The capacity among human beings for reinvention, adaptation and even optimism in the face of difficulty has been astonishingly brought to light.
The global pandemic wreaking havoc across the world is first and foremost a public health crisis.
But it’s also an economic crisis. In March the United Nations predicted the likely cost to the global economy as a result of COVID19 would be $1trillion. One doomsday scenario suggested the hit could be double that figure.
And yet among the gloom there’s a positive energy driving creativity in the way businesses are managing; one that experts say will shape the future.
Digital transformation has been a lucrative topic for writers and keynote speakers to ruminate on for a decade in which actual progress has been slow if not stagnant.
COVID19 has been the crash course of shock therapy that triggered action. The pandemic, say observers, has accelerated the future of work.
Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategy officer at global advertising giant Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, told Campaign this week that it took him a few days to realise “we’re never going back”.
Mawdsley talks of how past cultural trends and world events formed mindsets and ‘tribes’ – millennials, Generation Z, the Smartphone Generation – and says this new global shock has “brought everyone together as one: Generation Lockdown.”
Mawdsley says, “the biggest global event since the Second World War”, has impacted our views on everything from the role of government to personal freedom, community and our attitude towards strangers, global travel, personal and mental health and our attitude to death.
It’s partly the job of people like Mawdsley – those inhabiting the world of marketing and advertising – to draw insights and make predictions from events occurring around us. By their nature such opinions can risk hyperbole.
But there’s evidence to suggest we’re preparing for a new normal. Digital marketing training organisation Econsultancy says it has trained more than 5,000 workers on best practice for effective remote working in the past three weeks alone.
And this shift in working practices hasn’t been restricted to the regular ‘early adopters’. The evolution of work has been fast, experimental – nobody had a map or a guidebook for this change – and universal.
Sankar Sivarajah, Professor of Technology Management and Circular Economy at Bradford University says the recent and forced transition to web-based platforms as a result of the Covid19 outbreak, will come to be seen as a permanent and positive change; a transition occurring across all industries including education.
“[Our] University has embraced web-based learning, a process which would normally have taken about two years to implement but which has been completed in just two weeks,” writes Sivarajah.
“Other businesses are also finding different ways to engage with customers. Restaurants and pubs have switched to a ‘take-out’ model and making much more use of cloud computing platforms.”
Outside of work too, people spanning every demographic are suddenly comfortable accessing and sharing online mindfulness sessions, virtual gym classes, store cupboard cooking tips, choir rehearsals and book clubs.
Sivarajah says the virus has fast-tracked the sharing economy and notes that in the past, the lack of need to think about our behaviour or alternative ways of doing things “created boundaries”.
Professor Sivarajah’s contention bears out in the usage data for communication platforms that until recently were almost the exclusive domain of those working in the digital technology industries.
Users of the video conferencing platform Zoom quadrupled in recent weeks according to JPMorgan analysts while Microsoft says cloud usage of its Teams communications suite has grown “nearly 800%”.
Reported by Marketwatch, the provider of global financial news, JPMorgan’s Sterling Auty wrote in a client note that the Coronavirus experience has provided a “wake-up call” to enterprises about the benefits of remote work.
However, according to author and ‘work futurist’ Heather McGowan, the changes that stand to become foundations of a new approach to work are not just to do with technology but more to do with culture and attitude.
Coronavirus, McGowan told Forbes magazine last week, might be the great catalyst for business transformation – one that unfolds in weeks rather than years.
“There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make the case [for culture change],” says McGowan.
Trust and empathy became vital in the flash moment that “our giant corporate campuses became ghost towns”, McGowan says. We’ve quickly learned to use Slack, Zoom and Hangouts to meet, collaborate but also just to connect with humans.
Bosses, says McGowan, have had to learn to trust that out of sight does not mean out of mind; employees have had to juggle deadlines and corporate responsibilities with childcare and family. Meetings have become both more relaxed as we see our colleagues on screens in their home settings with cats and children climbing over them, but also leaner and more efficient. It’s awkward to keep colleagues in a meeting longer than necessary when you know they’re also trying to scramble lunch together for their hungry children.
You could argue this was always coming but despite a steady shift towards flexibility, businesses that accommodated wholesale remote working practices remained outliers only weeks ago.
The spread of a killer virus, many feel, will come to be seen as the moment we grasped the opportunity to revolutionise work.
Few people would be brave enough to call the time on the corporate HQ but the nature of our commercial bases are sure to be affected. Future teams will be tapped from a global pool of highly skilled workers. Employees will expect the choice of staying local and working at or close to home. When there is advantage to be gained in travelling to physical meetings, venues are more likely to be flexible hubs and shared workspaces than large, shiny plants, steeped in proud history and legacy.
In what is an undeniably frightening time with so many questions still unanswered, we should acknowledge the shards of optimism. While the task of kickstarting the economy back to full health merits a proper conversation, pockets of that economy haven’t stopped but instead adapted.
And many of our new behaviours: the establishment of heartfelt support systems for neighbours and vulnerable members of our communities; the positive effect our reduction in travel will likely have on climate change; the permission to spend more time with our families – these will not disappear when the world returns to ‘normal’.
“Everything has changed,” Craig Mawdsley told Campaign.”The plans you put on hold can’t just be reheated in the microwave.”
Indeed, microwave reheating now feels like a habit from a bygone era. In the face of a global emergency, we’ve relearned to gather ingredients and cook from scratch.
The creativity and reinvention that business sleepily theorised over for years just left the starting line.