COVID-19 will force businesses and governments to fundamentally rethink. This will have fast, drastic and permanent implications for society, writes India Inc. Founder and CEO Manoj Ladwa.
- COVID-19 is forcing companies to fundamentally rethink work patterns and environments, and encourage staff to work from home.
- Companies are looking at virtual meetings as a temporary solution, but it could lead to a spurt in more blended virtual and real-world experiences in the future.
- With the prospect of parliaments and courts around the world having to close, the opportunity for e-governance solutions is very real.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the other day that it is possible that around 80 per cent of the German population will suffer from COVID-19 in the coming weeks. Similarly, the UK government has predicted that up to a fifth of its workforce will be off work during the peak of the crisis. Germany is the engine of Europe. The UK, and especially the City of London, is the financial capital of the world. Both these economic powerhouses are now encouraging businesses to consider working from home. In fact, it is likely that at some point soon, this will become mandatory.
Working from home has been a growing trend in recent years, especially in western economies. It has been almost a natural result of better internet connectivity, the erosion of gender stereotypes, with men taking on more household responsibilities including childcare, and a general desire of better work-life balance through flexible working.
But these trends have been broadly organic. COVID-19 is, however, forcing companies to fundamentally rethink and, in many cases, will fast forward what would otherwise have been a natural progression in human behaviour.
For instance, the insurance sector has traditionally been ahead of each curve of a modernising workforce having embraced outsourcing and home working well before most other sectors. Many companies have been experimenting with the next frontier in fintech, which include artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). With COVID-19, and a bleak few months (at least) ahead, there could not have been a better time for the age-old English proverb ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ to see a turbo boosting of AI and ML initiatives.
The consequences may be great for consumers, as we have seen in the case of the emergence of some really exciting Challenger Banks. But home working or not, historically, super well-paid professions such as actuarial science, could stand to lose the most and much faster.
Similarly, the exhibitions business will take a huge hit. I understand that one leading UK-based exhibitions and conferencing company, which was about to be taken over by a US private equity firm for a staggering multiple, is now suddenly fighting for its very survival. Some of the fast-thinking events companies are seeing this as an opportunity to launch virtual conferences and enhance delegate experiences through the better use of virtual reality. This will probably only be a temporary fix, but may also lead to a spurt in new, more blended virtual and real-world experiences in this sector.
I foresee a big opportunity for radical and permanent change in the education and healthcare sectors with more impetus for e-learning and people getting used to accessing healthcare through medtech enabled services. This could have obvious cost-saving benefits and a spurt to these industries.
With the prospect of parliaments and courts around the world having to close, the opportunity for e-governance solutions is very real and, in my view, very doable. Cyber security platforms will obviously have to raise their game, but the opportunity for more democratisation of governance is immense. The UK government, for instance, will need to rethink quickly whether it wishes to invest billions in new buildings in the north of England to address regional imbalance, or take a quantum leap of faith and invest in better IT literacy and create e-work opportunities in its regions as an alternative model.
COVID-19 is also challenging businesses with some obvious and not so obvious issues in workforce welfare. The obvious is protecting the health of their staff as best they can, ensuring all health precautions are strictly followed, including the rather awkward ‘no handshakes’ policy. But what is less obvious is the possible mental health issues that will arise as a result of people being forced to work in isolation, and perhaps without supervision, for protracted periods of time. The risk of technology being the fabled double-edged sword as both an enabler and a divider is high.
There will always be jobs that we can’t do or won’t do remotely. What COVID-19 does is bring into fast focus what our society of the future could look like. I expect by the end of these horrid few months, we will be much more comfortable with the virtual and the real co-existing, and in doing so will have changed forever the way we live, work, govern, and also play!