getting stock but that wasn't dampening enthusiasm for upcoming new kits or existing stock.
What's happening in these apparently diverse interest areas?
Furloughing of staff gives back time to people that have fewer family duties around things like home schooling. The obvious upside is that people have had more time to pursue their interests and, at least in some areas, that's what they're doing. But that alone doesn't explain for example, the uptick in those heading for the hills. Pau Capell, current champion of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is quoted as saying:
“The mountains give us something different,” he explains. “When you run on the asphalt, you feel stress. In the mountains it is different. It is freedom. This is the secret. People need to feel freedom, to be alone, to think through things. The confinement was really bad for the world. But it has been very good for our sport. People are now out finding happiness in the mountains. That makes me very happy.”
He has a point. Closer to home, Stuart Lauchlan has been exhorting the diginomica team to create a routine that includes getting out and about - even if that's only taking the dog for a walk. It's not something I've found easy to slot into a day that revolves around American timezones but it is doable.
Thinking to the future, I wonder the extent to which the uptick in pursuing leisure interests will have a deeper and more lasting impact on the way life is organized. Plenty of people have opined that there needs to be a shift in how work is perceived, and not just from the perspective of how remote work is organized. You won't find any shortage of CEOs saying that they're putting their people first in a post-pandemic world. But what does this mean beyond choice about the place where work happens? Phil Wainewright, in a story that quotes Aaron Levie, CEO Box's position is typical of what we see:
Whether an office reopens tomorrow, or a year from now, I think the world is going to be shifting toward a digital-first way of working ...
We imagine a future where you still have offices — personally, I'd love to go back to an office and see people in person. But that doesn't mean I want to give up the flexibility of being able to work from anywhere, or be able to have more flexible hours of when I go into the office.
I think what we've learned from this experience is that there's a lot more that we can do virtually than anybody ever imagined.
What we don't see is how this dovetails to what people want from the perspective of work-life. I hesitate to include the word 'balance' because pre-pandemic, much of what passed for work-life balance was often skewed in favor of living to work, not working to live. Whether that's a 12 hour working day or two members of the same household having to hold down full time jobs to pay the bills, the effect is the same. With the pandemic and the dislocation that came from working at home, you can readily argue that for those with continuing work, the pendulum has swung even further in the direction of work. For women, the position seems even worse. This from the Economic Times:
“We are placing too much emphasis on the fact that suddenly we have discovered that work from home can be productive and, therefore, this becomes the panacea for getting women back to work. I think it’s a very naïve and simplistic assumption to begin with,” Bali, an independent director at Cognizant, said during a recent webinar.
“We haven’t even asked the women how it is to work from home,” she said.
This is also partly the reason why Tech Mahindra NSE CEO CP Gurnani said it would not move to a 100% WFH situation in the long term.
In a recent interaction with ET, Gurnani said a few women employees who had returned to work after lockdown norms started easing were of the view that they preferred working from office because there were additional responsibilities at home in a WFH scenario.
For many women, WFH has meant managing the home as well as professional commitments. Other factors are equally responsible in ensuring that women do not drop out of the workforce because of a prolonged WFH model, industry insiders said.
With support schemes for those furloughed coming to an end and and with the inevitable fallout of increased redundancy, it is hard to know what 'work' and 'life' will look like in the future. For those who are office bound, remote working seems here to stay, at least for the next 6-12 months. How this translates into a fresh set of work and life parameters is a work in progress. One idea I favor is that of outcome based measurements of work rather than those measures that are time focused,
For those who have renewed or increased their time spent pursuing leisure activities, I wonder what this means once the call to return to a place of work occurs. Will those new found interests wane or have people (re) discovered that there is an enjoyable life beyond the workplace (wherever that may be)? More to the point, will those same workers be in a position to argue that their work should be outcome oriented so that they get to decide the extent to which they have to provide input ignorer to balance that against their desire to pursue other interests?
We are taught that work requires discipline. I sense we've discovered the same holds true for the pursuit of leisure. The question must therefore be - will employers recognize this second element and respond responsibly or will they attempt to continue squeezing out as much productivity from their most expensive asset regardless of the long term human cost? I don't have a good answer but I know that I will be spending more time with my hobby and my dog. The hills might have to wait a bit longer.
But three things are certain:
- Technology has undoubtedly helped people to continue their enjoyment of leisurely pursuits.
- Technology has changed the way we work and especially for those who fall into the category of knowledge/creatives but also for many other parts of the economy.
- No amount of technology solves for physical constraints in the supply chain that are subject to myriad regulatory or political influence.