Unprecedented is an overused phrase.

Perhaps a word that some of us have become blasé about because it’s been attached to so many events in recent memory – the financial crisis, Brexit, climate change. But there is no doubt that what we’re currently experiencing as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic is unique, no matter which lens you choose to use.

The state of play

Politically, national governments are executing crisis plans on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Borders are closing,  freedom of movement is restricted.  Health services are beyond stretched and face the very real prospect of running out of capacity if we cannot ‘flatten the curve’ and reduce the numbers of those who need urgent medical care. Governments are making decisions that will impact the lives and livelihoods of entire populations.

Economically, markets are still in shock. Stocks have seen their biggest falls since 1987, and it looks like a global recession is on the cards. Many industries are grinding to a halt. Firms in the tourism, retail and leisure sectors are facing existential crises. Supply chains are under extreme pressure as demand and supply fall out of sync. Both small and large businesses need emergency aid to survive.

Socially, we are facing the prospect of a long period of living and working very differently to how we were only weeks ago. Clamp downs on mass gatherings, restrictions on travel and potential isolation from family and friends are all very real. For the vulnerable these will be especially hard times as both their physical and mental resilience is tested.

The cry has gone up to “work from home” but the technology that supports this is also under strain. The mass migration from office to home has meant networks are bearing significantly more load. Some are used to working remotely, but many are not and are scrambling to upskill workforces in new platforms and ways of working.  And this is before we see the mass education of pupils from home all trying to stream virtual lessons.

Legally, emergency legislation is being rushed through to support the measures government needs to take to support the economy and protect wider society.

And this could be just the start of the disruptions we will need to adapt to across all aspects of our lives.

The new norm

But, however seemingly bleak the immediate outlook, out of severe disruption we are going to see innovation and reinvention on a scale we haven’t before. Many of the futurist ideas that have been talked about, and perhaps experimented with, are now going to be part of a huge global experiment in new ways of working, learning, socialising, surviving and thriving.

How we work for example, may well change for good. Whilst we may have previously ‘worked from home’ on occasion by choice, we are going to have to learn how to run entire organisations remotely.

One of the biggest tests is whether organisation’s have the technology and supporting processes and governance to support remote working. Those who don’t are already having to roll out solutions fast, without compromising on security. Businesses with significant contact centre operations will need to pivot sharply to deploy remote workers and AI based tools.

Remote access to core applications and collaboration tools, and the strain increased traffic is putting on internal networks, are just two of the major issues organisations are already encountering. Optimising application accessibility and maintaining critical infrastructure will be key to maintaining business continuity.

Workforce management solutions have never been so important. From ensuring remote working employees can submit hours and get paid correctly, to logging sickness and absence, these tools will become essential as we manage our employees in new ways.

And what about preparing for the post-pandemic environment? Will we come to realise that expensive, city-based real estate was a luxury we didn’t need after all? Could productivity soar if the daily commute is no longer required? Might we find we have more time for reskilling if we’re not in endless face-to-face meetings?

Learning across all stages of life could also be fundamentally changed forever. Sure, we’ve become used to online training and e-learning, but what if schools, colleges and universities are able to successfully transition to fully virtual platforms. Could we discover that a digital first approach does deliver for learners and that traipsing to a classroom or lecture hall becomes a relic of previous decades? Might the idea of a linear learning experience with single institutions be found to be redundant, and instead multiple subscriptions or pay-as-you-go models emerge as more desirable approaches?

And of course the question on the lips of most parents right now, as they prepare for the impending closure of schools, is how can their children continue their education and avoid any developmental setbacks? Especially when parents and guardians may be working remotely or caring for others.

Platforms that offer solutions to help minimise disruption to learning will be invaluable. If students can keep up to date with their work and revision via online solutions, and teachers can still run lessons and carry out assessments remotely, then perhaps we will see a new era of learning emerge.

Retail, manufacturing and consumer goods are also being disrupted. Traditional supply chains could be re-imagined so that we look to technologies such as 3D printing to help us to fulfil demand in real-time without the need for mass production and the inefficiencies of shipping goods across oceans and continents? Whether food, clothing or other day-to-day goods, could we unhook our reliance on the physical shipment of goods and instead look to ship the ‘recipe’ or code directly to our homes? Will we see a decreasing demand for more ‘stuff’ as we’re forced to change our consumption patterns?

We have also witnessed unintended consequences as a result of the pandemic. Could the drastic improvements in levels of pollution in the atmosphere and waterways in cities make us rethink our relationship with transport and the environment? Could the benefits of cleaner air accelerate the electronic vehicle revolution?

There is daily evidence emerging of community action aimed at supporting the more vulnerable who live in our cities, towns and villages. Will our role as citizens in our communities change as we rediscover our relationship with our neighbours and need to re-engage with those who live and work around our homes? Is there a new role for local authorities as accelerators and brokers of relationships, improving lives through transforming services,  as opposed to just being providers of services?  

We are also going to see how resilient certain businesses and business models are. Who is fragile and who can bend and re-shape to respond to the unfolding challenges? Those who have steadfastly refused to change at the pace digital technologies have demanded, will find that irrelevance comes fast. Those who can understand and anticipate needs and then build and execute at speed, with quality and at an acceptable price are going to thrive.

As anti-social becomes the new social, the office becomes just another room at home and living digitally first take hold we are going to see unprecedented levels of innovation and invention. We will be forced to make virtual living and relationships intimate and enriching. The new normal is going to be here much sooner than we thought.

Thinking about your organisation?