I live in Manila, a city that has been described by many as having some of the worst traffic jams in the world. Many of my friends and family had given up on the prospect of seeing an end to the gridlock that grips it every day. Then the unimaginable happened: Manila became a ghost town, its streets nearly empty. The Philippines government, along with many other governments around the world, imposed strict measures to limit the movement of people – requiring non-essential businesses to close and people to practice social distancing by staying at home in hopes of flattening the curve of infection brought about by COVID-19.
To say that COVID-19 has disrupted the normal way of life for people around the world would be an understatement. If there is a silver lining to any of this, it is that these conditions have also accelerated the adoption of digitally-enabled work and lifestyles that, in the long run, will create new opportunities to rethink how we live and work, and hopefully do it in a better way.
Telecommuting will be the new normal
As governments, schools and businesses rolled out measures to stop the spread of infection, organisations, even the holdouts and stragglers, have been forced to provide remote work options for their employees. The rollout of mobile devices, cloud services and online collaboration and conferencing tools has dramatically increased. Traditional barriers to adoption, such as public policy and regulations, have been lifted or updated to make telecommuting possible.
As more employees and their employers get used to remote working, the practice will likely continue even after the infection rates subside. Some companies may realise greater productivity or cost efficiencies, and there may be substantial social benefits as well: reduced road traffic, a reversal in urban migration, less strain on social services and generally less congestion.
Online and automated retail and consumer goods
At the height of the outbreak in Wuhan, services such as Meituan Dianping, JD.com, Alibaba and others kept commerce running by delivering food and essential goods to consumers ordering via mobile apps and paying via digital payment channels. While adoption of online-to-offline consumer services in China was already very high before COVID-19, it further increased and evolved with the adoption of fully contactless delivery solutions such as drones and autonomous vehicles.
The same pattern has been seen in other countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is estimated that e-commerce could increase to become 40 per cent of retail sales. Consumers who have been hesitant to buy online will be driven by necessity as retail establishments close to minimise risk. This will hasten an ongoing sea-change in terms of buying preferences and behaviour that will reshape the retail industry. Companies should be ready to offer their products on digital channels and possibly rethink how they engage and conduct business with customers. More forward-looking retailers should also consider how they can leverage autonomous vehicles to move their products along different points in their supply chain or straight to consumers in a more cost-effective way in the future.
Virtual and on-demand education, media and entertainment
As events around the world are cancelled, many have turned to digital tools as an alternative to holding classes, conferences, shows and other mass gatherings.
Schools and universities have accelerated delivering their classes via online platforms such as massive online open courses to make up for cancellations. The non-profit Khan Academy in the United States has started providing online study guides to its already large library of online materials, to help parents and teachers provide supplemental learning materials while children are at home.
Sporting events, concerts, business conferences and other major events have also embraced digital channels. Major tech conferences have moved to an online-only virtual format, where people can dial in and interact with the speakers and one another. In Germany, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra made its entire music library free for a limited time, so that customers can attend virtual concerts.
While digital consumption has long been a trend, the current global crisis is greatly accelerating its ubiquity. In the future, it could become the default, rather than an alternative way of consuming content.
The new normal is digital
The COVID-19 pandemic is an unfortunate “Black Swan”, or an unexpected and hard-to-predict event. Although it is certainly a crisis, there are opportunities as well: a chance to rethink how we do things, change how we behave and transform our organisations to adopt new realities. The crisis has hit at a time when the shift to digital had been developing, and now that shift has accelerated dramatically. The new normal is digital, and those who have not made the shift would be wise to adopt it as soon as they can.