In a few short weeks, the way we all see the future has forever changed. Strategy planning, leadership, innovation, and corporate-culture building will never be the same.
For the better part of a decade, we’ve been talking about how our world’s pace of change is accelerating, and how the future arrives even more quickly than most of us think. We stand corrected. The future arrived more quickly than any of us thought, and with devastating impact. COVID-19 has engulfed our world at unprecedented speed. As we write in May 2020, we have 4.7 million confirmed cases and more than 315,000 fatalities, according to the World Economic Forum.
And suddenly, the work of reimagining our communities and organizations to survive in an uncertain future has been fast-tracked. As soon as organizations began to get their arms around the pandemic’s immediate safety and operational challenges, the conversation quickly turned to the future of work.
Which workplace trends are temporarily, and which will continue after the world slowly opens up for business? What are the associated cultural, economic, and technological shifts we can expect in the future workplace?
In our current situation, many of us find it helpful to separate our strategic planning into three parts. How effective and appropriate was our pre-pandemic strategy? As we adjust our actions to thrive in this unprecedented reality, how do we anticipate and prepare for future disruptions?
Pre COVID-19: Strategy planning and traditional business
The current pandemic has affected every industry, but we’ve never seen global transformation as fast and far-reaching as in the current pandemic. Though many organizations frame disruption in terms of economics and industry competition, the current crisis has prompted us to think about disruption more broadly. According to futurist Amy Webb, there are 11 sources of “macro-disruption” that include education, infrastructure, government, geopolitics, economy, public health, demographics, environment, telecommunications, wealth distribution, and technology.
COVID-19: Strategy planning and transitional business
COVID-19’s rapid disruption of the personal and professional lives of billions around the world has impacted us in many different ways. The current phase represents the end of “business as usual” as every nation struggles to ensure the safety of its citizens. Every business today must be sensitive to the toll this crisis takes on employees, customers and the community at large.
The biggest worries companies have about the COVID-19 crisis include prolonged recession, bankruptcies, cybersecurity, and the inability of entire industries that have been disrupted to recover, according to the World Economic Forum.
Post-COVID-19: Strategy planning and the Faster Future
The economic, political, and technology trends that have influenced the fates of organizations and industries have moved at warp speed over the last several weeks. While industries such as airlines, hospitality and live entertainment were quickly shuttered, other industries were able to pivot and add value during these extraordinary times. Other industries, such as those supporting distance learning, video conferencing and telehealth, have grown exponentially as millions of people adapted to distancing requirements and remote work. Here are some ways COVID-19 has shuffled the deck very quickly:
In traditional times, telehealth faced a number of barriers to adoption, including the reluctance to trust critical medical decisions to emerging technologies that are unfamiliar to many of us. But as the pandemic pushed healthcare systems around the world beyond capacity, much of that reluctance disappeared overnight. In response to COVID-19, in March 2020, Medstar Health teamed with technology vendor Bluestream Health to launch telemedicine services.
Within weeks after the service launched, the service had scaled from two visits per week to more than 100,000 video sessions between March 23 to May 1. In addition to scaling rapidly, telemedicine protects workers and has the potential to deliver faster, more affordable care to each patient.
After years of experimentation with distance learning, educators around the world received a violent shove into the future. With schools closed and onsite learning out of the question, much of the world’s classrooms quickly converted to distance models, with varying degrees of success. With more sophisticated edtech, including robotic instructors, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), physical distance may be replaced by digital closeness.
With AR, the instructor’s voice can literally be heard in the student’s head and the lesson perceived in her vision. Traditional educators believed 90% or learning came from classroom training. Now we’re moving toward something closer to 70% practicing and application, 20% coaching, mentoring, and 10% classroom time.
Speed of transformation as a competitive advantage
The current crisis has brought the idea of speed as a competitive advantage to the fore in the battle with COVID-19. As we rapidly build the capabilities, to test, treat and vaccinate, many organizations are realizing the importance of speed and agility in the post-COVID world. While some organizations have been shocked into inaction, others have quickly pivoted their business models to survive and thrive.
Again, our traditional assumptions about organizational learning are challenged. Many organizations have changed their business model very quickly, with little or no retraining or restaffing. For example, Ohio-based Aunt Flow, a distributor of menstrual products, quickly added FDA-Certified Medical 3-Layer Disposable Masks to their offerings to keep business going during the pandemic.
There is a general awareness that all types of organizations need to accelerate innovation with rapid experimentation, but this awareness must now be put into practice. We are seeing the “acceleration of acceleration.” It’s something like driving along and suddenly being caught in the middle of a sandstorm. Though our first impulse might be to hit the brakes to survive, we must instead step on the accelerator pedal and move faster.
In the past, we may have taken days to travel, perform innovation exercises and build prototypes. Today, we don’t need to spend three days with sticky notes. Instead we use digital whiteboards, and virtual collaboration tools, forces teams to confront in-person,’
Prototyping sessions in digital space are easier to capture, preserve and update. Traditional whiteboards are limited by physical size and tools. With virtual whiteboards, sharing is instantaneous and there’s no limit to how large or complex your visualizations can be. Cloud-based collaboration features enable real-time comments and updates, and integration with productivity applications allow file sharing and syncing. New virtual tools and strategies will become the norm and enable us to go from ideation to market much faster.
In recent years, the impact of AI in healthcare has been remarkable. AI has become a powerful force in drug discovery with its ability to recognize patterns and make predictions from massive amounts of data. Healthcare professionals are looking to AI-enabled tools to help identify drugs to combat COVID-19 that could be tested on prospects within months, not years.
LabCorp, a clinical laboratory organization, has teamed up with healthtech company Ciox Health to collaborate on the use of AI to learn why COVID-19 affects individuals in different ways. Their collaboration leverages machine learning and natural language processing to make sense of the unstructured information contained in medical records. The information is then analyzed to help predict an individual’s susceptibility to the virus. By mid-April LabCorp had completed 650,000 COVID-19 tests. Prior to that, few people were tested until they were incapacitated.
Stung by the downturn in its ride-sharing service, Uber rolled out two new services in April 2020. Uber Direct focuses on home delivery of retail items, while Uber Connect is a peer-to-peer platform designed for the exchange of items between family and friends. Uber hopes to expand these services and grow Uber Eats as the demand for food delivery has surged during the current crisis. In addition, as more people question the safety of in-person delivery, it’s likely that the sight of food and service-delivery robots cruising down our urban sidewalks will become commonplace.
Pre-crisis, at the Mid-Ohio Food Bank (where Nick serves as Chief Platform Officer) they believed automating food distribution and curbside delivery is the way of the future. Before, the food bank’s goal was to get people to food, but the goal quickly transformed to getting food to people. This shows that we should not assume that consumer habits take months or years to change. For example, contactless transactions in delivering food were a small consideration. Today, safety, convenience and rapid food distribution trumps all. In the future, we can expect to see fewer and fewer people waiting in long lines for food as we move to online distribution and delivery. For example, the FreshTrak platform is being developed to connect people in need with local food distribution resources and events.
In short order, online shopping has transformed from a convenience to a necessity for many people. But what happens to retail malls and shopping outlets around the world that already were struggling to attract foot traffic to their locations? While some retailers are working on enhancing the online shopping experience online in creative ways, others are shuttering stores completely. Home goods retailer Pier 1 recently announced its decision to close more than all of its 540 stores and is seeking court approval to cease operations. When safety is an issue, many of us will no longer be willing to visit a mall and face the crowds for an afternoon of “retail therapy.”
Robotics and drones
You probably have seen images of drones being used to distribute food and medical supplies, and even to warn people to maintain social distancing. Robots also have been pressed into service to disinfect subways, office buildings, and fitness centers. Robots also are helping retailers with inventory when shipped merchandise may carry a virus. In call centers, chatbots are supplementing or replacing human operators to answer the flood of COVID-19 related questions.
We are now getting a violent shove into safety. Whereas the primary driver of robotic adoption used to be economics, we now begin to see more of an emphasis on security and protection of our health and well-being. Non-intrusive robots taking care of work that is dangerous to humans will become commonplace. We will allow ourselves to pay more for robotics that preserve our health and safety, and the current crisis may have the long-term effect of accelerating the adoption of bots across industries.
Privacy & Security
With more digital activities and devices making their way into our lives, we must step up our abilities to secure our online privacy and security. If we were at 50%, we’re now at 80+. Predators feed on fear, that leaves hackers, con artists are taking advantage of COVID-19. Enterprises around the world who have focused on the security of internal IT infrastructure must now include remote access and other work-from-home technologies in their broader security strategy. For organizations in the early stages of digital transformation, the pandemic provides a shove into the future as IT leaders plan for new hybrid environments that include both open and closed network components to balance collaboration, flexibility, and security. .
Work-life balance and transformation
The work-life balance equation has shifted faster than any of us could predict. The main questions now are around how the work-from-home and virtual meeting trends will fare after the crisis. We like to think of the new normal as a chance to create the new better.
The current conditions are requiring many of us to bring our whole selves to work, including casual clothing, unkempt sheltering-in-place hairstyles, and cameo appearances by children pets during video conferences. Noisy backgrounds and interruptions are all accepted as a matter of course while we work our way through the crisis. It’s an opportunity to be more authentic and get through this crisis and be better going forward. It’s time to create the new better.
Facebook and Google both have announced plans to have employees work from home until 2021. And though the company occupies some of the world’s most expensive real estate, San-Francisco based Twitter recently announced that it would permit employees to work from home indefinitely, even in the post-COVID-19 era. The company also provides its staff a $1,000 credit for supplies related to working from home.
Though few companies will follow Twitter’s lead, the current crisis may slow the momentum of the global trend toward urbanization. It’s been projected that by 2050, close to 7 billion people will occupy urban areas, according to Our World in Data. Much of our current workforce chooses where to live based on considerations such as commuting times and proximity to schools and family. Digital nomads In the future will factor in safety as they choose where to locate.
The current crisis served as a call to reinvent residential real estate. The $33 trillion real estate industry has seen major changes in the last few years that are likely to be greatly accelerated by COVID-19 and the resulting recovery period. Many of these trends are driven by the wave of US employees currently working at home. About 7% of US civilian workers had the option to work from home as a workplace benefit, though 40% have jobs that could be done remotely, according to the Pew Research Center.
New research from Zillow about Americans working from home due to COVID-19 finds:
- 56% of US employees potentially are able to work from home, and a most want to continue to work at home on occasion
- 75% of Americans working from home would prefer to continue that doing so in post-pandemic times
- 66% are somewhat likely to consider moving if they had the flexibility to work from home as often as they want
- 24% percent of US workers considered moving as a result of spending more time at home
For these reasons and more, the real estate industry’s recovery is likely to look very different than in past downturns.
Over time, our workspaces have shifted from offices to cubicles to open floor plans. But the offices and workspaces we return to post-pandemic are likely to be somewhat different than those we left, according to Steelcase, a supplier of office equipment and technology. Physical distancing will include more distance between desks, removing guest chairs, adding barriers, and enhancing cleaning and safety measures. In addition, because social distancing means fewer employees in a given space, business leaders must focus on supporting those who are working from home longer.
The adoption of touchless office technology, including remote access for locks and thermostats, will become standard going forward. With the use of augmented reality (AR) the difference between digital you and physical you will begin to converge into a mixed reality. The amenities that draw you into the office — productivity apps, high bandwidth, and the prestige of having a large headquarters may not be as strong. When we need to be in the office, we will, when we need to be home we will. Ideally, we should not lose capabilities by choosing to work at home or in the office.
Sharing economy services
In the pre-COVID-19 days, travelers regularly got on and off packed airplanes, into ride-sharing cars that took them to stay in Airbnbs. Time will tell if and when to get back into this type of behavior, but it’s likely that airlines, ride-sharing services, hotels, and short-term rentals will need to make adjustments to lure nervous travelers out of their homes. Similarly, will Airbnb hosts be willing to welcome strangers into their homes in post-pandemic times? It’s unlikely we will stop using trains, rental cars, and shared services including bikes and scooters, but the providers of these services have a challenge on their hands convincing customers that it’s safe to ride.
Traditional supply chains
Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have been working their way into supply chains for years, and that trend will accelerate. In the pandemic world, the limitations of traditional supply chains have been highlighted as nations around the world struggled to source medical and safety equipment to help flatten the curve. AI-powered supply chains are not only faster and more flexible than traditional supply chains. A Mckinsey research study found that 61% of executives reported lower costs and 53% report increased revenues after introducing artificial intelligence into their supply chains.
In addition, 3-D printing and manufacturing has made traditional supply chains obsolete in many instances. One positive effect of the pandemic is that local manufacturing in the US is soaring, according to Andre Wegner, a writer, and leader in additive manufacturing. Some manufacturers who rely on parts from China and other nations have ramped up their 3-D printing capabilities to weather the current crisis and prepare for future interruptions.
Avoiding the need to handle cash and credit cards to make purchases has typically been touted as a matter of convenience. Now, as we endeavor to keep human contact to a minimum, routine transactions have become a health risk. It’s been estimated that the COVID-19 virus could live on a plastic credit card for as long as a week. Since mobile payment apps are readily available for download to our smartphones, it’s not surprising that contactless payments have spiked by 40% in the first quarter of 2020, according to Mastercard.
As with other consumer habits that take root in pandemic times, many people will use contactless payments in the future, speeding overall adoption trends. We won’t take out our wallets unless we need to, and social distancing will push the late adopters into using contactless payments quickly. We used to have early, mid-late adopters. Consumers won’t go back to the old way if the new experience is better
A future-forward framework and mindset
Traditional strategy planning has relied heavily on what’s been called a present-forward mindset. This approach involves taking current assumptions and projecting them out for a number of years to see how viable our business models stand up to future scenarios. This “pressure testing” of assumptions is a great exercise, but after a violent shove into uncertain times, we realize that projecting our strategies forward is not enough.
The future-forward framework supplements strategy with three other core components that are necessary to build a future-ready enterprise — Innovation, Leadership and Culture. It’s not really possible to create a future strategy without strong leadership and a culture that supports rapid, ongoing innovation.
It’s also no longer practical to build future enterprises on traditional frameworks. The framework below, from Future Ready: A changemaker’s guide to the exponential revolution shows how the core four — strategy, innovation, culture, and leadership — work together to form the foundation of a future-ready enterprise.
Normal, new normal and better normal
If you’re basing your strategy on pre-pandemic, traditional business models You need to fire your old framework. We can be sure that the disruptive COVID-19 crisis has permanently transformed our world. We cannot be sure which of the trends we discussed are temporary, and which mark the beginning of the end for certain industries and business models.
Just as the 2007-2008 economic meltdown gave birth to fintech and forever changed banking and finance, many of our current organizations and industries will never be the same. New global partnerships and alliances are already forming. Cracks were exposed in our healthcare, government, and economic system.
Future-readiness, once a buzzword, is now a crucial part of business strategy, leadership, culture, innovation. We all have different expectations about what’s next, and how we’ll recover from the current pandemic. What we should not expect is our professional and personal lives are going to return to a version of pre-pandemic normal.
The “normal” we knew before the pandemic already was changing very rapidly, and that rate of change is only accelerating. Our task now is to change what many of us consider the “new normal” into a better normal.
Charles Warnock is an author, tech journalist, and Principal Consultant at contentmarketingfactory.com. I write about marketing strategy, enterprise innovation, and exponential technologies including AI, 5G, blockchain, and additive manufacturing. Co-author with Nick Davis on Future Ready: A changemaker’s guide to the exponential future.
Nick Davis is a Managing Partner at Reaching the Future Faster, Inc. and the prior Global VP of Enterprise Solutions and current Faculty Chair for Corporate Innovation at Singularity University. Nick is a recognized thought leader in the innovation space who specializes in identifying exponential trends that enable enterprise organizations to deliver customer value through new and existing technology platforms.