Teleworking and development in a post-COVID world
While the world moves forward (at different paces) in vaccination strategies and the countries start making post-pandemic plans, a new strong debate is emerging on how to adjust to the changes imposed by the health emergency.
First, it has been proven that many companies and organizations were able to maintain their operational level with most of their staff working remotely. In some cases, even from different countries and time zones.
Second, the technologies that enabled that (and our adjustment to them) have accelerated by five years, according to experts. That is, it was going to happen, but it was not expected to happen so soon.
Third, and probably most importantly, people experienced a new way of working, but also of understanding our relationship with work, reconciling work and family, and even the dynamics of offices and other work environments.
The changes that took place in the last 18 months are here for the long haul and are certainly deeper than we can understand and analyze now, while we are still handling the pandemic and its consequences.
One of those changes, and I would like to focus on it, is that the difference between what experts call “hard” and “soft” infrastructure has become more visible than ever.
Hard infrastructure refers to road network, water management systems, airports, public buildings. That is, the facilities that enable the functioning of a modern society.
Soft infrastructure, although not visible, is as important as the hard one. It refers to the financial system, health-care services, institutions, cultural industry, as well as other factors that have proven to be vital in this situation: human capital and information systems.
Soft infrastructure has been extremely relevant during the confinement months and has left those of us who work in the development world wondering about the importance of hard infrastructure.
With more people working remotely, are new transport systems really necessary, or would it be better to increase the internet connection capacity? Will big cities continue to grow, or would people prefer smaller places with quality services to live?
Will the increase in home delivery services (food, groceries, and other items), for instance, require specific laws or infrastructures in the future, just as spaces are adapted for public transport and bicycles nowadays?
Another sector that grew during the pandemic and will continue to grow is online shopping. The possibility of buying with one click something manufactured on the other side of the world represents a challenge to trade routes and supply chains.
Even if the post-pandemic transformation is not as radical as some predict, almost no one doubts that there will be new patterns of behavior and social interaction, such as flexible work schedules, less business travel, or less face-to-face meetings.
Likewise, the possibility of new pandemics will demand from architects, engineers, and urban planners new standards in the design of buildings and other public spaces that take safety and hygiene into account.
All these factors demand from those of us working in the development world a deep reflection on the hard and soft infrastructures that the pandemic has begun to shape and that will be useful in the future.
In fact, many of the tax incentive programs designed by the governments to face the economic effects of the pandemic are focused, exactly, on infrastructure.
We shall debate to which infrastructure those funds should be channeled and how that investment could contribute to correcting not only the slowdown of the last 18 months, but also the pre-existing inequalities that COVID deepened and turned more urgent.
For instance, the gap between the ones having access to internet and the ones that must choose between buying data (to look for a job or connecting to school) or buying food for their families.
Despite the technological progress, there are some areas, such as manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and food processing, that cannot function through teleworking and that, in general, pay the lowest salaries.
The post-COVID world, that has already begun to take shape, must favor mechanisms to correct these imbalances. The challenge is to find the right balance between soft and hard infrastructures to make it possible.
Text originally published in the monthly column of Huffington Post.
Cities in a post-COVID world: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/00420980211018072
Emerging Markets: Infrastructure in a post-COVID world: https://www.logisticsmgmt.com/article/emerging_markets_infrastructure_in_a_post_covid_world
Global Infrastructure Initiative COVID-19 resource page: https://www.globalinfrastructureinitiative.com/covid19
Hard Infrastructure vs. Soft Infrastructure: https://simplicable.com/new/hard-infrastructure-vs-soft-infrastructure