The Future of Work in Shipping: The (Digital) Genie is Out of the Bottle

Illustration: Tithi Luadthong

No internet, no WiFi, no email. Imagine for a second, that the pandemic happened in the 80s.

Remote work would not work.

But today, in 2021, billions of dollars of business across the globe is being conducted by people in sweatpants.

Since the pandemic started, the way we work has changed. Unable to be together in person, remote work became the only option.

Now, as restrictions ease, the real question is — what now?

In 2014, Jacob Morgan predicted trends on the future of work. Here’s an overview of his predictions:

In 2021, it turns out that these trends were right. Accelerated by the pandemic, much of the world has now experienced new ways of working.

The real question then, is “where do we go from here?”

So, what does the future of work look like in the shipping industry?

The (digital) genie is out of the bottle

We should be grateful that the pandemic didn’t happen in the 80s. There’s only so far we’d have got with phone calls and faxes.

Technology has made remote work possible. It opened up the opportunity of a connected, collaborative working environment. It showed us what’s possible — with the right digital infrastructure to support it.

In an industry like shipping, which still uses some paper documentation, it’s a good reminder of the need for widespread digital adoption. If our customers choose to work remotely in the future, we need to ensure our digital solutions can support it.

As the remote work experiment appeared more successful than anyone had anticipated (as it turns out, people can work productively from home) digitalisation and digital fluency are more important than ever — especially for those who choose to embrace remote working.

Hybrid: two worlds combined

As the necessity of remote work wanes, everyone is wondering — what now.

The benefits of working from home (less travel, more flexibility, more time with family) may be clear, but remote work can also be isolating.

The hybrid model — working some days at home, and some days in the office, allowing teams the benefits of working from home, while still capitalising on face-to-face time — appears to be a popular choice moving forward.

This approach offers flexibility while avoiding the isolation of remote work.

But such an approach isn’t always possible. Certain industries, roles and business models require people to be together in person. Hybrid can also pose challenges for those unable to work remotely.

While Accenture’s 2021 Future of Work study revealed that 83% of people would prefer a hybrid work model, which model businesses adopt will depend on their own circumstances.

A paradigm shift

The future of work, however, is about more than where we work.

Any shift to hybrid work also requires a shift in approach to management structure, communication, career development, and how we measure work itself.

Traditional structures would need to become more flexible to adjust to the new context. This shift may take some time, and some adjustment.

While past generations, who’ve worked most of their career in traditional structures, may accept the traditional approach, young people, who’ve grown up in a different context, are likely to have different expectations.

Whether or not organisations choose to adopt more flexible working arrangements, the trend line suggests that, in time, they may have little choice — if they want to attract the best young talent.

In conclusion

The nature of work has changed, and every industry is affected. For shipping, the changes are connected to our broader trend of digitalisation and collaboration.

Digital technologies empower new approaches, but mindsets and ways of working are in a state of evolution too. It’s a dynamic, complex industry which requires the collaborative input of many different stakeholders.

As we move toward a new future of work, fuelled by digital technologies, we mustn’t lose sight of the unique role people play in shaping our success.

In writing this piece, I’ve gathered input from my LinkedIn network through a recent post. Thank you to all those who contributed their insights. Even if you haven’t been mentioned, you’ve helped me shape this piece.

Husband, father, bass player, shoeaholic. CDIO at @MSCCargo and chairman of DCSA. I mostly tweet about the digitalisation of container shipping!