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Articles, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

The Future of Work Will Include Clubbing

By OOI KEE BENG, Penang Monthly Editorial, June 2021

IN THE FIRST decade or two following Covid-19, which parts of our daily life will go back to the way they were, and which will not?

It’s anyone’s guess. And since anyone and everyone is guessing, I might as well do the same.

Macroeconomic and geopolitical changes, though huge, will not affect us much as we go about our day chores. Multipolarity is here to stay, and international trade will develop accordingly. China and the US will try to outdo and outmanoeuvre each other, each supported by more or less opportunistic allies. Wars on Terror, and any other form of violence big powers feel like effectuating will remain common and regular. In Malaysian politics, maintenance of disunity rather than unity, and reliance on the impassioned gullibility of voters will continue, as if they are virtues.

International travelling will become more complicated, and people will put much more thought into the necessity of their trips than before. Short trips will become a tourism norm, and destinations will try to appeal to domestic and regional visitors. The easy flow of visual information online about any distant part of the world will make tourism even more a search for novel and curious experiences than for sights to see and Instagram.

Public worries about climate change will continue to make us pretend that we care and will continue to convince us that it’s all somebody else’s fault. This ideal-action gap will inform more than ever ethical debates of the future.

Digital Disruptions Continue

At the day-to-day level, digitalisation will overshadow and erase much of what had passed for art and culture just a few years ago. We will sometimes shop online and sometimes not; we will eat out sometimes and order home sometimes. No big worries one way or the other.

Artists will try to copy Microsoft ingenuity and sell the same product as many times as possible online. Cyber technologies will reduce the need for face-to-face teaching – and for physical schools. Disruptions in education were obviously already on the way before Covid-19 closed schools and forced teachers and lecturers to learn online techniques. The new norms for education will become obvious by 2030, as viable pricing mechanisms are constructed and certification procedures formalised and adopted.

Childcare centres will become extremely adaptive to the parenting contingencies of their clients. Kids can be left with them for an hour, or a day, or even a week, as suits the parents. Day care and boarding will conflate.

Business meetings will not all go online. Conferences had not been about knowledge exchanges long before Covid-19 came along. For as long as I can remember, they have been travel perks; and they have been for rubbing shoulders with the famous and half-famous; and most defensibly, for networking. Whatever a speaker at these forums had wished to say had almost always been better formulated in his or her latest recently published book.

But in the future, the function of such gatherings will be to formalise decisions, to touch base and confirm relationships, and as travel perks (some things will not change). Business travel will be a much more administratively integrated one-stop process involving immigration services, accommodation and transfer services, and venues and entertainment.

Remote Work and Proximate Bonding

But what will work actually be like? Well, firstly, whether you are a farmer or a food-deliverer, your level of digital literacy will decide your day – and your success.

Professional paths will be rather interlocked, and the skills encouraged and taught in school (largely online) and at work (largely remote) will be more and more of the transferable type. In fact, thinking habits will be preferred for the same quality, which means that the ability to be abstract, to reconfigure and to analyse will be what the world will pay good money for. That will be where competition will be sharpest.

More and more will seek to not be employed for life, and where possible, they will want to be their own boss; a substantial number will do both, as and when. Working from home, and remote working, will not only be seen as a necessary option by employers, but as an effective mode of production. However, there is a limit to this. Companies of any size have to have an identity, and as soon as more than one person is involved, physical meetings will be a necessary element in the business and production process. Not having them, or seeing them as unnecessary, will be considered a risky approach acceptable to the naive and young entrepreneur.

Instead, what will become common is for workplaces to be exclusive spaces, not places where people go to work, but where employees (I would call them “members”) are privileged to congregate – for bonding activities, health maintaining exercises and for occasional face-to-face conferring.

In the age of remote working, workplaces will function as social and sport clubs, and employees will be as members of these clubs. This helps keep them somewhat psychologically balanced, the employers (a.k.a. the club management) financially wealthy, and the enterprise expansive.

This New Normal – this New World – will not be about bravery. It will be about maintaining sanity in exclusiveness (or resilience in seclusion).


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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