The world on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic will be a very different place.
No aspect of our lives will be unaffected. Customer needs and preferences, the business environment, the nature of work, the role of governments and the “deal” between the citizen and provider will be irrevocably altered.
Having been forced into living a life online it seems unlikely customers will want to return to manual form filling, paying in cash or even working in the office. The adoption of digital customer interactions, online commerce, digital identification and video conferencing seems likely to accelerate in 2020 to levels once predicted for the end of the decade. In the week to 18 March, Microsoft teams grew its daily active users by more than a third, to 44m. Vodafone has said it is experiencing a 30% rise in internet traffic across its UK fixed-line and mobile networks. And social apps like Houseparty and Zoom have reported growth in users of over 1200%.
Businesses will need to position themselves to meet these customer needs, not just as a response to lockdown, but as the new normal. As has already been shown in pre-Covid adoption, once customers experience an intuitive, seamless digital interaction, it sets the standard from all providers. And even seasoned digital brands will need to respond to the sudden increased demand – Netflix experienced an unusually large outage on 25 March caused by surging demand. European Union Commissioner Thierry Breton has called on content providers to switch to standard definition feeds to prevent networks from being overloaded. The BBC has removed HD as an option for downloads.
Already there is evidence of positive effects of the pandemic on the environment. In China, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen by about 25%. The canals of Venice have cleared overnight and images from space of mainland Europe show a significant reduction in pollution. Such progress is likely to broaden support for net-zero carbon targets and sweep aside objections about the economic impact of an all-out effort to slow warming.
Coronavirus has shown that major reductions can be made quickly. Having adapted to working remotely, and cancelling business travel will employees be willing to return to the daily commute? Business and government need to begin to think beyond the crisis and how their models and operations reflect the lessons and benefits achieved in the last few weeks.
Environment of business
The globalized economy, already fractured by Brexit and trade wars, has been dealt a severe blow as borders are sealed and airlines close operations. UK flight bookings are down 63% YoY and Moody's estimates global flight capacity will fall by 25 percent to 35 percent this year, assuming the spread of the virus slowed by the end of June. Stock markets have fallen by the biggest levels since 1987. And continue to tumble. US unemployment figures have staggered commentators and reflect long term ripples that will go long beyond the lockdown itself.
Companies are looking to secure local supply chains and revising targets for global revenues. Local tourism is likely to receive a boost as countries look to stimulate recovery and travelers look for safer options. Business-to-business models are under threat for smaller companies, especially in hospitality, entertainment and education. These providers are increasingly looking for ways to reach end consumers directly, mainly online. Service as a differentiator has been growing in importance anyway – but by talking directly to the customer agile businesses can provide really personalized experiences and products.
Traditional leaders in industries and markets will be leapfrogged by more nimble, adaptable operations. New sectors, such as telemedicine and e-learning, are likely to thrive. Robotics may become pervasive as customers seek to limit physical interaction with strangers.
Work and culture
The decades-long debates about remote working and learning are over. All objections have been swept aside as teams and institutions have had no choice but to make it work. MIcrosoft Teams now has more than 20 customers who have more than 100,000 employees working online. It is unlikely that companies will want to go back to maintaining vast, expensive premises, and that workers will want to fight through rush hour to get to the office. Now that global companies have learned to hold meetings online, there is unlikely to be a return to the level of business travel seen before.
The pandemic has forced us into isolation and created an unknown future, but it has also revealed the fallacy of some of our arguments for keeping the old ways, and revealed immediate benefits of doing things differently. The crisis arrived just at a time when video conferencing and e-learning technology was becoming affordable and up to the task, and universities and schools will not be able to put the genie back in the box.
On the other hand, we have quickly found the value of human interaction and community among work colleagues and fellow learners, and the pain of isolation. However, how we access this support may no longer involve having to find a parking on Basement 4 after a one-hour commute. Uniquely human skills – empathy, curiosity, intuition – will increase in value, boosting the augmentation camp in the AI-symbiosis debate and showing the limits of automation. Previously undervalued roles – nurses, teachers, carers, shelf stackers - will be recognized as vital for the preservation of society. The concept of key workers has changed and expanded overnight.
The role of the state
The ways in which citizens, institutions and governments have responded to the crisis will have lasting impacts on the role and nature of governments. The era of “small government” will come to an end. Centrally planned economies such as China appear to have been better able to organize to meet the crisis. Federal states such as the United States have been shown to be slow to respond. Late stage capitalism has been shown to be insufficient to meet our needs after 20 years of economic and social shocks. Monetary policy has run out of runway in Europe, Japan and elsewhere, and there will need to be a renewed focus on fiscal policy.
In the same way as post WWII, we may see bigger and much more widely accepted changes to the welfare system to manage future disaster. There is likely to be more investment in science and technology that supports public health, and inequality will be less tolerated. Nationalization of the UK railway is a case in point – in time of crisis, a socialist action becomes acceptable to the conservative electorate. It’s fair to say that politicians on all sides probably accept a nationalized railway gives us lower prices, more efficiency from better data sharing and enhanced operational planning. A nationalized service will require a digital overhaul to reap the potential benefits.
Some states are making a compelling case for unprecedented surveillance, using biometrics, to control the pandemic. How companies respond to government demands may determine the future state, since emergency measure have a habit of becoming permanent. Whether this happens in specific countries will depend on the strength of democratic institutions and civil society advocacy. Trust and data are a big factor in the response to the disease and there has been a credibility gap in the data the public has been given. There are too many reports of really sick people not being tested. Data can be used to empower people to take appropriate action, and companies can look for ways to support this.
The crisis is likely to put corporate responsibility under the microscope. It has come as a shock to many that some household brands appear to lack basic levels of resilience - some national institutions only have enough cash to last a couple of months. This will accelerate audit reform and we may see more and more regulations introduced relating to minimum capital requirements for all big companies, along the lines that are already in place in Financial Services. At an individual level, the response of some brands – whether they took the best decisions for the safety or customers and staff – are likely to have lasting effects on their reputation.
The longer the crisis continues, the more unlikely it is that we will ever return to business as usual. The disruptive effects of technology and data in the last decade have already promoted the digital-ready “thrivers” and exposed those lagging behind, the barely “survivors”. That process will accelerate and those left behind simply cannot survive. Companies should begin immediately to prepare for the new normal. And not look back.