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The acceleration of a movement
Covid in the Times of 4IR
In December of 2020, I wrote an article for a client on the topic of “Covid in the Times of the 4th Industrial Revolution.” The focus was mainly on the acceleration of technology.
Each industrial revolution has fundamentally changed the way that humans control and interact with the world, resulting in a societal change that impacted the way people live and work. The world is changing so rapidly that what we knew even five years ago may no longer be applicable (hello and goodbye to the iPod everyone’s primary music-playing device as an example).
At the time I wrote the article, many companies still had staff working in a fully remote capacity due to safety concerns. The Pfizer vaccine had only just been announced. And “The Great Resignation” wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
What emerged in 2021 has gone far beyond just the acceleration of technology. It unleashed decades of pent-up frustration that employees had with being overworked, undervalued, and underpaid. Couple that with the stress and anxiety of a global pandemic and it has caused tens of millions of people to say, “Enough. I’m not going to take this anymore” (myself included).
The Great Resignation has shifted the balance of power between companies and their employees and — much like labor movements of the past — there are new demands. And the demands are for work/life balance, rest, fewer hours… while still being well-compensated and having an opportunity for career growth. It’s not a trade-off.
The pandemic made 4IR about so much more than technology.
Defining the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The 1700s saw the invention of the steam engine, which allowed for mechanical production and drove urbanization. The 1800s introduced electricity, scientific advancements, and mass production. When computers were introduced in the 1950s, entire industries were disrupted, including communication, finance, and energy. (I’m not a historian by any means, but I had to do some quick research when I was writing about 4IR. You’re now up-to-speed about as much as I am).
Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, defined 4IR in 2016. He wrote, "We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive."
Schwab saw 4IR as distinct from the technological advances of the third industrial revolution. While the introduction of computers was the bedrock of the world we know today, speed characterizes 4IR. The lines between the physical and digital spheres have blurred.
Previous revolutions have substantially impacted the way that humans live and work. Until Covid, 4IR had primarily impacted communication and human behavior, from connections with family to business models to shopping habits. Outcomes included the digitization of products/services and changes in the business/customer experience. Changes happened in real-time.
The interconnectedness of Covid and 4IR
The rapid change that has made 4IR unique from previous revolutions hit a breakneck pace as a result of the pandemic. Nearly overnight, many businesses had to change their models of operating, sending employees home and quickly re-learning how to communicate and collaborate outside of the four walls of an office. The tools to facilitate this type of work already existed: now they were being tested on a massive scale.
The results? Overwhelmingly positive. Companies and employees alike have reported increased productivity while working from home. (I could cite a specific survey or study but I won’t — there’s an endless supply of data to back this up.) After the initial chaos that may have ensued for companies that had never worked remotely before, everyone settled in and figured it out.
Going back to “communication” as a central characteristic of 4IR, we saw face-to-face meetings move to virtual meetings. Mentorship, onboarding, and watercooler chats all look different. And we have to consider the impact on household communication: what it means for people with families to be more present at home when they’re not spending hours per day commuting or in an office.
4IR made it possible for companies to quickly adapt when Covid hit and Covid has pushed the envelope of 4IR even more. Now that people know that communication and effective work can occur anywhere, it’s hard to imagine a world without these options.
The Great Resignation as a new labor movement
Workforce changes of the past have occurred within industrial revolutions, from the organization of unions to the introduction of the assembly line.
In many respects, work has stagnated since the 1980s (Again — I’m not a historian — I’m going loosely on what I’ve read on the topic). The 1980s saw an influx of women in the workplace and a push for more equitable treatment. This continued throughout the 1990s and the 2000s until the recession of 2008.
My generation (Millennial) got hit hard. I entered the workforce just two years prior, but many of my cohorts struggled to find jobs in a difficult labor market. That era burned a lot of people and they were scarred as a result. If they found a job, they put their heads down and worked hard, no matter what the cost. It elicited a lot of company loyalty, even to companies that treated employees badly.
Companies also held positions of power during this time. They knew that employees were desperate, which increased demands and compressed wages and benefits.
Some truly amazing companies were early to the party and focused on the employee experience. The rest? They’re left to figure out what that means in a post-Covid world.
Hence: The Great Resignation.
Employees are saying “nope” to the ungrateful, micromanaging, controlling, in-office pre-Covid world. The more that companies try to tighten their grip, the more people leave. And the choices are endless: it is a wide-open world of places that are desperate to hire. Many tech companies, for example, saw astronomical growth as a result of their digital products during the pandemic. They need more employees and talented employees.
Nearly every company has to put their work culture on display for candidates. Those that haven’t embraced change are one-in-the-same with those that are finding their open roles remaining unfilled.
In the News: Returning to the office is a mandatory subject of bargaining
The NewsGuild of New York has demanded that employers bargain over return-to-office plans. Guild remembers at Meredith Union (People, PeopleTV, Entertainment Weekly, Shape, Martha Stewart Living) filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking relief from companies implementing mandatory return-to-office policies. The Board’s response supported the Meredith Union and also explicitly stated that return-to-office is a mandatory subject of bargaining. Read more.
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