The global quarantining that we are currently experiencing has created a remote working experiment of epic proportions. From Toronto to Torquay, workers are locked at home with their families, resulting in disruption for many companies. In the longer term, an extended period of remote work could radically reshape the social fabric of employment. Employee loyalty and trustworthiness will be put to the test. Similarly, employers will be forced to question their corporate ethos, ethics and values. The result may be a new normal in which distributed workers have more autonomy over their time and employment, and companies can benefit from a more fluid workforce. Decentralized technologies will play a pivotal role in this new corporate architecture.
Working norms have changed drastically over the last month. From Apple’s R&D teams to Nike’s marketing executives, most of the world’s largest companies are urging their employees to work from home. This is accelerating an existing trend. Over the past 15 years, the number of people working from home in the U.S. has tripled, according to the Federal Reserve. Ever-improving collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack are leading to more effective remote workforces, which are cheaper and more attractive for employers to hire. During this period of global quarantine, companies and employees are likely to experience both the positives and negatives of remote work, and society may never go back to pre-Covid working norms. For better or for worse, we are now experiencing a different way to work.
From the employee perspective, work will become less of a location and more of an activity. By untethering the geospatial aspect of work, employees may look more holistically at their day and at the portion of time they wish to be working as opposed to spending time with their family or pursuing leisure activities. One hypothesis is that work will become less personal and more operational, supported by the fact that remote workers often feel disconnected and lonely. While companies are working on strategies to prevent this feeling of distance, it is probable that remote workers of the future will feel less of a bond to their ephemeral employer. The result could be the rise of a digital gig economy, with a portion of the working population acting as promiscuous employees jumping between discrete projects. These employees may take on multiple jobs at a time and will have little regard for the jurisdiction that their work is being put to use in. What they will need are global payment rails and globally enforceable payment contracts.
From the employer perspective, the current quarantine will likely highlight how much money can be saved from using a remote workforce. Video calls are more cost-effective than international flights, a remote worker from Caracas is far cheaper than one from California, and why pay for office rent when your staff are paying their own mortgages? On top of this, internal collaboration may actually improve in a remote setting as employees are no longer bound to socialize and work with those in their vicinity. Online collaboration tools could help ideas cross-pollinate between departments and regions.
With the benefits of a remote workforce come the challenges of motivating a team that has never met. Social bonds are necessary for productive teamwork, and after spending a century honing the craft of managerial capitalism, the skill of remote management will take time to learn. What employers will need is a way to trust their remote workers. This will likely take the form of a significant level of transparency from employees as to the hours they are working and the tasks they are working on.
While the speed of transformation is unknown, it is clear that the remote working trend is on the rise. With this come three needs that blockchain and decentralized technologies are well placed to provide. Firstly, remote workers could be anywhere in the world and need to be paid. Blockchain technology enables global payment rails today. Secondly, both employee and employer need to trust in their contractual relationship. In lieu of a shared jurisdiction, the use of smart contracts can offer some level of trust from both sides and is already being experimented with. Thirdly, employers are looking for transparency from their workers that does not sacrifice employee privacy. Work is being done on decentralized identity products and collaboration tools, making it easier for companies to trust in workers they have never and may never meet. The evolution of employment structures will be incremental.
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The current pandemic is likely to be a catalyst for a more remote way of working. From here, we can expect an increasingly flexible workforce and the growth in a digital gig economy. In the much longer term (50 to 100 years), people may feel more empowered, self-sovereign and less tied to today’s system of corporate capitalism owned by the 1%. Corporate structures may be replaced by decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) and newer models of partnership that are cooperatively owned and governed. In this way, the coronavirus may alter far more than just our perspective of health and hygiene, it could accelerate changes in the structure of employment and the way that humans coordinate with each other.