Future of Work Accelerated By Corona Virus
I like the shape of an hourglass. It is a great metaphor for framing thoughts.
The top half is a big picture, great idea. The bottom is the big, base foundation- your personal why. The middle portion personifies droplets of small details that percolate through the seams and bring meaning to the whole. And when you turn the hourglass on its head, it still works like a charm.
I want to use this structure to talk about something that has yo-yoed in my mind for a while — the future of work through the hourglass for distributing things. “Things” like information, goods and people.
The Hour Glass Base: Personal Why
It was thanksgiving 2015, my mother living in India excitedly called me and shared with excitement, “it is happening, it is happening.”
I once told her, in semi-seriousness, “if you ever move to a high rise, make sure you have an outward facing home with a balcony (patio) in your criteria list.” She asked me why. I shared, “roads are saturated. The balcony would be could landing pads for the obvious air commute.”
She dismissed my balcony landing as a baloney. Until she saw/heard about the Amazon ads of 2015 — introducing the drones to the common vernacular.
My reasons were far deeper than a fascination with the Jetsons or proclivity for technology — not withstanding my geeky instincts. Let me explain.
My pet peeve is distribution. Not the statistical kind, but wholesale and retail distribution. Here is my backstory from the late 1980’s. Farmers in the Cauvery river delta toiled hard all season to gain a rich harvest. That includes my uncles in my extended family from the villages in Tamil Nadu, India. They often lost their smiles to the middlemen who bought their produce [mostly paddy].
For the short window of time after harvest, the norm was — too many willing farmers and too few buyers. What seared in my young mind was the contrast — sky-high retail prices in the cities and the minuscule rupee exchange at the paddy fields for the produce.
It was too lopsided; the underlying pain was informational friction.
The Hour Glass Top: From information to goods
Through the years, I tend to believe in this [my own] adage — If something is too lopsided, it will give way to equilibrium. Good karma or basic economics, you can color it the way it suits you.
Many changes during our lifetime — one big one, distribution of information became ubiquitous. The Internet brought something tangible — distribution of information as packets through the web. Something we take for granted today.
The farmers knowledge started to extend beyond their physical circle in the inner towns. I once read about an Internet kiosk under a banyan tree in the villages. I chuckled. The informational impact was breathtaking- farmers had access to new intermediaries. Reduced the traditional middlemen arbitrage.
Ergo, farmers had a better share of the retail prices.
After informational distribution, the next frontier to master is the last mile of physical delivery –distribution of goods.
Could distribution of goods find the natural equivalent to internet in drones? Even the best, hedge the bets. I am at best an informed speculator. With that caveat, in the coming years, distribution of goods would break free and get a commercial facelift. Something you and I will perceptibly notice.
Connecting the Dots: From Distribution to Work Life
Internet made the distribution of information very cost effective.
Similarly, the disruption of distribution of goods [with drones?] would help cottage industry — manufacture of more handmade goods from home.
Does this disruption mean retail would all go digital? Hardly. The warmth of a feel before buying can never be discounted. Amazon is experimenting with more bricks and mortar for a good reason.
The same holds true at work. The preponderance of in-person interactions keeps the office space concept ticking.
What happens if the distribution of people (more commonly used word is transportation) is disrupted?
How could it affect our work life?
Friction in distribution shapes lifestyles. Disruption of friction, even more so.
In a traditional workplace, we travel to work regularly and take a few weeks off during vacation time. What happens if the concept of taking a few weeks away from your work team turns on its head?
What happens if you meet your teams for a few weeks in a year — in person. Rest of the time, we are remote and agile — not sitting next to each other and yet iterating.
Office boundaries and commercial real estate are at risk of redefinition. Just like how ATMs redefined a teller’s work. Or how postmen are redefining their deliverables — custom-made weather information to remote parts of India.
The idea of “officeless enterprises” is happening on the fringes with culture statements like — “our enterprise does not have an office, we meet at exotic locations periodically.”
My hunch is that what is happening on the fringes will become mainstream.
Welcome to the predominant future of work — a few weeks away from family to exotic locations to meet your co-workers in person.
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P.S. Most of this blog was written in 2017.  The current Covid-19 pandemic could accelerate it.