As we begin to think about the possibility of post-pandemic life, we need to look at the positive changes we now have the momentum to make.
I do not want to minimize the great distress globally that is still occurring and may continue for some time. But in the past, pandemics have also brought forth fundamental change. The flu of the early 1900s killed more than 16 million people just in India, around 6% of our population. Yet it helped sow the seeds for India’s eventual independence and indirectly helped bring about the country’s transformation.
The worst crises often contain opportunities for profound change. They force us to adapt and to imagine new ways of living. We have evidence that we can do that. The world, although in great distress, adopted digital tools so quickly that a decade’s worth of transformation occurred almost overnight.
The widespread comfort with digital tools will enable us to reduce commuting time and make it possible for workers to go to the office just a few days a week. We have found that few people want to work from home all the time. We are getting constant calls from our employees, asking when they can go back to the office. They miss having direct contact with colleagues, something that virtual time doesn’t satisfy.
We see a hybrid model emerging that allows people to work in three places: at home, at the “office,” and at some third place, perhaps a satellite office close to their home. The model will be structured to maximize the benefit of both virtual and in-person approaches. I once traveled all the way from Mumbai to California to give a 40-minute speech. In the new order, both sides may see travel like this as an unnecessary waste of time.
One of the biggest benefits of this new way of working is that it opens jobs to more people and creates opportunities for more diverse hiring. It will be easier to hire women and people in rural areas—or even in other countries—who, either because of distance or commitments at home, find it difficult to take full-time office jobs.
In my home country of India much brainpower goes to waste because cultural and social structures make it difficult for women to take jobs. Nearly 120 million Indian women—more than double the population of South Korea—have at least a secondary education but do not participate in the workforce. More than a quarter of women with graduate medical degrees do not work. Overall, only 23% of all women who could work are employed. This is a tragic waste, and one of the many complex challenges to women’s labor participation is the lack of safe, reliable transportation to places of work.
We need female electricians, architects and engineers. We need them because greater participation by women in the Indian economy could vastly raise our GDP—in the order of $440 billion, per one estimate. We are suffering from shortages of skilled labor while women who have those skills are unable to work. If we pursue work in a way that makes economic sense, productivity will rise and more people will come into the workforce.
Ideally the future of work will combine the best of digital and the best of in-person arrangements. This is a journey, a process, not something that will just be in place by the fall. But if we adapt thoughtfully, we can benefit the environment, lower costs and most importantly, respond to people’s needs. We should not miss this opportunity. Like those who survived previous pandemics, we need to incorporate the pain and devastation of recent history even as we find better, fairer, smarter ways to move forward.
Natarajan Chandrasekaran is chairman of Tata Sons
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