The disastrous pandemic
This year has, undoubtedly, been the worst year for the world since the years of the Second World War. We have seen – at the time of writing – 1,328,496 deaths from COVID-19. That is a horrifying figure for a virus. In Britain, we have seen the death count rise – again, at the time of writing – to over 68,000. We have also seen tremendous pressure on the National Health Service to the point that the pandemic has caused a mass pause in cancer treatment and essential health services.
Going back to January, we saw the Government briefing ministers and Tory MPs, while other European countries were taking action to quell the pandemic as much as possible, to say that herd immunity would be a way to come out of the virus. They were aware, back then, of the World Health Organisation’s (albeit late) warning about the virus and its impact and chose to do nothing.
That was a choice, and it is indisputable: Procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was not in line with any guidance at all by four successive governments. Most of it was way past expiry.
The mental health impact has also been dreadful. This is the first time in the vast majority of the population’s lifetimes in which friends and family have not been able to see each other for a significant proportion of the year. Countless people in Britain have lost their spouses, partners, grandparent/s, mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle and cousins with the deaths.
With people losing their jobs, being furloughed or working from home, there is a lack of an ordinary routine. Routine is key to mental health, and this is of course being broken for everyone. Many people who are working from home do not have their own separate working space – i.e. those who have no choice but to live in shared housing – and this can be extremely harmful to mental health.
Reasons to be optimistic
However, there is news to be cautiously optimistic about vaccines and, the pandemic and its effects on us – i.e. how humanity can learn and develop from this. Pfizer’s vaccine appears to help prevent 90% of COVID-19 cases, or at least reduce its severity. We have seen further good news from Moderna, whose vaccine is 95% effective, has greater shelf life and does not have to be kept at quite such a low temperature. We can also expect good news on Oxford/AstraZeneca in the coming weeks, it would seem.
Good changes to ways of working
There is a balance to be struck here, but many people prefer working from home because it gives them greater flexibility and family time. The average commute time in the UK is 59 minutes. Consider all that saved time. Those who can’t afford to live in London and so have had to commute have found themselves getting a very sweet deal indeed: They are still living outside of a heavily-polluted city, with an employer there and having to commute where necessary, but are largely working from home. And those of us who are further up the north of England still save in this respect, freeing up much-needed money to spend to stimulate the economy and, for many of us millennials, save for mortgages.
We saw the announcement – very early in the pandemic – that Twitter will make it an option for those who can work from home a permanent feature of their perks, if they can, and if they want to.
Many people do not want to work from home on a long-term basis because, for example, they live alone. I count myself as someone who might feel lonely on some workdays if that is the case but having the flexibility of choice would be nice. After all, after the pandemic, I will not be as isolated. Even during it, I have a support bubble.
Clearly, tech businesses are best placed to make the move to remote office settings, but it has not been difficult in my workplace because of the readiness that we had put in place.
The future of work
KPMG predicts: “HR must swiftly transition from putting out the fires of the immediate impact of COVID-19 and its aftermath and switch to playing the long game of shaping the workforce of the future for their enterprises. But this switch requires new mindsets, skills and priorities,” said Robert Bolton, Head of Global People and Change Center of Excellence, KPMG International. “Lasting impacts, including the fact that nearly 40 percent of employees will continue to work remotely and perhaps others in a hybrid model of attendance, means that a new reality has to be contended with. The pandemic has presented HR with a significant opportunity to transform not just the function, but the enterprise itself.”
Many businesses are following this trend. At first, we expected to come in and out of lockdown, eventually re-emerging with workplaces changing. Most offices are not doing that, following government advice – and it does not seem that this will necessarily be the case in the long-term. There will be a sea change.
With 40% of employees standing to being given the choice to continue to work from home, carbon emissions are sure to fall: We saw nature itself healing during the height of the pandemic, with less waste being dumped into the oceans, and a reduction in people driving to work, this looks set to continue.
As energy companies are being incentivised to switch to green energy by both the regulatory framework in addition to consumers voting with their wallets, this again brings further good news in that respect. Those who do work from home will have the luxury of being able to choose a green energy supplier.
Overall market impact and its impact
Clearly, COVID-19 has had a woeful effect on the economy and what is rightly crucial to the man on the street: Jobs. The recovery of these jobs will be curious, because business (the below is from the US PwC Pulse Report) are reading signals and investing money within technology.
That is one reason why, as part of fiscal expansionary growth efforts by the UK Government, there is a focus on retraining. The pandemic has sped up the growth of embracing cutting-edge technology by business.
Those answering the PwC Pulse Report, crucially, are looking to contain costs. This makes sense: All businesses attempt to contain costs, but the movement on this has shifted to technology and the uptake of what was already out there.
Investment planning is fortunately increasing because the market is not as frit as it was in the early phases of the pandemic. An increase in both standard investment and also research and development will, if all usual rules apply, result in yet further advancements of technology and its uptake by business.
When asked the question, “What about the current situation will make your company better in the long run?”, businesses in the US answered as follows.
All of this is good news for both consumers, employees and employers: Flexible working arrangements will introduce a greater work-life balance; resilience and agility includes mental health; new ways to serve customers are already being introduced in the high street; and technology investments that have long been overdue are happening and leaner operations tend to lead to greater efficiency and productivity outcomes. One curious outcome is community and societal engagement, and it makes me ponder whether the private sector is taking its responsibilities with respect to the third sector properly now: We have seen a huge increase on demand for charitable services, and with savings elsewhere, brand image can be bolstered by donations to the third sector.
Mechanics of digitalisation
In my job, I am responsible for digitalisation. I had, prior to the pandemic, set up Microsoft Teams within the office environment. This meant that the switch was significantly easier: We did not have to adapt to new meeting styles as many did. VOIP phones meant that we could switch easily from home. Work mobiles were ordered and issued overnight. This stuff happened everywhere, and we now know that the technology has been there for years; it has just been that digital migrants have not caught up with what is already there.
Not just that, but Remote Desktop Connection for Windows has existed now for decades. If your machine is on at work, you can access it from home.
With modern Customer Relationship Management systems and out-of-the-box print-to-post solutions, it is easy to switch that stuff, too. All it takes is calm thinking in that first part.
It also sped up our digitalisation efforts with respect to remote service provision – i.e. offering our clients the ability to interact with us via Zoom, Teams, Steam, ad nauseum, and a litany of other platforms. Yes, it was hard, but it worked.
The end of face-to-face meetings and the wasted drive
I had always wondered why anyone ever needed to get in their car for the purpose, unless there was a specific requirement for seeing an organisation, of anything but a handshake. Most meetings for development purposes can, and should, involve nobody driving. We should not pollute the planet that we live on for the purpose of face-to-face meetings.
As we have known for years, as people either in employment or seeking, that digitalisation and artificial intelligence has been the key to development of the things that matter: Jobs.
We have been warned by the doom-mongers that all our jobs will be replaced by artificial intelligence and robotics. While that may be the case in blue-collar jobs, it is not the same in white-collar. Unless you are an accountant or a solicitor, you need not be worried. And if you are any of those things, you should place your bets that there will be no further co-operation between international states.
Artificial intelligence has not been able to demonstrate human creativity in terms of writing, art, marketing and indeed any other creative industry to date. It has not been able to operate on animals like us and our pets. 6G Will make remote operations, in real time, possible: Technology geeks, like me, forecasted this a long time ago.
I am hoping, that through the technology that already existed and has been taken up by all of us with respect to our own practices within the office environment.
The increase in demand, and indeed supply, for working from home as an alternative to the classical model, will undoubtedly happen naturally.
Nobody yet knows what will happen as we emerge from the pandemic, but we can all guess. Since – at least in white collar jobs – we have all taken advantage of existing technology, we will be able to work from home. We will be able to mix with each other once again once the vaccinations are administered.
The sun will shine again on a new Earth: One with a greater focus on the climate, since we’ve been forced into it; one with a greater focus on mental wellbeing – with any luck; and one that embraces technology that has existed for years and indeed has saved a great number of jobs and sectors of our economy.