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Covid's indelible mark on work

The delay to the promised full reopening of the economy and final lifting of lockdown restrictions in England – planned for next week and now postponed to give the government chance to outrun the highly infectious Delta Covid variant – was greeted with a fair few boos and hisses, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected.

The news was a particular blow for millions looking forward to finally picking up their social life again, and for workers who are compelled to wear facemasks all day long because of the nature of their jobs, but it was even worse for businesses in sectors such as hospitality. They expected to be crossing the pandemic finish line on Monday but instead what they face now is a potential £3bn hit to revenues, plus higher furlough and business rates costs.

The postponed full reopening is unlikely to make much difference to the broader economic rebound this year, but coming at the point when many businesses are announcing their plans for future working arrangements, it could reignite the argument about pandemic winners and losers. Depending on the work you do, you might have spent the past 15 months working from home (WFH), squeezing more hours from each working day and saving on commuting and other costs. But not everyone had that choice: their jobs, say in frontline health or care professions, required them to present themselves in their workplace and put themselves at risk of catching the virus.

When lockdown finally ends, the luxury of being able to work from home will continue to be enjoyed by many for at least part of the working week. Facebook has told its workforce that if their job can be done remotely then they do not need to return to the workplace. No such leniency at Morgan Stanley however – the bank's message to workers is that if they can go to a restaurant, they can go into the office. Discouraging WFH isn’t simply about having workers where you can keep an eye on them and ensuring they fulfil their work obligations – Morgan Stanley boss James Gorman stressed that returning to the office was particularly important for junior staff because the office is “where we teach”.

One study has indicated that at least 40 per cent of all jobs in the UK could be done remotely, and most UK employers appear to be prepared to offer a permanent hybrid working model to employees (but not those who must be physically present in their workplace). It’s too early to tell whether employers who adopt a strict back to the office policy will ultimately outperform those who permit a WFH culture, or suffer higher staff turnover, but besides this creation of WFH can and cannots, the crisis has also had a major impact on jobs in terms of roles that are no longer in demand and those that are very much so such as in delivery and tech services.

It has accelerated other changes too: the rising use of robotics and automation. Robotics in manufacturing isn’t new but we are steadily moving closer to an era when as many as 85m jobs could be shifted from humans to machines, while the use of artificial intelligence in healthcare and indeed most aspects of everyday living is growing. Nilushi Karunaratne has explored this rise of the machines and the growing use of robots and AI, and how to get exposure, as one of three megatrend opportunities we have identified in our cover feature this week. We'll be covering three more next week.