Axios What's Next

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July 06, 2021

Hope you had a great July 4 weekend. For the return, we're bringing you deep-sea battery mining, the new rules of hybrid work and the return of office fashion.

"What was next" trivia: On this day in 1957, who became the first Black player to win Wimbledon? 🎾

  • Credit to reader Holly Hook for being the first to note that a zeppelin took its first flight on July 2, 1900.
  • Send your answer, along with tips and feedback, to [email protected].

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,275 words ... 5 minutes.

1 big thing: The future of EV batteries could be found under the sea

Photo of undersea battery mining equipment

A collector robot gathers polymetallic nodules on the seabed for processing. Photo courtesy of The Metals Company

All the battery metals we need to power a billion electric vehicles could be lying on the floor of the Pacific Ocean β€” but collecting them and turning them into EV batteries is a major challenge, writes Joann Muller.

Why it matters: It's going to take a lot of batteries to replace the world's gasoline-powered cars with zero-emission EVs. And that will require digging more lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese out of the earth.

  • Experts worry that mining's environmental threats could outweigh the benefits of increased renewable energy production.

What's happening: The Metals Company of Vancouver claims it has identified a less damaging way to mine battery metals from ancient rocks resting on the seafloor.

Context: Polymetallic nodules are metal-rich rocks formed slowly over millions of years as layers of iron and manganese hydroxides grew around a small shell or rock fragment. Many also contain nickel, copper and cobalt.

  • One of the largest nodule deposits is the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 miles west of Mexico and roughly 500 miles south of Hawaii β€” well outside any country's territory.
  • Exploration rights to the underwater field are controlled by the International Seabed Authority, created in 1982 by the United Nations to ensure mining in international waters benefits all countries, not just wealthy ones.
  • Through sponsorship deals with three tiny Pacific island nations vulnerable to climate change β€” Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati β€” The Metals Company secured exploration rights to approximately 150,000 square kilometers of the ISA-licensed seabed.
  • Those sections alone contain estimated rock resources sufficient for 280 million EVs β€” a quarter of the total global passenger car fleet, says CEO Gerard Barron.
  • "Mother Nature has done a great job putting all these amazing rocks in one place," he adds.

How it works: A robotic collector β€” akin to a giant vacuum β€” skims designated areas of the seabed, sucking up polymetallic nodules lying amid a thin layer of sediment, before pumping them up to a production support vessel on the surface.

  • The collected nodules are then transported to shore for further processing and refining.

The other side: "Sending gigantic mining machines designed to bulldoze and churn up the seabed is clearly a very bad idea," according to a Greenpeace post.

  • Deep-sea mining will damage sensitive and unique habitats, threatening sea creatures and disrupting the ocean food chain, the organization argues.

The Metals Company sees it differently. The rocks are easily removed without blasting, drilling or excavating β€” traditional ore mining practices that cause deforestation and create toxic waste.

  • "They're literally sitting there like golf balls on a driving range," said Barron.
  • Microorganisms on the seabed are not destroyed, he said. Instead, they are "shaken up and carry on," he said.

Read the entire story.

2. Finding the right mix to make hybrid offices work

Illustration hybrid work

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The overwhelming majority of workers and employers want hybrid work with some days in the office and some days away, or even some workers permanently in person and others always remote. But, done imperfectly, such a system could create a two-class system between those in the office and those out of it, writes Erica Pandey.

What's happening: Now some firms are starting to figure out what the future of equitable hybrid work and hybrid workplaces could actually look like.

Here's one model for hybrid work: New York bank Synchrony Financial is telling its employees they aren't allowed to come into the office more than four days a week, Bloomberg reports.

  • It's one way of chipping away at the out-of-sight, out-of-mind struggle that remote workers will likely deal with as some of their colleagues return to the office.
  • It's a notable departure from what most Wall Street firms want, which is a full return to work.

The big picture: It's still unclear what balance of remote and in-person work most companies will arrive at in the post-pandemic world.

  • There's a disconnect between how much workers want to work from home β€” 46% of the time (so about 2.5 out of five days a week) β€” and what employers are offering them (21.3% of the time, so about one day a week), says Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economist, based on his research.
  • But, as Bryan has reported, workers are willing to forgo raises or even quit their jobs if they're not given the flexibility to work remotely. So models like Synchrony Financial's that try to bake telework into company culture could take over Corporate America.

Read the entire story.

3. Some of us are still remote, but blazers and blouses are back

Illustration of a vintage paper dress up doll surrounded by clothing and work-related accessories

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The dress wear market crashed during the pandemic, when everyone was stuck at home with no reason to change out of sweats. Now it's bouncing back, writes Erica.

What's happening: Many companies are calling workers back to the office, and they need business casual clothes to wear. On top of that, weddings, galas and fancy parties are back on as more and more people are fully vaccinated and ready to make up for the past year.

By the numbers: Some 35% of U.S. consumers say they'll buy dress wear β€” blazers, blouses, dresses, suits, nice shoes and the like β€” in the next three months, according to a new survey from the retail market research firm Coresight.

  • Coresight analysts project that U.S. dress wear sales will hit $108 billion in 2021, up 23% from 2020.

The bottom line: Sweatpants alone won't do it. Unfortunately.

4. New Qualcomm CEO on the future of work and his company

Photo illustration of Cristiano Amon and a computer chip

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Miquel Benitez/Miquel Benitez via Getty Images

New Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon laid out his plans for the semiconductor giant in a media roundtable on his first day on the job, writes Bryan Walsh.

The big picture: Amon sees Qualcomm benefiting from the shift to remote work, as demand grows for higher-end computing and cloud infrastructure on multiple platforms, including in augmented reality, connected cars and virtual reality.

What they're saying: Amon, who headed Qualcomm's 5G business before starting as the new CEO on July 1, said that his "No. 1 challenge is how do we get credit for being a company that is very relevant to the digital transformation of industries beyond mobile."

On the future of connected cars:

"Cars are becoming computers on wheels. They have the mechanical chassis, and now they need this new digital chassis. That's where the technology is going, and they'll become a hub for services, not only about computational capacity but the connectivity that goes alongside it."

On whether we'll see AR glasses by next year:

"The answer is yes. ... We are convinced that once you have the 5G network built, the phone is going to evolve to allow the element of augmented reality glasses. If you look at what's happening with (VR), we're getting to scale. I think it's just the beginning of an inflection point, and we're going to see that happening on augmented reality glasses as well."

On how better technology could support remote work:

"Imagine you're putting on AR glasses and you can do a 3D reconstruction of your room, and on that, you can place objects around them β€” one of which could be a rendering of the person you're going to have a Zoom meeting with. It's going to be another step function in the improvement of the quality of remote interaction."

The bottom line: Still, Amon noted, "we're social animals, so I think people will continue to interact with each other face to face."

Read the entire story.

5. Number of the day: 18.7%

Photo of empty midtown office building

Workers in an office building in midtown Manhattan. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

That's the percentage of office space available for lease in Manhattan, writes Bryan.

Why it matters: This is the highest percentage of empty offices on record in America's business nerve center, higher than the vacancy rate at the end of 2020 and more than double the pre-pandemic rate.

The bottom line: The data make for troubling signs about the recovery of office work more generally and New York City specifically.

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