Reams have been written about the shift to remote working. And yet, for many people, the more pressing issue right now isn't where, but how much they work.
After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback: From the rise of the four-day work week to legally punishing overtime, the world is waking up to the importance of a balanced workload.
This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.
HAIL THE 4-DAY WEEK
Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.
Ireland is next in line, with plans to launch their own four-day workweek program starting next January. On the other side of the Atlantic, Canadian municipalities have been testing out fewer working hours since 2020. California is currently reviewing legislation to remove a workday as well.
IS OVERTIME OVER?
Changes are also afoot in China, as the People's Daily reports that the government, together with the country's highest court, issued a joint guideline last month meant to curb the number of hours employees are required to work.
The document, issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Welfare and the Supreme People's Court, takes special issue with the so-called "996" workweek, whereby by employees — in sectors ranging from tech to construction — are called on to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for six days a week.
The "996" practice is illegal, the guideline notes. Instead, employers should respect the standard working period as stipulated by Chinese law, namely eight hours per day with a maximum of 44 hours per week. Weary employees can only hope the statement leads to stricter enforcement.
In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because o the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines.
The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.
Observers are noting a parallel, in rich countries, between the transport sector and the agricultural industry, which has long relied on cheap, foreign labor to keep costs down.
KEY HELP WANTED
It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all?
An recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment.
The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on. Was quarantine a trial run for the future hierarchy of work?
OUT OF OFFICE
Les Echos isn't the only French daily concerned about future changes in the world of work. A recent article in Le Monde offered its own analysis, but from an architectural perspective.
"The boss' office with four doors and Cerberus guarding the entrance is disappearing," French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, talking about the spacious, secretary-controlled offices long reserved for company heads, told the newspaper.
This is partially due to the rise of so-called "hot desking" — giving workers desk space in rotation — and a hands-on managerial approach where supervisors work next to their employees to promote communication.
"Hoping to keep young people by making them believe that in 10 years they will have an office three times as big doesn't work anymore," another architect, Philippe Chiambaretta, explained.
BUMP IT UP
Hot desking is the least of concerns for farmers in Nigeria, 80% of whom operate on a small scale but are able, nevertheless, to produce 80% of the world's oil palm. What they are worried about, and with good reason, is the problem of poor logistics.
Outdated tools and transportation issues prevent these workers from making a real profit and limit their ability to invest in more crops. That, in turn, slows growth for the entire sector. Fortunately, though, a startup called Releaf just raised $2.7 million to build new smart technologies to speed up the value chain process.
Releaf is the latest in a trend of funding businesses to bring momentum to the promising agricultural industry in many African countries. Companies like Gro Intelligence and Aerobotics raised capital for similar projects earlier this year.
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Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.
BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.
TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.
For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.
No Western equivalent to WeChat
The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.
The flow of innovation is now changing direction.
The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."
Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."
This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.
10,000 new startups per day
There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."
In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.
The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.
Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."
China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.
China's super-app WeChat
The whole market runs on tech
Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."
As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.
Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.
Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.
The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.
Still lagging in some key sectors
There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.
China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.
Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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