Tempting as it might be to think that coronavirus is generating new problems for society to face, it is not. The only new thing about the disease is its genetic novelty and how susceptible we are to it. We are all living through situations unknown to our generation and our tendency is to blame everything on coronavirus. To do so would be to unfairly cover up the underlying trends and issues that were already present in society.
Coronavirus is accelerating trends that were already beginning to take hold – albeit slowly and in a more hybrid way. Take technological adoption. Social media had spread across the world but remote working had faced slower acceptance. In traditional work cultures like Japan, it’s still struggling to let people call in from home. As cases pick up across the country and the economy tanks they will have no choice.
Collaboration platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams are seeing major upticks in use. People are finding out about other ways to work together remotely that do not revolve as heavily around email. The Google Drive suite of programs just passed 2 billion users as more and more people choose to work together on online documents. The Zoom boom has people connecting for meetings as well as drinks. All of these trends were already in the making as the structure and processes of work had been changing.
The effects of the coronavirus on work will not just disappear. If new social distance requirements are kept in place that will mean more virtual meetings instead of jamming as many people as possible shoulder to shoulder into closed conference rooms. Once you start using collaborative documents it’s hard to go back to a time when people worked on disparate versions and you never knew if the version about to presented included all of your latest amendments. Even the utility of central offices, with their pricy rents and pesky safety requirements, could be questioned.
Companies that have large workforces toiling away at home during the pandemic are the lucky ones. Stores are shuttered and many major retailers will be forced to stay that way for a long time. It’s impossible to imagine the Sephora on the Champs Élysées or Galleries Lafayette opening identically in a post-corona world. They were already compact masses of humanity that took a brave soul to navigate – a coronavirus wet dream.
And so commerce is moving online at record speed. It’s easier to deep clean a factory and warehouse floor where a few people work. Employees can wear protective kit without freaking out shoppers. We’re starting to see online shops open again. Those who were reluctant to buy online are finding that it’s the only option for obtaining certain goods. Once people log a few positive e-commerce experiences (and few things are more positive than receiving a package during lockdown) they will be hooked.
Businesses that had positioned themselves as building digital capabilities are in the best position to weather the pandemic. All of the arguments I heard in the past about how expensive e-commerce is to implement and what value we can bring that our partners cannot are starting to look pretty moot when e-commerce is the only revenue coming in on balance sheets. Never has diversification of touchpoints for revenue generation been so important. And businesses that put off the implementation of cloud-based drives (like Box) are finding their projects on hold. The pause could prove fatal. Hindsight in 2020.
Agility, an oft-overused buzzword to describe anything a business can do fast, is coming back to the fore. But in truth it never left. Companies have to constantly respond to threats and challenges. Coronavirus just accelerated the threats by swiftly changing all of the conditions at once. Those who pushed to progress towards the future are ready to capitalize. Those who tried to conserve their positions in the past will lose more.
Coronavirus accelerates existing trends but also exacerbates the problems that already plague society. Inequality is clearer than at any time since the era of fiefdoms. People can be either agile or fragile. The agile tend to be wealthy and highly educated who have options. Like agile business they will probably find their way through the pandemic and come out better off on the other side. Those already working in digital roles, at major digital platforms, or who have the luxury of spending confinement in their vacation home in the south of France are living a reality that few others could even dream of. They are fully paid. They have space. They are really tan.
The fragile who work for minimum wage find themselves in an even more precarious situation. Poor families are sheltering in minuscule places stretching the limits of mental fortitude. From the Bronx to Bangalore confinement compromises the standard of living necessary to keep the contagion at bay. The poorest are clumped together with limited ability to maintain basic levels of hygiene. Conditions are rife for transmission. Uneven healthcare in America has led to a magnitude of underlying conditions that makes the fragile more likely to succumb to covid-19.
Younger generations are by nature more agile. It’s easier to change the direction of your life when you have a lot more of it left to live. Biologically too the young can learn new skills and accept new ideas better than the older generations who are doubly fragile. Not only are they at higher risk of dying from coronavirus, they will be less able to adapt to the new challenges and opportunities. 60 year olds standing in an unemployment line right now are not dreaming about becoming coders.
It’s just the beginning of coronavirus too. The gap between the agile and the fragile will grow into an abyss. Already talk of deconfinement revolves around using smartphones to trace contacts. Not everyone has one. Testing will need to be rolled out, and who will get tested first? It’s no surprise that NBA players found out that they had covid before most of the population. The rich will get out of confinement faster. Even if they don’t they can afford to pay the modest fines that are meant to keep people from circulating. The elderly will most likely be quarantined for their own protection until a vaccine can provide it.
Erecting barriers between us will be necessary to protect humanity’s immediate health – but we must make sure to build bridges too. Otherwise the deeper separation may become insurmountable.