Over the past two months, the coronavirus pandemic has developed into what UN Secretary-General António Guterres described as the “greatest test” the global community has faced since World War II. Indeed, news of the situation has largely been bleak: On Wednesday, April 15th, the total number of recorded Covid-19 cases has surpassed two million globally with over 130,000 deaths. Furthermore, recent statistics show that the virus has already spread to 210 states, while the UK, Brazil and Russia have become the latest countries facing major outbreaks.
Nevertheless, recent news also suggest glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel. Several countries that were hit hardest have now overcome the peak of the virus, while others show signs of success in ‘flattening the curve’ of new daily infections. In Asia, China and South Korea, and Taiwan have now been able to contain the spread of the virus and are getting busy restarting the economy. In Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the country would cautiously start lifting the lockdown measures, with Spain and Italy announcing similar steps of allowing a fraction of non-essential workers to return to work and small businesses to reopen. The USA, which has been hit hardest by the pandemic, is also showing signs that social distancing and other measures have been successful in reducing new infections.
With these positive developments in mind, businesses are naturally looking forward to the prospects of reopening and returning to ‘normalcy’. This hope in a quick V-shaped snapback or recovery, however, may be wrongly placed. Just like World War II reshuffled the global power-deck and ushered in major social change, many experts have warned that the coronavirus pandemic will similarly bring about a ‘new normal’ in which governments and businesses alike will be challenged to adapt to an unprecedented post-pandemic reality. As such it is vital for businesses and organizations to understand how the business landscape will change and consider various strategies in overcoming these challenges.
By tracking relevant news and analysing key trends on social media, we can shed some light on critical forecasts for the near and long-term future and uncover key strategies that can help businesses overcome this crisis and adapt to imminent change.
To plan for the near future, it is important to understand how long the coronavirus will continue to pose a threat to society. One possible answer to this question can be found in the article “How the Pandemic Will End” written by Ed Yong, a science journalist at The Atlantic. Since its publication on March 25th, the article has been shared over one million times on Twitter and Facebook and received widespread praise by several high profile people, including former US President Barack Obama, who holds the most followed account on Twitter (115 Million Followers). Yong provides an overview of the likely scenarios the world will be facing in the coming months and argues that the only viable endgame to the pandemic is to “play whack-a-mole with the coronavirus” suppressing it until a vaccine can be produced”. This process, he believes, would be long and complicated and could take up to 18-24 months, during which new waves of outbreaks are likely to arise. In his most recent article “Our Pandemic Summer” which is also gaining significant media traction (Over fifty thousand shares since April 15th), Yong highlights several challenges to restarting businesses in the near future, including that rushing to reopen without proper measures could lead to a false sense of security in employers. As such it is imperative that businesses approach the reopening of their operations in a steady and methodical way.
With strict quarantine and stay-at-home orders enacted by governments around the world, many companies have adopted remote-work policies to keep operations running. This has been particularly apparent within social media coverage: With over 220,000 combined mentions since the beginning of March, the hashtags #workfromhome and #workingfromhome have surged and are some of the most used keywords during the pandemic. With the development of a viable vaccine still many months away, it is unlikely that many big businesses are able to have their employees back in the office at full capacity soon and without strict measures. In fact, many experts and professionals believe that working from from home could remain even after the crisis has passed as many companies were pleasantly surprised to find that online-only operations have worked well. Global Workplace Analytics predicted that 30 percent of people will work from home multiple days per week within a couple of years, while research and advisory firm Gartner noted that there has been a surge in demand by companies asking to put remote work solutions in place. As one Gartner analyst summarised it: “It’s an old-school mentality to think you have to have a presence in an office and [...] once people adjust to working from home, they actually do more work”.
If working from home is to become a stable part of operations for businesses, employers will be forced to think about adopting new and innovative processes and technologies to try and make up for benefits of working in a shared office space. Social media coverage suggests that this is already happening: With over 20,000 mentions between 1 March to 15 April, the hashtag #futureofwork has been trending during the pandemic, with viral posts showing that several tech companies have focused on the development of innovative tools to be used for work, including Holographic teleconferencing to make up for the loss of face-to-face interactions when working remotely. While these technologies are still in development, companies, for now, are increasingly turning to video call services such as Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts for internal communication.
In particular, Zoom has had a remarkable boost in popularity during the crisis. Since the beginning of March, Zoom has been mentioned in over 630,000 posts on Twitter and Facebook, which is significantly higher than Skype’s 200,000 and Google Hangouts’ 25,000 mentions. With the top hashtags including #workfromhome, #wfh and #webinar, it suggests that Zoom has become a stable part of work for many employees’. This surge in popularity however didn’t come without criticism, spikes in coverage at the beginning of April showed that social media users had picked up on news revealing serious security and privacy issues as Zoom didn’t use end-to-end encryption for its video calls, which resulted in numerous incidents where hackers and trolls were able to disrupt private video calls. In response, governments from India, Taiwan and Singapore as well as major companies like Tesla, Google, and Siemens have recently banned its employees from using Zoom. While Zoom itself has promised to fix the issues and even hired the ex-security chief of Facebook to help, this story suggests that privacy has become of increased importance for businesses in their quest to create and incorporate new technologies into their operations.
During a pandemic, strong measures around safety are, of course, key for businesses to restart operations. Naturally, implementing social distancing in the office, conducting routine temperature checks, and providing disinfectants and facemasks are essential to keeping employees safe. But these measures alone will not be sufficient to overcome the new challenges of the post-pandemic world and businesses with more traditional business models will be forced to make more structural changes to stay afloat. Creating a more agile business model through digitization or pursuing strategies to cater to emerging demands will be key for future survival.
Several experts have argued that those companies that are fast-tracking digital transformation will be the ones staying ahead of the competition. Many recent events, such as Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference going virtual, suggest that some companies are already moving in that direction. McDonald’s, for example, has been working on its digital transformation even before the Covid-19 Pandemic emerged. Its efforts to stay agile and integrate technology into daily business operations has paid off as it was particularly well prepared to weather and adapt to the coronavirus outbreak. During the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China, its food franchises have implemented no-contact delivery services to ensure the safety of both customers and employees. The installation of digital kiosks in its stores also helped to make ordering food more efficient and limit person-to-person interaction. It has also continued to develop and improve its mobile app to provide more customer-friendly services and is using big-data analysis to determine the peak business hours and learn customer habits.
The post-pandemic economy in many countries will likely look very different than before and certain industries will struggle and may not survive if they don’t cater their businesses model to new demands. Several studies are already predicting which sectors consumers will turn to. In Southeast Asia for example sectors expected to benefit from increased consumer spending are likely healthcare, pharmaceutical, consumer electronics, logistics, sports/body wellness and education. As such, brands may need to actively look how to tap into these sectors.
A great example of a company catering to new demand has been Uber. With social distancing measures in place, sharing closed spaces such as cars with strangers is and will be avoided by many people around the world in the near and long-term future. Consequently, demand for ride-hailing companies like Uber has dived significantly, with reports showing that journeys managed by the Uber app in the US have fallen by 94%. However, the company has found a new way to adapt its operations to this new business environment. Earlier in April, it announced the launch of ‘Work Hub’, to help drivers find alternative gig work as demand for rides has plummeted. Through the Work Hub, Uber drivers can connect with three Uber platforms: Uber Eats (food deliveries), Uber Freight (trucking), and Uber Works (blue-collar temp shifts)”. Drivers are even allowed to respond to openings of several external companies looking to hire, including McDonald's, PepsiCo, UPS, and 7-Eleven. Forbes wrote that the move from ride-sharing to labour-sharing could mark the beginning of Uber’s long-term expansion into all kinds of work, which is likely to be in high demand in a post-COVID-19 economy: “By moving into general casual and temporary work with its Work Hub, Uber is signalling the direction that the rest of the gig economy is likely to travel in the medium- and long-term”.
The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. It is difficult to determine exactly what the future holds and how the world will look like when we come out of this. No doubt many businesses and economies will struggle, already we are seeing record new unemployment claims in the USA, while China has reported its first GDP decline in Q1 since 1992. Nevertheless, what the crisis has shown is that governments which acted quickly and decisively and used innovative solutions to confront the threat were able to prevent the loss of countless lives and stop their economies from spiraling into disaster. It is imperative that businesses do the same by continuing to look ahead, adapt to new realities, and keep a can-do attitude.