What will this new landscape look like? Conversations with Asia Business Council members, who together directly employ some 3 million people, suggest three highlights.
First, companies are taking a much greater responsibility for–and interest in–the health and safety of their employees. This is necessary during the pandemic, given the likelihood of workplace transmission. The habits and protocols developed during what is likely to be a drawn-out pandemic, are likely to persist. Diseases like Covid-19 have long been identified as a significant threat to our tightly linked world and the current pandemic is likely to be the first of many. It took Covid-19 to wake many companies up to the reality that their responsibilities for employees don’t stop when they clock off work.
The willingness of companies to take responsibility for employees is truer in Asia than in the United States, given the common involvement of Asian companies in employees’ lives and the sense of employer responsibility, even paternalism, that prevails in the region. If this translates into a holistic concern with employees’ well-being it will be a positive development.
The concern with workers’ health is a double-edged sword. Healthier workers are more productive workers. But how much corporate surveillance of an individual’s body is acceptable? There are legitimate concerns about privacy, though to date these have been brushed away with the notion that people are willing to tolerate a loss of privacy for a better life. Something similar is at work with the increasing level of public health surveillance, though group-solidarity Asian societies have shown little pushback. A backlash against this encroaching surveillance, cannot be dismissed. Companies will need to innovate with care.
Companies have immediate issues to consider. What happens to the employee who is turned away at the factory gate with a high fever? Whose responsibility is it to care for her? The answer to that varies from company to company and country to country. Clearly it is not enough to let her fend for herself.
The second, and perhaps the most obvious, lesson of the pandemic crisis is that digitalization will accelerate. Spurred by the need to accommodate remote working, we are living in an increasingly dematerialized world. Zoom calls and cloud computing make physical presence optional. The pandemic has forced companies to accelerate transformational digital investments. This has consequences for the third trend, jobs.
Job losses will be severe even at healthy companies. Some companies have paused restructurings, but a combination of weaker economic growth and new digital investments is going to hold down the need for employees. Physical sales forces will give way to digital marketers. Business re-engineering plans–which mean workforce restructurings–have new urgency. When survival is at stake, tough decisions can be made.
These company-level trends could lead to political spillover. If fewer workers are needed because of digitalization, will Asia start seeing unemployment increase to European-style levels? Will there be a corresponding increase in social welfare costs? Or moves to a universal basic income that will guarantee a minimum income to everyone? Education will be key to success in a more knowledge-intensive economy. How can more equal access to education be promoted? Will widening wealth and income divides in places like Hong Kong and Seoul fuel increased social unrest or can a new social compact be drawn up? Whatever the answer to these questions, popular pressure for new social contracts throughout much of Asia likely will increase.
Digitalization and job losses have, of course, been with us for some time but emergencies like pandemics force action. Covid-19 is accelerating the pace of change. The outcome could be a world with greater opportunities for more people, a world of healthier people. Or it could be a dystopian future in which a small number of wealthy knowledge workers and their political allies use the tools of surveillance and digitalization to protect their privileges against a far larger number of have-nots. The decisions we make as the panic subsides will go a long way to answering these questions. This is not a time for rashness, for decisions that are made in times of crisis tend to get locked in and remain. This time is one that will test businesses and countries alike. Leadership at all levels will be put to the test.