Why is it that frontline workers — whose services we now appreciate so much more as a result of the pandemic — get paid so much less than workers who (used to) sit in offices? I know it's become a platitude to say that the world won't go back to the way things were before COVID-19 struck — but the full impact of lockdown may yet surprise us, becoming a great leveler of the office hierarchies we used to take for granted.
The need to adjust to remote working has accelerated trends that were already in motion well before the pandemic arrived. One of these trends is the hollowing out of the privileged position of knowledge workers. Back in January, I called the peak of knowledge work and forecast that workers who deliver the customer experience would become the new elite. Little did I realize how rapidly the world was about to change.
That January article identified several factors that were converging to undermine the historical advantage of knowledge workers:
- The primacy of customer experience, enabled by continuous digital connection
- Automated access to knowledge, augmented by artificial intelligence
- The increasing transience of knowledge and rising importance of continuous learning
What the article couldn't anticipate was the impact, alongside these factors, of suddenly taking knowledge workers out of their office buildings and forcing them to do their work at the end of a broadband connection. Stripped of all the paraphenalia of their habitual office surroundings, for the first time they were seen on a par with the rest of the organization.
Blue-collar employees become knowledge workers too
As I recently learned from Julien Codorniou, VP of Workplace from Facebook, this effect is rapidly changing perceptions across organizations that use Facebook's enterprise messaging platform. He tells me:
I think the COVID situation turned the blue-collar employees, the non-knowledge workers, into knowledge workers. Before COVID, if you had the ability or the possibility to work from the HQ, you had the competitive advantage. You would meet the CEO, you would be at the right meetings with the right people.
But with COVID and everyone working from home, suddenly it creates a level playing field, where everyone is equally connected and informed.
I spoke to him shortly after publishing an interview with the team that led the roll-out of Workplace to 80,000 staff at UK-based telecoms giant BT. Here was a case in point, where Workplace now gives as much access to the Openreach engineers who go out and about to maintain the network, or the associates in the retail stores and the customer service agents in the call centers, as the head office product and marketing teams. Codorniou sums up:
It turns the Openreach team in Manchester into a team that is equally connected, or as connected, as the people who used to go to the HQ in London for example.
And so that is very interesting. We care about the people at the HQ and their needs in terms of integration. But we also care about the people who've never been connected before. I see COVID accelerated that and turned the blue collars into a super-connected, super-augmented, software-assisted knowledge worker.
This combination of connection and augmentation is at the heart of the transfer from knowledge workers to the people I call experience workers, who are responsible for the customer experience at the point of delivery. As I wrote in January:
Connected artificial intelligence opens up the locked-in expertise of the knowledge worker, automatically conveying it to where it's needed ... Simply knowing stuff has no added value, because what counts is being able to apply knowledge to provide the best customer experience.
The double whammy for knowledge workers is that at the same time as losing their hegemony of knowledge, they have become remote from the trappings that come with being in the office.
The corollary is that the digital connections accelerated into use by lockdown are empowering frontline workers. These tools enable them to play an integral role in organizations that have previously treated them as peripheral. The pandemic has not only raised frontline workers in our estimation, its digital legacy has increased their influence and value. Will a rebalancing in compensation follow? Let's see.