THE Cheung Kong Centre is one of the most impressive skyscrapers on the Hong Kong skyline. Sixty-eight storeys tall, the building is the third-largest building in Hong Kong and home, among others, to Cheung Kong Holdings and several multinational firms. Of late, however, nearly a quarter of the skyscraper has been sitting vacant. This situation is true of many premium commercial spaces in the city — all of which have been seeing similar vacancies.
There are some unique factors affecting Hong Kong — its sealed border with mainland China presenting a problem for those firms that were using the city as a hub to manage operations in that country — but the downturn has been persistent.
On the other side of the world in the United States, where the Covid-19 pandemic has been brought under control by vaccines, the situation is far more dire. Predictions which said that office workers would be back en masse once Covid cases had tapered off, have proven inaccurate. Recent statistics from Manhattan revealed that even though the percentage of people travelling by air or attending sporting events had normalised to pre-pandemic levels, the offices have remained largely empty. Only 40-50 per cent of office workers in Manhattan come in every day. This has meant the subway system — a means of generating income for the city — has ridership that is much lower than capacity.
The situation is so bad that Mayor Eric Adams of New York is considering plans to permanently convert all the vacant office space in the city into affordable housing. Tech firms like Facebook and Amazon that had bought up empty office space at the beginning of the pandemic have either stalled their plans or are actively looking to sell off their holdings.
The drastic reduction in cost that remote work offers is likely to impact the way new companies are set up.
The situation in San Francisco where so many tech businesses were headquartered is even more dire. According to a recent report in the New York Times, tech layoffs and the adoption of flexible work has made downtown a ghost town. The absence of workers also means the absence of people using city services which, in turn, is predicted to create a multimillion-dollar budget gap. Like the Cheung Kong Centre in Hong Kong, the Salesforce tower, a recently built skyscraper, sits partially empty because the company has also embraced remote work.
These shifts in office-use trends predict a larger change that is underway. Even though Pakistanis working for local companies may not immediately see a change or have remote work available to them, the drastic reduction in cost that remote work offers is likely to impact the way new companies are set up. This is particularly true of businesses that require deliverables that can be priced per item delivered rather than a salary based on one’s presence in the office. Those who are unable to make the transition will face increased costs and suffer more than competitors who can make the change.
Even though the hierarchical managerial model will likely survive much longer in Pakistan than in many other parts of the world that are more open to innovation, eventually the cost benefits will erode the mentality that envisions a boss physically looking over the shoulders of employees required to sit in front of him or her for hours on end.
There is also potential for another bigger transformation in the global talent market. The vast layoffs made by tech firms in recent months could well be stemming from the recognition that the remote work model allows tech companies to hire employees in other countries to do jobs like content moderation and other similar functions. If last century’s global transformation was the outsourcing of manufacturing from Western countries to cheaper markets in Asia and Latin America, this century’s transformation could mean the outsourcing of certain kinds of tech jobs to places in Asia that have trained engineers and coders.
If this happens, it will mean a significant change in the way talent is utilised around the globe. The current system of going off to work abroad — and Pakistanis who lost thousands of high-skilled workers to greener pastures just last year would know something about it — relies on the person physically migrating to a new place.
Pakistani workers doing this have had to migrate, move families and endure hardships and limitations of work visas and other hassles. With remote work, migration to pursue high-skilled employment may become rare. Unless one is a doctor who must be physically present to do their job, most of those working in the financial sector, the engineering sector and the tech sector can all do their jobs ‘abroad’ while sitting at home. With immigration losing favour among Western publics, this new form of utilising the services of foreign nationals at lower expenditure maybe the best solution for everyone.
Those Pakistanis who are selecting careers and making decisions about the future need to keep these growing trends in mind. If actual migration to a foreign country is the goal, then it is necessary to select a vocation that requires physical service delivery such as medicine. If one wishes to take advantage of the remote work opportunities that will likely emerge in other sectors, it is crucial to become conversant in how teams are being managed and connected using tools like ‘Slack’ and similar programmes. The greater versatility that an applicant can show in working remotely with a team scattered across the world, the better his or her chances at obtaining those jobs.
So much of the last 50 years of the world’s history have been based on people moving for employment. This new era may well see a reduction of those numbers as where people live and where they work become two entirely separate issues. Minds will connect across great distances but bodies will remain at home.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2022