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The Future of Work is Now

Guest: Dany Bahar, economist and associate professor at Brown University

From virtual workplaces, to AI, to a 4-day week, the way we work is transforming before our eyes and impacting society as a whole. What is changing exactly? And for whom? 

COVID-19 turned many workplaces and schools into virtual or hybrid environments. Artificial intelligence has become part of daily life with new products such as Chat GPT. The UK just had a hugely successful 4-day workweek trial. With all of these new developments, what is the future of work? But not every industry or every country will transform in the same way. We discuss what skills are needed, where and how we work, who will be the winners and losers; and, of course, how much of the world will actually change at all. Our guest, Professor Dany Bahar, economist and associate professor at Brown University and host of the Podcast Economists on Zoom Getting Coffee, joins us to discuss all the changes happening before our eyes.

We started by asking our guest about the 800-pound elephant in the room – the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns that led to large portions of companies, organizations and governments shifting to online or hybrid work. Bahar said, “It’s possible to think that this was going to happen anyway. But the pandemic was a huge catalyzer, pushing us to realize not only that we have the [technologies] to do it, but we can actually do it effectively. That seems to have prevailed.

Who can do it effectively? Are we all moving to a more virtual work world or is this an upper-income American discussion? Many people around the world – farmers and factory workers for example – still cannot work from home. Bahar said, “We have a little bit of data, not a lot of data. Development economists tend to think that as countries grow, they go through this process of structural transformation. They move towards more services and leave agriculture, going to manufacturing, going to services. So, if that’s the case, in many of these lower-income countries, you would see probably more and more work from home. But I agree with you that this is a pattern that we start seeing in high-income countries for the most part.”

So, these technologies were already there. Then COVID-19 lit the match for a transition largely overnight. Many industries and practices were disrupted. Which one’s are heading for oblivion or being replaced by technology? Bahar said, “I don’t have good answers to that yet, but I think that that’s one way in which we’re going to need to understand and leverage technologies to really enhance the industry the same way we did with calculators or the same way the world did with the Industrial Revolution. There were these cartoons of people in the Industrial Revolution calling to destroy the machines because they were going to take our jobs. Turns out that those machines made the whole industry much better.”

We turned to speculate on an alternate reality. If COVID-19 had never happened, would we still be facing the same questions today? Bahar said, “I am quite confident that this change would’ve happened over time, and over time could have been 10, 20 years. But I think because the technologies were there and because some of us — again, us is a very limited number — were, in a way, already kind of working from home. Little parts of our day, we would have a Skype meeting from home. Those trends were there already.”

The conversation turned to the large number of workers who still have to show up every day. These changes deepen the difference between workers who have the luxury or flexibility to work from home and those who don’t or can’t. Won’t this worsen inequality? Bahar said, “As in many other economic trends in the world, there are always winners and losers. […] We just need to understand it really well. And, whenever we identify these winners and losers, we need to have the ability to compensate the losers with the gains of the winners. [These inequalities] could arise. I think our goal is to think from a policy perspective, and how do we overcome them instead of trying to stop the phenomenon, which we’re not going to be able to stop.”

Do these new models – virtual work or the 4-day work week, for example – make us more productive? Are they here to stay? Bahar said, “The question is: [will] all this make us more productive, more able to have higher income so that if there are losers, we’ll compensate the losers and overall increase our happiness and our wellbeing or et cetera? It’s an empirical question. […] There’s not a whole lot of research. It seems that this ability to give flexibility to workers that will make them happier, I guess it will make the ability to work different hours, where they can reach their full potential. On the other hand, the big question for researchers in the business world, in the business management world, is how do you retain some of the other part?”

What about immigration? Our guest talked about two trends he thinks we might expect. Bahar said, “One is the idea that people might be able to work in other industries from their countries in a different country. So, opening this up, flattening this opportunity world, which might actually reduce- I’m not saying it will – but it might reduce some migration flows because now you don’t need to move in person to work. On the other hand, we could see an increase. You might see a lot of these trends where people actually decide to go to third countries and continue their work or work for another country. ultimately, I think that this is a question of policy.”

We finished with the big question on our minds- what does an expert think is the future of work? Bahar said, “When it comes to what we want, the trends are not so different across nations. Especially in the industries we talked about, I don’t think we’re going to see a full comeback to working five days a week from the office. I think that people want to work more from home. So, I don’t see any scenario where we come back completely to reverse these trends. So, I think they’re only going to get bigger and bigger. And the question is how are we doing all those industries that we discussed very quickly to also provide this opportunity to everybody in every industry? I think that’s going to be a big challenge. But I think that that’s where thinking should be.”

What do you think of these new work models- Do they make us more productive and happier? Or not so much? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.  

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