Has COVID-19 called time on the office?
Patrick Atack in London
Could COVID-19 spell the end of scenes like this? /Carsten Koall/Getty

Could COVID-19 spell the end of scenes like this? /Carsten Koall/Getty

From self-driving cars to household robots, the automation of daily tasks and increasing artificial intelligence in tech generally garners one of two reactions: excitement or dread. 

While some can't wait to see what the next breakthrough brings to work or social life, others are rightly concerned about what impact these advances may have on the economy and, more directly, their work. 

Although not directly a consequence of tech advancement, the COVID-19 pandemic and financial crisis is bringing some of the same questions to bear: is the office really a magical place where amazing things happen? Is a robot coming for your job? 

With remote working becoming increasingly common and viable, thanks to video conferencing technology, the worlds of work and tech are now colliding much faster than observers such as Oxford University's Daniel Susskind predicted. Changes, the economist and AI expert, and his colleagues thought would take many years have been kicked into overdrive – with changes to commonplace working traditions changed in a matter of weeks. 

It's a "gigantic unplanned pilot scheme," he told fellow panelists at a Financial Times webinar. 

Elisabeth Reynolds of MIT's Future of Work task force echoed Susskind, but pointed out that in recent years, a move towards the "gig economy" has meant worries are focused on the "quality, not quantity, of work." A problem Reynolds said was "exposed by the pandemic" rather than created by it. 

But the pandemic and enforced work-from-home policies have not only created a sense of a need for automation ("robots can't get the virus," as several panelists remarked. Well, not that type of virus, anyway) but have also forced employers to think about work without a workforce. "They won't forget," Reynolds quipped. 


READ MORE: Can working from home cause stress-related injuries?


Though there will be resistance to changing methods and workflows – as Susskind pointed out, doctors and lawyers once saw no way of dispensing medicine or justice remotely, but now online clinics and trials are commonplace – there is also a big opportunity to ask what is working and what is not. The virus is a catalyst for these realizations. 

"Remote work is not just distanced office work. There's actually a different way to work more asynchronous rather than real-time, giving people time to think things through before responding, [than] in a traditional office environment," according to Jason Fried, CEO of remote-working company Basecamp. 

"Anytime we can allow people to have more time to themselves to get their work done and set their own schedule to a certain degree, I think we're going to find that people are going to feel liberated. And I think that's a great thing."


Check out The Pandemic Playbook, CGTN Europe's major investigation into the lessons learned from COVID-19