High-value industries such as financial and professional services and the IT sector are the most likely to allow remote work into the future, a Mason Hayes & Curran (MH&C) webinar on the future tech economy heard yesterday (15 June).
Technology will continue to drive income inequality and the perk of remote work because low-value industries, such as leisure and hospitality, will have very few remote workers, the webinar heard.
Commuting wastes both time and building capacity, since one building always stands empty, either by day or by night, speaker Dr Carl Benedikt Frey (Oxford University) said.
And the virus-led uptake of remote work is a staggering experiment which has never been seen before.
Death of the office
Though the death of the office, and of cities, had been predicted before COVID, Dr Frey said that computerisation and the digital revolution have actually seen work become more clustered than ever before.
We have actually seen a growth in the importance of metropolitan areas, he said.
As tech workers flocked to hubs such as Silicon Valley and Seattle, the world has become more unequal, rather than incomes being flattened.
Frey predicted that the labour market will evolve through the length of a product lifecycle, with initial periods of collaboration, followed by quiet, reflective work at home.
So offices and cities will continue to be important, he predicted, but there will also be an execution phase carried out remotely.
However, patents always result from their inventors being able to meet somewhere in the first place to collaborate, he pointed out.
And research has shown that when important conferences are cancelled in any given domain, innovation will stall as a result, he said.
“None of us live in cyberspace, our digital networks very much mirror our networks in the physical world,” he added.
However, this presents a serious challenge for advanced economies, in that many production tasks, in both manufacturing and services, are likely to be offshored as well as automated.
Fashion models will be among those most at risk of automation and some artificial-intelligence ‘models’ already have their own Instagram accounts, Dr Frey pointed out.
Overall, it is low-skill, low-income jobs that are most exposed, Dr Frey said. There is a real risk that this will drive the acceleration in inequality and downward pressure on wages already seen since the 1990s.
It is still very hard to automate tasks involving complex social interactions and creativity, however, Frey pointed out.
The welfare state plays an important role in providing automatic stabilisers, which people can fall back on during a time of crisis, he said.
“That's not to say that you can't overdo it on the welfare side of things,” he said.
Communities that have suffered from automation may resist structural transformation, and fail to move away to find a new job.
“I think there is a strong case to be very optimistic about the long run, or the future of work and the future of the tech economy, but I do worry about some of the short-term disruptions,” he said.
Regulators as 'Luddites'
MH&C LLP intellectual property partner Brian McElligott asked whether in the face of fast-paced change, regulators could be seen as modern-day Luddites.
Frey agreed that there are protests over automation and that there is a risk of over-regulating some of these technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, which is not yet mature.
“If we had tried to minimise the adverse effects of the steam engine, we would never have had the industrial revolution,” he said.
“Trial and error is part of innovation and we need to accept some risk in development, including some disruption to labour, for it to actually happen,” Dr Frey said.