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WIRED Magazine

It isn’t an understatement to say that this is the end of the world as we know it.

The more pressing question isn’t whether the world will change, but by how much. The pandemic will have sweeping effect on every aspect of our lives and it’s likely that many of the changes we’re making to our lives at this moment will become permanent.

“What we are looking at right now is the new normal,” says Ismail Amla. He argues that the pandemic is forcing us into the wholesale adoption of technologies and ways of working that, due to various social and cultural barriers, have previously only existed in pockets. That’s going to change.

Take the world of work, for example. Before Covid-19, remote working was something that many employees yearned for, but only a handful were granted – often only once or twice a week or a month. Now, it seems, almost everyone is doing it. This is the moment we will find out just how essential that face to face meeting or business trip really is.

Some companies have historically been reluctant to let their employees work remotely, with concerns over productivity often at the forefront. If it turns out that workers can in fact do their jobs just as efficiently from home, we could see firms in certain sectors drop their objection to home working, and adopting entirely new organizational structures, where they jettison physical offices altogether, or perhaps only maintain a smaller headquarters for key staff. “For offices which were used as ‘manufacturing centres’ with people in them, it will be up for debate if they ever return to the role they played in the past,” Amla says.

Supporting this will require better technology, and some careful work on the part of employers to change their workplace culture. Will we finally see increased use of augmented and virtual reality to replicate the more personal connection you get from face-to-face meetings? And how will companies be able to prevent social isolation and recreate the impromptu “water-cooler” chat you get from being in the same physical location as your colleagues? Already during the coronavirus outbreak we’ve seen managers scheduling “virtual tea-breaks and breakfasts” where everyone congregates on messaging services at the same time to chat. Society is adapting very quickly.

It’s worth flagging that another key barrier has been trust: a reliance on “presenteeism” and bums on seats as a crucial way of managing your workforce. Remote working forces employers to treat their employees like adults – and for that to work we will need to engage our people in a renewed sense of common corporate purpose.

We are seeing a similar pattern of accelerated technology adoption emerging in education, where teachers and lecturers are now delivering significant amounts of content over video and other applications that are still quite alien to many educators and pupils. Part of the appeal of going to college or university is in the connections and networks that you build, but the knock on effect of being forced to use digital tools in education could be much more profound for society.

If you don’t have to be in physical attendance at a campus, the barrier to entry becomes much lower, and we could see a resurgence in “Moocs” – massively open online courses – which make material from top universities available to anyone with an internet connection, often for free. “The content could be available to everybody, including the three billion people about to come online by 2022,” Amla says. Instant access to the top scholars in the world could unleash education to entirely new audiences. 5G and its ability to deliver significant processing power and real time speech and video processing feels like it has come at just the right moment.

It also aligns the educational experience with a tech-enabled world of work – remote, online, virtual and improving pupils competence in this new way of working will make it easier to continue it through to the workplace.

Eventually, it could lead to a complete overhaul of the education system – and more agile and personalised learning for both children and adults. Instead of going away to a three-day course to get certified for a particular skill, employees could learn in five or ten minute chunks over the course of the years. Instead of sitting in a physical or virtual classroom watching the same lesson as 30 others, kids could get targeted, tailored content curated by artificial intelligence to both their interests and their ability level. “We could see it move from a one-to-many to a real one-to-one environment,” Amla says.

Perhaps the longest-lasting change will be to travel, and particularly business trips, which are likely to be drastically reduced in future. We’ve already seen large industry conferences such as Mobile World Congress being cancelled or postponed, and in future firms may take the view that such events are not worth the cost or the risk. “Right now, we’re doing a massive A/B test for how much differece it makes to be physically there instead of online,” Amla says. “I think the time of the huge global conference where everybody has to be on site to take advantage is gone forever.” When combined with the climate crisis – satellite images showing a reduction in pollution since the outbreak have been spreading on social media – it may be hard to justify such events.

There could be a similarly disruptive impact on consumer behaviour – not just in the short term, where non-essential stores in many countries have been forced to close – but also in the long term. The number of online delivery orders has soared, with Amazon taking on new workers at a time when many small businesses are closing their doors and laying off staff. Amla expects new platforms to emerge that will help smaller retailers take advantage of new technologies such as virtual reality, which will enable them to recreate aspects of the physical shopping experience remotely – whether that’s AI customer service chatbots, or the emergence of digital clothing, bought to wear virtually, either in gaming worlds or social media.

“This is just the start of a journey,” Amla says. “Historically the technology has been ahead of the cultural and societal acceptance of what a new general operating model might look like.” Coronavirus has been a “jolt to the system” that will force us to embrace technology and ways of working – from video calls to virtual reality – that we were previously reluctant to use, because we had a choice not to.

After this is all over, we will find that those ways of working, learning and living have shifted to the new normal.

This article was originally published in WIRED Magazine.

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