Experts on employment predict how Covid-19 will change the way we work and impact jobs in the future.
The isolating impact of Covid-19 forced us to change the way we work. It recast the relationship between employer and employee and it brought the role of technology in our workplaces forward by years. This shift was much more than moving our desks from the office to the kitchen table though, as the pandemic exposed, accentuated and challenged systemic inequities in the workforce.
Covid-19’s effects on where and how we work have been difficult to predict. When Treasury released its economic forecast in May, projecting unemployment would hit 9.8% in September, before dropping to 5.7% by 2022, economists accused the government of “unrealistic optimism”. Those same economists were “gobsmacked” when unemployment fell below 5% for the December quarter. But, while the New Zealand economy has bounced back faster and stronger than expected, women and Māori and Pacific peoples remain disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The pandemic has brought the future of how we work into the present. The Spinoff spoke to experts and advocates, economists and employers about how the way we work is changing in the shadow of Covid-19.
Professor Robert Greenberg: A shift in the way young people think about their work
During our 2020 level 4 lockdown, I was convinced the future of work would change unrecognisably. We would all work from home and those who feel comfortable navigating the digital world and new technologies would survive, while the likes of performing artists and restaurant workers would have to retrain, since it seemed like cultural events and dining out would suffer a mortal blow.
However, after the lockdowns eased, many of us returned to our workplaces and life now seems quite normal. By contrast, in many northern hemisphere countries where Covid-19 continues to rage, and where office staff have not been back to their workplaces in nearly a year, it may prove far more difficult for people to go back to how things were.
I do believe some things will change forever. More and more young people will probably opt into professions that involve health and wellbeing. Already at the University of Auckland, we have noticed a rise in the number of prospective students wanting to study medical and health sciences.
Given the importance of distinguishing between real and fake news, I also expect many students to pursue careers in media and communication. As we’ve seen, leaders who have communicated effectively, and who have based their claims in science, have done well during the pandemic, while those who failed to stick to consistent and clear messages have faltered – and the number of Covid cases in the places which they lead have surged.
In the arts faculty, we are looking at launching new programmes in communication and leadership, communication and social change, and communication and technology to ensure our students are global citizens who can analyse and critically evaluate international trends and issues.
Now more than ever, the world needs effective communicators, innovative thinkers and flexible people who can adapt quickly to change.
Professor Robert Greenberg is the dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland.
Matt Tolich: The skills to pay the bills
At the peak of Covid-19’s impact on New Zealand, job listings on Trade Me were down about 80%. Almost 12 months later, a strong demand for skilled labour is a really positive sign for the local job market, and one looks set to continue into the future. Based on Trade Me Jobs data from the last quarter, listings were roughly flat year-on-year, which is really surprising given what happened in 2020.
This bounce back was driven by the provinces, where 12 out of the 15 regions grew year-on-year. Places like Manawatū, Whanganui and Palmerston North were all near the top of the job listings numbers.
With the borders closed, skilled workers in sectors like fishing and forestry and trades and services are in high demand, and that demand isn’t being fulfilled by returning Kiwi. We’re hearing from our recruitment agencies that they’ve got hundreds of job orders, and no candidates to fill them.
Looking to the future, the demand for good people is going to keep increasing while the borders stay shut. The government has piled a lot of money into shovel-ready projects – but if we don’t get people in to do the work, we’re going to continue to have this gap, which will increase the demand for staff.
The government’s $2b investment in apprenticeships saw a massive uptake. But because the apprenticeships are a two-year cycle, companies are going to be desperate for people for the next 12 months while they wait for graduates, and that could cause wage inflation.
This dynamic puts the power in the hands of those with the in-demand expertise. Although Covid-19 gave the economy a shock, for people in skilled roles it’s a great time to ask for more money from your current employer, or to have a look around at what else is out there.
Matt Tolich is a sales director at Trade Me Jobs.
Michael Andrew: Flexibility has replaced the old, irrelevant conventions
Ten years ago, I worked for a fantastic sales company that specialised in computers, network solutions, and all kinds of high-end consumer products. Yet even then, for a modern company on the vanguard of information technology, the notion of employees working remotely was considered inappropriate. Even though we had the technology to work away from the office, it was too much of a radical shift from New Zealand’s rusty business conventions – shirt and dress pants, seated at your desk, 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. While businesses in other countries were using technology to evolve and prosper, most New Zealand firms were stuck in the ways they’d upheld for more than a century. Until 2020, that is.
It may have taken a compulsory national lockdown, but the events of last year finally showed New Zealand businesses that they could have their employees working from home and the world wouldn’t end. In many cases they were far more productive and comfortable. Over time, the other benefits began stacking up: savings on office space, fewer IT issues, less micromanagement.
This isn’t to say that total remote working is the solution – face-to-face interaction and a physical team environment is immensely important for employee health. There must be a balance. But the shift has demonstrated that businesses can easily profit from being flexible and experimental, without risking losses.
I believe that 2020 has broken the old stubborn mind set, pushing directors to think differently and use the latest trends to evolve the workplace in sustainable and creative ways. Flexible working conditions will be essential for workplaces to attract talent in the future. And this flexibility will allow further inroads to be made into gender inequity in the workplace allowing family and work life to better coexist.
Throughout Aotearoa’s post-European history, we thought we needed rules and control to flourish. We’re finally learning the opposite is true.
Michael Andrew is The Spinoff’s business editor.
Mary Jo Vergara: The future of work is female
The devastating hit to female employment from Covid-19 was inevitable. Because of the concentration of women in the service sector, they accounted for 90% of the initial drop in employment. Māori women in tourism had it especially tough, with their workforce shrinking by 20.5%. The lockdown and closed borders have had a disproportionate impact.
Despite these challenges, Covid presents an opportunity for transformative change. Infrastructure and construction are driving our post-lockdown economic recovery. But these sectors are traditionally dominated by male employment. Cue in the government’s Targeted Training and Apprenticeship Fund. Initiatives like these have the ability to break down entry barriers for women, and smoothing out the distribution of women across sectors holds benefits from a pay gap perspective.
Understandably, switching careers may be trickier for older women. An alternative is to embark down their own path. Rather than leaving the workforce entirely, they could utilise years of experience and repurpose their skills to start up a new business. SMEs are the lifeblood of our economy, and they can be the most versatile of businesses.
The lockdown also opened up the world of working from home. Ten months on and we’ve proven the concept. We’re still talking on mute, and trying to keep our children out of frame, but we’re more productive and have more time with family. Without the miserable commute to work, we’ve found more time in the day.
The success of the remote working experiment has prompted many organisations to formally adopt flexible working practices. Working mothers benefit when we loosen our grip on the accustomed 9-5 workday and offer the choice of where to work.
Flexible working also benefits working fathers, because embracing working from home normalises childcare as a shared responsibility. Participation rates typically drop among women of peak childbearing and childrearing ages. But that dip may become less pronounced now we’ve proved that work and home life can indeed coexist. And of course, the less we travel to the office, the less we congest our roads and pollute our environment.
Mary Jo Vergara is an economist at Kiwibank.
Kaye-Maree Dunn: Finding digital mana motuhake
Te Puni Kokiri’s July 2020 report on the impact of Covid-19 predicted Māori unemployment would hit 20-25%. The industries with the highest projected unemployment increases were accommodation, food services, manufacturing, construction, and retail. Many of our people still fish, farm, work in forestry, run and work in cafes and operate accommodation. These are industries at the mercy of interruptions to supply, transport, and tourism from China and the world.
Our whānau were right at the pointy end of these industries affected by Covid-19 and many turned towards self-employment or created a side hustle. This gave many Māori a creative outlet and essential economic injection, and quickly turned into a movement. Across Aotearoa we saw an unprecedented and exciting growth of online Māori products and services businesses with stunning ranges of clothing, jewellery, tourism apps, honey, beauty products and digital marketplaces like InnoNative and Konei.
I founded Tautoko Te Tai Tokerau because I wanted to ensure that our Māori-led businesses and new start-ups were not going to suffer the same fate we have historically when economic shocks and recessions hit New-Zealand. It was designed as part of the national Tautoko movement to ensure Māori in our region had ready access to helpful information and to increase the opportunity to buy from and support local Maori business.
This forced shift gave Māori the momentum to take mana motuhake over their careers. In the future, I see more rural Māori taking advantage of the ability to work remotely. I see us turning our stories into careers and using e-commerce to allow our unique products to reach the world. I see power in decolonised, sustainable, and regenerative business practices that puts Papatūānuku and the wellbeing of our people at the heart of operations. I believe digital entrepreneurship, easier access to capital/funding and continued investment in building iwi capacity will enable Māori-led businesses to attract and retain much-needed talent, and for their expertise to benefit Aotearoa as a whole.
Kaye-Maree Dunn (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Mahanga, Ngāi Tāmanuhiri, Ngāi Te Rangikoianaake) is an Atlantic Fellow for social equity and runs a social impact agency called Making Everything Achievable.
Gail Pacheco: After the lockdown shock, online shopping is not going away
Jobs don’t exist in isolation. The overall demand for labour, and demand for particular types of jobs, is driven to a large degree by consumer preferences. If people decide to get healthier, you’ll see a rise in the demand for health products, gym classes, yoga teachers, and activewear.
But consumer preferences aren’t just about the types of things people want to buy, they’re also about how people want to buy. This is one of the things of interest from New Zealand’s Covid-19 experience. During lockdown in 2020, New Zealanders took to online shopping with gusto.
While online shopping levels dropped after May, longer-term data suggests internet retail is a growing force, and Covid-19 has accelerated this trend.
Firms have responded accordingly. For example, Countdown opened a 8800 square metre store in Penrose, dedicated solely to online orders. Even stores that rely on bricks-and-mortar retail have expanded their online presence.
This doesn’t mean there will be less overall demand for jobs in the future. Internet services can displace jobs – for example, if people decide to take yoga classes online rather than in person. But even the “customer-free” supermarket in Penrose is expected to have 200 staff. It’s more likely that the types of jobs needed and their locations will change. For example, there may be fewer customer-facing retail jobs, and more jobs in logistics, warehousing, IT support, and web design.
The challenge now will be making sure we have the policies in place that allow people to move easily to where the jobs are, and to access training that allows them to change course or upgrade their skills if needed.
Professor Gail Pacheco is director of the NZ Work Research Institute at AUT and Commissioner at the New Zealand Productivity Commission.
Antonia Estall: Young, diverse and digital
The pandemic greatly exacerbated existing challenges for Māori and Pacific people, yet it has also opened up opportunities for diverse digital natives to change the appearance of the labour market.
The unemployment caused by Covid-19 and the burden carried by essential workers who were put at risk of contracting the virus, fell heavily onto Māori and Pacific communities. As the way we work became increasingly digital almost overnight, the fallout of the digital divide worsened at the same rate, seeing many left behind.
The lockdowns led to a rapid uptake in working from home, and opened up distributed work opportunities, however these opportunities can only be accessed by those who have the necessary resources and capability. With Māori and Pacific communities levels of digital literacy far below the national average, and significantly underrepresented in ICT employment, according to the Digital Skills Aotearoa report released this year, it became clear that we are not yet benefiting from the shift towards digital working.
Within this, there are opportunities. For Māori and Pacific people, as one of the fastest growing demographics and most culturally influential, we have the ability to shape the face of the future of the workforce. It is crucial to understand how having accessed many aspects of our education and social lives online, long before Covid-19, we have developed a set of abilities highly relevant to the job market.
As digital natives, many aspects of tech are intuitive to us. Employers that embrace the skills and background that diverse young people are bringing to the labour market will benefit from a workforce that has a better understanding of modern Aotearoa. The way we consume, manufacture and take products to market is constantly evolving, alongside the growth of the Māori and Pacific communities, and this population has the chance to shape the future of work in Aotearoa.
Antonia Estall is a designer and digital strategist focused on sustainable innovation.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.