The Covid-19 pandemic will likely be viewed as a watershed moment in the history of the Information Age. For decades, we have witnessed significant advances in the use and proliferation of information communication technologies (ICTs), together with the expansion of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Over the last few months, it has become abundantly clear how vital these technologies have become to our everyday lives and to our economy.
Life is tough for many people at the moment but imagine how much harder it would have been for individuals and businesses if a pandemic of this nature had struck in 1990, 2000 or even as recently as 2010. The capacity of our digital technologies has increased greatly in recent years and we are all beneficiaries of these developments.
The pandemic, with its unprecedented restrictions on mobilities, places an increased importance on the virtual, as our access to the actual has been diminished. Social media has allowed us a means of keeping in contact with our friends, relatives, neighbours, and communities. It has been a lifeline to many, providing access to local services, advice, and companionship, whereas online shopping has kept the nation well supplied in food and other essentials, allowing some retailers to survive (or even thrive) in these testing economic times.
Superfast broadband has ensured that we can keep entertained, with a whole host of online platforms allowing us to stream films and television programmes. With filming schedules also affected by the pandemic, archive footage and user generated content via platforms such as YouTube are likely to become increasingly popular. Digital tourism is on the increase, as people ‘visit’ and learn about heritage sites and world-famous attractions through their digital devices. Computer games and virtual reality have also allowed people to enjoy liminal experiences, immersing themselves in other worlds and escaping the anxieties of the world outside our windows.
Videoconferencing technology, file sharing software, cloud computing and email, have allowed us to trade, carry on business and keep in touch with colleagues and clients, providing the essential lifeblood for our economy. It has demonstrated that remote working, on a wide scale, is possible and has encouraged many more people to use videoconferencing technology as part of their day-to-day working lives.
My colleague Jess Capper, in a recent article, said that we would need to get used to the ‘new normal’. She is probably right. It seems unlikely that Covid-19 will go down simply as a footnote in history. It will have lasting impacts on how we live our lives and what we consider ‘normal’ is likely to change. Everyday life has been disrupted on a fundamental level.
Unfortunately, in the short-term at least, we are not going to be able to revert to the way things were. When the end of ‘lockdown’ is announced, we are not going to just put down our digital devices, walk out the door and meet up with a large group of friends or colleagues in the nearest pub or restaurant – as much as we might like to! It is going to be a much more gradual process. The changes we have made to our daily lives are likely to become embedded in our individual and organisational behaviours in the aftermath of Covid-19 and in the years to come, bringing opportunities in the process.
Take remote working, for example. The crisis has shown that for many job roles, it is possible to work effectively and productively on a remote basis. For firms that require employees to attend meetings across the country, or indeed overseas, a great deal of staff time is taken up with travel. There will, of course, be times when face-to-face meetings are required and appropriate, but this is probably not true of most meetings, especially routine ones.
Videoconferencing, screensharing and document sharing, provide an effective means of communication and collaboration. Take long journeys, crowded tube trains or busy motorways out of the equation, along with the various social rituals that accompany meetings, and it may be found that remote meetings and collaborations are in fact a more efficient way of working. If this becomes the norm, it should also have a positive environmental impact.
There are efficiency savings too. It will cut expenditure on transport, mileage, accommodation and subsistence, and, by saving time, it will free up staff to get on with other productive work. Moreover, by reducing travel and time spent away from home, it may well improve employees’ quality of life, improving staff morale and productivity in the process.
Requests to work from home, or to adopt more flexible working hours, are likely to increase following the crisis. Some firms may have been reticent about this in the past but the experience of the pandemic and the fact that so many of us have been able to adapt to a new working environment will make it increasingly difficult for employers to justify turning down such requests from workers in non-customer facing roles.
Technology permits it and, provided that staff have the right work ethic, and that there is no detriment to the firm or its customers, it is hard to see why more flexible approaches to work cannot become a new norm. If this is the case, it will have longer term impacts on the management and organisation of businesses. It will challenge the prevailing approach, popularised in the Victorian era, where work has been carried out at a specific workplace during specified working hours (i.e. 9 to 5). While it will be down to individual firms to consider what works best for them, their customers and their employees, no doubt many firms will feel pressure to change their policies.
Similarly, the traditional classroom approach taken by schools since the nineteenth century, may also be re-examined and re-evaluated in light of the pandemic, as teachers and educators ask how technologies can be used to complement or challenge the classroom experience on a more permanent basis. Notions such as ‘flipping the classroom’ have been explored for a number of years as a way of moving core content delivery away from the classroom environment to the web, allowing contact time with teachers to be used for discussion, problem solving and active-learning. The current crisis allows for this to be carried out on a mass scale. In a work context, will employers now fully embrace the value and potential of e-learning for staff training? Powerful e-learning platforms equipped with good quality content and resources can be a boon for organisations and their employees as they endeavour to meet CPD targets.
The situation also highlights the importance of firms, as part of their operational resilience strategies, investing in robust digital equipment, appropriate cyber security and relevant training to reasonably ensure that staff at all levels are able to use technologies safely and effectively to carry out their jobs.
Of course, some individuals and organisations have been early adopters and have embraced these technologies and working practices for a number of years. Others, for a variety of legitimate reasons, have continued to follow traditional practices. What is different about the current crisis is that it has largely taken the traditional options away and forced us into digital solutions. Overall, it seems to have been a success for many organisations – even bodies steeped in history and tradition such as the UK Parliament have made a relatively smooth transition to the virtual.
Whilst this crisis may become a defining moment in the digital transformation of many firms and society in general, there will always be a place for the traditional. Not least, the importance of face-to-face human interaction. I remain hopeful that when this crisis is over, that despite our increased confidence with our virtual lives, we will also be grateful for the opportunity to see our friends, families and colleagues again and that we will have a greater appreciation for the time we spend with them.