“We’re on the edge of epochal shifts”

The coronavirus pandemic will change society and the economy. 

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Benjamin Pring, managing director of the Centre for the Future of Work at Cognizant discusses cities and the future of work.

Are cities dead?

I think that question is on a lot of people’s minds at the moment. Are our big world cities going to survive as they are now, with this new home-working model? City centres are empty. Businesses are struggling.

But cities aren’t dead. It’s just that the way we use them is going to change fundamentally. Cities have always been home to three groups of people: the young, the rich and the poor. Think of Dick Wittington, the young man packing a bag and going off to London to make his fortune. Then of course you have the cultural elements, the social life of cities. And young people filling out clubs and gigs, and the cultural element of galleries and theatres that you perhaps don’t get in more rural areas. That is why I moved to London when I was 18 and I think the big cities will continue to be a big draw for the young.

Then there are the rich, who in many ways are insulated from the pandemic, so they will continue their lives more or less as before. And the poor will always gravitate towards big cities for work. So for these people cities are very much not dead. I think what has changed is that millions of suburban middle-aged commuters, who, out of habit, were used to commuting and unfamiliar with home-working, have now had a taste of something different. The genie is out of the bottle. People have realised that the commute is unpleasant and expensive. Senior businesspeople say that their personal productivity and that of their staff has held up well. They now trust their workers more.

Now millions of people who have had this exposure to working remotely have come to the conclusion that working this way is infinitely superior to the daily commute, putting on smart clothes and dragging yourself into the city to work in a cubicle.

That, I think, is dead. Historically, working from home has been synonymous with shirking, but that myth is now shattered. Businesses will be saving huge amounts of money on commercial office space as this becomes the norm. The need for these huge office buildings is going to be dramatically reduced. The financial and economic ripples will be immense for many small businesses that rely on footfall and that change is going to be incredibly significant and difficult for a lot of people.

Are offices dead?

No – but the purpose of the office is going to change. If you can work from home easily then you will. But if you want to do creative collaboration, or get people invested in the purpose, the vision, the ethos of the business or organisation, then that’s what the office will be for. It will become a much more social space. A space to do things you can’t really do effectively from home, like creative, collaborative activities, or cultural transfer from more experienced to newer members of staff.

Just think of many offices now – multiple rows of people working with their heads down and their headphones on. They’re not really social, they’re not really interacting, sharing or collaborating, so I think those spaces are going to be changed.

It will be for the end of year party, except those parties will become smaller and more regular. They will be about listening to senior leaders, coming together, eating and drinking, socialising and establishing the core values of an organisation collectively. The one shindig at the end of the year will become an on-site work social every few weeks.

What should we focus on as we look to “build back better”?

This moment is the biggest existential challenge since the Second World War. If you are the sandwich shop owner or the dry cleaners it is a huge tragedy, of course, that your entire business model could be rendered unprofitable through no fault of your own. But this forest fire that’s happening will burn out a lot of dead wood, so to speak.

It will expedite the end of a lot of outdated practices that were due a correction. And the forest fire does mean that eventually we will see the green shoots of recovery, and, hopefully, the chance to build a better world. The World Economic Forum in Davos is talking about “The Great Reset”, particularly looking at some of the global iniquities.

There is all this talk of V, U, or L-shaped letter recoveries. But then there is the possibility, unfortunately, of K-shaped recovery – a further bifurcation between rich and poor. The next generation of political and business leadership will have to try and avoid this and not build back the old world, but actually realise there is an opportunity to do things better, to think about multiple stakeholders rather than just shareholders, to think about people who have been “left behind”.

I hope historians look back on this moment as a time when we changed the way we thought about business, about politics, about technology, the role of AI and other very powerful emerging technologies, to use them and share their benefits.

What new technologies are going to be significant in the future of work?

There are two technologies, AI and Virtual Reality, that are going to become central in the next few years. Some people are still sceptical about this, but these technologies are going to be a big deal. I have been a tech analyst since the mid-90s. Since then, cloud computing has fundamentally changed business. It has been a big deal. AI is in the next 20 years going to be way bigger than The Cloud.

The impact will be significantly bigger than anything I’ve seen in the last 20 years. It is hard to really appreciate the scope of how big this change is going to be. Now, as we speak, AI software can teach itself. It can learn, can operate at speeds and at complexity levels that are unprecedented. It is science fiction-type operations that we have speculated about in films and popular culture for many years – and now it has become a reality. The tools are being created that will facilitate the future of work.

Historically, in England, in the US, lots of people used to work on farms. Now not a lot do. Instead we have created all sorts of new jobs. And now, with AI, some jobs will disappear, but we’re going to create a huge raft of new jobs and new work. There will be difficulties, but this technology is so fundamental that it will, undoubtedly, happen.

Virtual Reality will also be a very big deal. It’s creating a platform, a new dimension, for creatives and artists to build new worlds in. We could be having this conversation in a VR system, a VR platform in a few years’ time. Already you can see big rock ’n’ roll acts such as John Legend doing VR concerts. In five years, we will be having VR-based staff meetings, very, very routinely.

We are on the edge of a lot of big, epochal shifts, and everyone will have to adapt to these new dispensations. But, on the whole, this is not something to fear but to embrace. It is something that will improve the way things are done, and it makes for an exciting challenge.

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