The Future of Employment Post-COVID-19

COVID-19 has has forced many changes to daily life. But there is one word that is probably synonymous with COVID-19 as it emerges as COVID-19 spread, Zoom.

From an application that people hardly knew, the usage of Zoom has skyrocketed as people prefer to stay at home and need a way to communicate for work and social life.

Zoom is not the first video conferencing application in the market. We have BlueJeans, WebEx, Skype, GotoMeeting and other products. But Zoom is perhaps what most people know and use for collaboration.

Zoom is also the tool what many companies used (many for the first time) to enable their employees to work from home (WFH).

COVID-19 has forced the companies to do WFH, whether the companies were ready or not; and after few months many companies found that they could continue to function even with its employees WFH.

It is a revolution in the way office work works, but it is not new. Even before COVID-19, some companies have been practicing WFH. Automattic (the company behind WordPress), BaseCamp and GitLab, are few examples that have its workforces mostly WFH.

This will have a lot of impacts (and opportunities) on employment.

The effectiveness of WFH is still debated. Some companies like Automattic and Gitlab embraces it a big way and found no issue with productivity of its workforce. Twitter announced its employees could WFH as long as they would like. Other companies such as Netflix preferred to have its workforce to be in the office as it founds it could get more creative ideas from face-to-face collaboration.

With ‘forced experiment’ with WFH, companies start to realize that there is longer requirement for a space (or a big space) – called ‘office’ – to house its employee anymore. A significant cost could be saved by reducing office space or even eliminate it altogether.

However, the biggest impact is many companies now realize it could reduce the manpower cost.

Some companies, such as VMWare cuts the salary of professionals who are WFH from area outside the Silicon Valley area. It arguably fair to other professionals who choose to stay in Silicon Valley. Professionals who work in other states or area with lower cost of living as compared to the Silicon Valley should ideally have their salaries reflect the current local conditions.

However, the biggest impact is probably companies now realize it could also hire professionals from practically anywhere in the world and many countries have lower cost of living (which is translated to lower asking salary).

It is a boon for professionals from developing countries as they can market their talents to companies beyond what are available domestically. It potentially reduces unemployment in those countries and increase domestic economy.

However, it will be huge challenge for professionals from developed countries. Lowering their asking salary may not be a good option as the cost of living is significantly higher.

Productivity loss may be overcome by hiring more people. It is a rather crude solution. However, if hiring two or more offshore professionals in order to achieve similar productivity as one inshore professional and yet with lower cost for the former, then it is a rather simple math for companies.

Companies may also gain more by strategically hiring from different regions so that there is always a professional working in different time zones. A 24×7 operation is possible without incurring the extra cost to incentivise people to work at graveyard hours.

We may see the next wave of outsourcing and a rather different one.

Rather than outsourcing to other companies, companies may choose to outsource directly to individuals. It could get the best talents from various countries, with lower cost.

Companies may also exploit different law, favoring professionals from countries that have more lax employment protection or simply base its ‘physicals’ office in the country with lax employment protection and have all professionals (regardless their locations)hired by the companies to adhere to that country’s law.

Professionals, especially from developing countries, would have more opportunities. On the other hand, professionals from developed countries now run risk of losing jobs to other professionals from other countries.

As talent is now available globally, professionals would also need to compete globally. It is no longer sufficient to ‘shine’ locally; the professionals need shine globally.

For professionals from developed countries, with high cost of living, they also need to show they can provide more values with skills or capabilities that are difficult to get elsewhere, despite higher commanding salary.

It will be a different competitions, and probably a more intense one. There is less protection from local employment law in case there are disputes as companies could hire the professionals directly, bypassing local laws.

Rather than permanent jobs, employment would be more transient. Short-term contract may be a norm. This allows the companies to adjust its manpower requirements in short notice, for example when there is an economic downturn.

Professionals would have more options to choose from and could simply pick different companies. However, it also means there is less job security on employment.

Having transient workforce from various countries would also mean less bargaining power for employees. There is no collective bargaining power on the employee’s side as employees are scattered in different parts of the world.

Governments will also face issues. For developing countries, having its citizens to be employed by foreign countries would be a blessing. Rather than ‘exporting’ their population out, the professionals would remain in the country, contributing to local economy and indirectly growing other local talents.

However, if those countries do not have strong tax law, there is a possibility that its citizen would under-declare their incomes, resulted in less revenue from the income tax.

Similar issue with shrinking income tax would be even more visible for developed countries; the jobs went to other countries and its citizen faced downward pressure on the salary.

Countries would also face issue in attracting foreign investments. Typically such investments would require commitment from the companies to make certain amount of investment and commitment to hire local professionals. However, with ability to hire professionals from virtually anywhere, companies may be less keen to hire local professionals unless the country could provide more incentives.

It looks gloomy, however it is inevitable. WFH unintentionally forced companies to experiment with WFH and opened up other possibilities for the companies.

For professionals, especially for the next generation professionals, it will be a reality. Things will be different moving forward; each of us would compete globally. We should continuously develop ourselves, adaptable and build unique capabilities and values to remain relevant.

Image source: People vector created by pch.vector –

Food Independence for Singapore

Recently the Singapore Government announced a new strategy, “30 by 30” to raise Singapore’s food self-production level from current 10 percent to 30 percent of total needs by 2030.

Singapore is highly dependent on food import. Singapore, according to the AVA (Agricultural and Veterinary Authority), imports foods from 170 countries, ensuring a problem with one country would not affect food supplies to Singapore.  However, the exporting countries may also experience forces external to the countries, such as climate change, COVID-19, and other factors that are beyond the control of both Singapore and exporting countries.

The biggest problem is probably to produce protein. Singapore has no space to rear cows, pigs or broiler chickens. Even though Singapore is surrounded by sea, there is a limited area that are suitable for fish farming, either due to water quality or to prevent intrusion to sea lanes. Fresh-water fish farming in reservoirs may be possible, but it requires careful control as the water in reservoir are eventually used for drinking .

Rather than limited by those constraints, Singapore should look to technology and also the future trend.

Recently Tip Top Curry Puff introduced ‘Impossible Rendang Puff‘ with meat-substitute from Impossible Food. It is an interesting mix, a traditional pastry mixed with latest meat-substitute. 

Impossible Meat, together with Beyond Meat, have been the forerunner in meat-substitute industry.  The ‘meat’ is based on plant (which would appeal vegans) and do not require rearing animals which may appeal environment-conscious consumers who are worried about environment impact of rearing animals for food.

However, rather than producing meat-substitute, Singapore should consider producing protein using technologies such as Precision Fermentation (PF) and Cultured Meat (CM).  These technologies promise abundant production of protein with low cost. 

Precision Fermentation (PF) is a process that enables the programming of micro-organism to produce almost any complex organic molecule. It is converting the source ingredients using microorganism such as yeast or bacteria to produce complex molecule such as protein. The ‘meat’ is technically not a meat because the protein does not come from animals.

The ‘meat’ from the Cultured Meat (CM) process, on the other hand, can be argued is a meat. Using tissue engineering, the technology multiples the source tissues to become the meat that we know of.  The ‘source tissues’ can be taken by scratching the skin from any parts of the animal.  There is no need to slaughter the animals; only some cells are needed.

Both technologies promised to produce protein with high quantity and (if we reached the critical mass) lower cost as compared protein from animals. Nutrition, flavor, texture and other properties of the ‘meat’ can also be controlled or even tailored differently according to different requirements or consumer preferences. 

Cultured Meat and Precision Fermentation does not require any large land to produce the meat. The issue surrounding rearing animals, (especially cows), such as water consumption, food consumption and green house impacts are practically eliminated. The ‘meat’ would be produced in the factory instead.

It may be difficult to convince the consumers in the initial phase.  People are used to meat from animals.  It will take some time for consumers to get used to idea of having ‘meat’ from non-animal sources. Flavours, nutrition and especially safety would be in their mind. It does not help that both technologies are producing meat in factory, from ingredients that sound alien and using processes that looks similar to producing genetically-modified food.

Having ‘Singapore’ brand probably helps to promote the acceptance.  While the technology is new and promising to make Singapore more independent for its protein consumption, Singapore should not be compromising on quality and safety.  Only if the consumers see that the Government does not compromise (and transparent) on safety and quality of food produced by those technologies, they will embrace such food.

Singapore may need to embrace such technologies early if it wants to secure its food supplies.  With world’s growing population (and affluence), there is an ever increasing needs for protein.  However, there is a limited available land in the world that can be used farming – without affecting the environment.  Over fishing is threatening global fish production. Global warming will also threaten the food production.

The government should prioritize research and development (R&D) on the technologies.  The technologies, while progressing fast, are still relatively new.  The R&D will allow Singapore to improve the technologies, better the quality of the meat and reduce the cost.

These technologies may come with some high costs due to patents, so it is important for Singapore to have its own R&D to hold some patents. It can use its patented technologies, sell it to other companies (with clauses to safeguard Singapore interest).

Singapore could also be the hub for such technologies, not only limited to R&D but also production.  If it is done correctly, and with acceptance from consumers, Singapore may be in the good position to export the ‘meat’ to the world. 

Many years back Singapore government identified the need to be independent with its water supplies; now it has array of water sources to guarantee its water supplies. Now, it is time for Singapore to secure its food supplies by embracing new technologies.

Singapore and COVID-19 Vaccine Nationalism

It has been 8 months since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Wuhan, China.  The pandemic has spread to the entire world, millions have been infected and many people have died.  The pandemic does not seem to be abated, with countries that previously managed to control the outbreak is now struggling to control the 2nd wave.

Current methods, such as social distancing, curfew, closing any social gathering place – while it helped to manage the outbreak – is not sustainable.  It comes with high cost to the economy.  Many companies are facing closure, employees are either being furlough or let go altogether.

Prevention, in the form of vaccine, is always better than the cure.  However, it usually takes many years to get an effective and safe vaccine.  Due to the urgency, the vaccine development has been sped up tremendously.

Assuming we have effective and safe vaccine, the next question is how to manufacture and distribute the vaccine.

Having the population vaccinated against COVID-19 will give the country in a better position to restart its economy.  People could do their normal activities without any restrictions. People can work and study with peace of mind.  Industries and Services can operate normally and start hiring people.  The government could stop all the subsidies given to its population during COVID-19. The benefits are very clear.

There are many companies that can produce vaccine.  However, their facilities are not geared towards producing massive number of vaccines in a very short period of time.  It will take time for them to ramp up the production to serve world.

As a result, there will be a shortage of vaccine. Coupled with expected benefits and domestic push, many countries will simply force vaccine manufacturer in their countries to produce vaccine for their own population first before exporting the vaccine to other countries.

Welcome to vaccine nationalism.

Problem with vaccine nationalism is real; it is naïve to think that countries should not advance its own domestic agenda first.  It is political suicide for a government to simply sends the vaccine away while its domestic populations are still affected by COVID-19.

The problem gets deeper.  Even if the population of the countries where the vaccine manufacturers are located are fully vaccinated, the next question is who’s next.  Countries with deep pocket will simply buy the vaccine, putting them ahead of the queue.

However, COVID-19 is a global problem.  Until the last person in the world is vaccinated, similar to what human managed to achieve with smallpox, COVID-19 will still be in circulation and infect people.

Perhaps this is what small countries like Singapore can offer. 

It can help by fully pay the cost of setting up high-capacity vaccine manufacturing and selling the vaccine at cost.  In return, it has first priority to the vaccines needed for its population.

As the country is small, with only 5+ million population, Singapore would produce lots of excess vaccine that can be sent to other countries, such as its ASEAN neighbors.

This sounds attractive but it may also sound too simplistic.  Building vaccine manufacturing facility will take time.  It requires specialized people to operate.  It may take time to get the facility to ramp up the production. Lastly, there are different vaccine candidates and each may have different ingredients.

However, where there is a will, there is a way.  Building a facility should not be difficult for Singapore.  It can divert contractors and people from other projects to build the facility. Specialized machines require to produce the vaccines could be procured now so that it arrives when the building is ready.

Staff from existing research facilities and laboratories can be tasked to operate the facility in the beginning until there are enough people trained to operate the facility. Biomedical science graduates from universities or people who are currently unemployed can be trained to operate the facility.

If necessary, Singapore may also allow skilled technicians from other countries to also operate the facility. This not only help to jumpstart the production but also to show to the world that Singapore’s facility is a global facility, manned by people from many countries, to produce the vaccine for the world.

There may be some teething issues during initial productions, so it is expected first few batches would go waster.  Perhaps, the new facility could produce other vaccines as the way to train the workers and test the production line.

Singapore may also take similar approach as other vaccine manufacturing by starting to stockpile all ingredients of few vaccines that look promising without waiting for final clearance for the vaccine.  The idea is to have all ingredients ready the moment green light is given.  However, it also a gamble because some vaccines that originally look promising may later on found to be ineffective.  It is a necessary gamble in order to speed up the vaccine production.

It may sound too ambitious, simplistic and perhaps crazy.  However, having Singapore to produce the vaccine for the world would show Singapore’s commitment to the world and also showing Singapore can punch above its weight.