COVID-19 - A tipping point for knowledge work

Published Apr 2, 2020


JOHANNESBURG - We are all living the unimaginable. So many face tragedy and hardship. It’s a time for compassion and care for those hardest hit by this global pandemic.

COVID-19 is set to be a tipping point in many ways. One of those is a re-evaluation of how we work and what we do during our waking hours. It is a time for us to ask important questions that may help us shape a more positive future for all.

Countries like South Africa are under lockdown for 21 days, and many of us who would ordinarily be going to an office to work every day are now working from home. Companies that have previously been resistant to remote or mobile work are now having to rapidly adopt it in order to keep operating. This is going to change the world of knowledge work, permanently.

The forced lockdown gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect. How much of your work is really value-adding, and how much is simply grunt work - the relentless following of prescribed rules that shape every decision and action?

Imagine if you could rather use this time to reflect more, imagine more and dream more. To use your unique mind to come up with different ways of doing and seeing things. To focus your efforts on shaping the future, not simply replicating the past.

This work is not performed to the beat of a production line clock. It is often done when walking the dogs, sitting in the garden or even taking a shower. Yet it is work that has the potential to add way more value than the task and time-based work you are currently doing.

Now imagine if, once COVID-19 is past, you go back into your office and hand all your repetitive ‘doing’ work over to a team of digital workers. Ones that will keep the production wheels turning through the next pandemic that will no doubt come our way. Workers who don’t need to endure endless training to ensure the right questions are asked, answers given and actions taken, based on a complex set of business rules. And who are always compliant, with records to prove it.

The reality is that digital workers are very good at production. They are designed to follow rules and execute tasks in line with known formulae. They are natural doers of repetitive decisions and actions. And, if we can hand this over to them, maybe, just maybe we could be allowed to re-imagine a different kind of work, one that values thinking and creating above doing.

Work that does not need to be performed within an assigned 8-12 hour shift. Work that does not require us to be physically bound to an assigned location or office. Work that can be performed by different people with different skills in different locations at different times. Work that values outcomes more than inputs. Work that encourages rather than sanctions the blending of the personal with the professional.

And work that values diversity over conformity, something that would help us recognise and proactively resolve vulnerabilities in our existing social, political, medical and economic systems long before they get brutally exposed.

This work is possible only if we liberate ourselves from the slavery of production. If we are allowed to welcome back our long-lost inner child, and can invest our precious time on this beautiful planet in things that bring us joy and inspiration, not simply production-linked wages.

If work-life balance is viewed as a benefit, not a risk to production. If we are encouraged to take delight in ‘otherness’ rather than feel the stifling pressure to conform. Where we are asked to actively question rather than passively accept current ways of thinking. When expertise and wisdom is valued far more than titles, and collective success is valued far more than individual rewards.

For us to rehumanise our own work and to create a sustainable change-adaptive global reality, we need to stop seeing digital workers as a threat to our jobs, but rather as potential liberators. Handing over the repetitive, formulaic work to them frees us up to do the things we’re naturally good at - thinking, creating, strategising, planning, empathising, communicating, synthesising, problem-solving. It allows us to develop what Daniel Kahneman termed our ‘upper brain’, rather than remain trapped in our unthinking and robotic ‘lower brain’.

I am very aware that for many just returning to any paying job will be a blessing. I acknowledge that while so many are simply trying to deal with loss and basic survival, it's difficult to contemplate alternative futures.

But sometimes it takes a crisis to force us to make dramatic changes. To free ourselves from the trap of unchallenged norms and mental apathy. And to build a future that is better for all who call this planet home.

COVID-19 is one such crisis. Let's not waste it.

Ryan Falkenberg is co-founder and CEO of CLEVVA.

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covid 19