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The global COVID-19 pandemic has wrought sweeping changes in every aspect of life, including the world of work. In this report, Fabian Wallace-Stephens and Emma Morgante of the royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce’s Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing Team explore how COVID-19’s effects on various industries intersect with an increased embrace of automation. Taken together, the authors argue, these near-term factors may have long-term effects on the labor market as businesses and consumers alike grow more comfortable with technological solutions introduced, initially, to combat the virus’s spread.

About the Authors

Fabian Wallace-Stephens is a senior researcher in the RSA’s (the royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing Team, and part of the RSA Future Work Centre research team. Emma Morgante is an intern for the RSA’s Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing Team.


Businesses may, increasingly, embrace automation as a way to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

At this point, it’s still too early to tell how badly the pandemic will affect employment. Government job-protection policies mean that, at present, many are shielded from official unemployment – even if they aren’t in fact working. It’s possible the economy may make a strong comeback as the public health situation improves, but it’s more likely that the recovery will occur slowly and, thus, unemployment will, eventually, rise to levels not seen in more than two decades. 

In this uncertain context, the question of what role automation and other technological developments will play in the future of work is taking on even more weight. Experts agree, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the fast-forward button on many changes expected to occur over a far longer period. Amazon’s no-cashier convenience stores and Sainsbury’s SmartShop system are just two examples of how companies are already finding ways to cut the human element...

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