Can the Coronavirus Propel Automation and the Gig Economy?

April 10, 2020 • Zachary Amos


At last year’s Collision 2019 conference, I met Barbara Matthews, Founder, and CEO of BCMstrategy, Inc., focused on measuring current policy risk and future policy decisions in the marketplace. We had an engaging conversation at the time and I have been receiving her e-newsletters since which I have found to be very informative concerning automation and the gig economy. In today’s content looking at the coronavirus and its impact on financial markets, she makes a number of discerning points which are the subject of this posting.

Barbara writes:

“The virus crisis [referring to COVID-19] is likely to accelerate the decades-old shift towards process automation. Key vulnerabilities associated with the loss of significant staff will likely create incentives for business leaders to shift rapidly towards remote-working platforms and process automation initiatives. The shift will have a material impact on the structure of the 21st-century workforce, prioritizing advanced technological skills and the ability to interact with next-gen technology.”

Today the global stock markets have been put in turmoil because of COVID-19 and a drop in the price of crude oil initiated by Saudi Arabia over the weekend. The combination has the markets tumbling in the same way they did during the financial meltdown in 2008. There is no doubt that the numbers for the virus are creating a feeling of unease for many. When I was at the supermarket this morning I witnessed some of the fear set in as people bought cases of sanitizing wipes, and loaded down grocery carts with what certainly appeared to be more than one week’s worth of meals and household supplies. This could be the beginning of a bunker mentality taking hold on the populace. I suspect, if the mounting cases and deaths here in Canada, across the border in the United States, and overseas, continue their upward trajectory, that we will begin to see runs on supermarkets similar to those seen when a hurricane approaches.

The economy cannot run itself. At least we think it can’t. So part of retreating into a bunker involves looking at just what happens to the workplace if people are told not to show up, or won’t?  How can businesses continue to function if the government puts an entire city under quarantine?

A challenge today for Millennials and GenXers is the precarious nature of employment for many in the job market. Many are part of the gig economy which means work is piecemeal, pay is hourly or by contract, and benefits are non-existent. For employers and gig employees, the disruption can be dramatic. Employers can adopt a remote work model. But one can imagine them going a very different route.

Where work is repetitive, and not requiring a lot of critical thinking and decision-making skills, an employer can look to automation as a solution. A pandemic that causes job disruption could be the incentive to implement software and robots to take on the work of people. Software may get a different kind of virus, but there are safeguards to innoculate computers against malware, and hackers.  Robots can work autonomously in minimally-heated and lit buildings or can work with minimal supervision (even managed through augmented reality) so that no human other than a maintenance person need be present.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 virus that struck China at Christmas last year has become even more disruptive than the behaviour and policies of the current President of the United States. And if the virus continues to wreak havoc with world trade and supply channels, and causes the stock markets to roil and tumble, it could cause President Trump’s demise in November.

When Robert F. Kennedy stated in 1966, “Like it or not we live in interesting times,” he was referring to an old Confucius saying and applying it to the apartheid regime of South Africa. I would think that quote is far more apt for today.

What are the statistics for the coronavirus as I write this posting?

  • 114,010 cases
  • 4,000 deaths
  • 62,832 recovered

And what is happening to the Dow Jones? Approaching 30,000 just a few weeks ago, this afternoon the market average has dropped to under 24,000, a more than 20% drop in exchange value.How does that compare to the 2008 meltdown? That drop from peak to the bottom was 54%.And the 1929 crash that led to the Great Depression saw the Dow Jones drop 89%. So we remain far from those two dizzying collapses. If the collapse persists, the consequences to the workplace and the nature of future employment may prove to be far more profound.

This post was first published on 21st Century Tech.