The novel coronavirus caught the world off-guard with its rapid and deadly spread. This lack of preparedness has led to many countries experiencing delays in testing, inadequate mask supply, confusion about personal protection protocol, and continuing debate about the trade-offs of locking down entire economies. In Thailand alone, it is estimated that millions of jobs were lost in the early months of the pandemic, and a full recovery will require much time and effort.
However, previous pandemics and other similar historic events had the effect of creating more durable social and economic systems, largely as a result of people making necessary adaptations to life in a less certain world. Some evidence suggests that similar advances are on the way again this time.
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As employees learn to work from home, businesses which may have been reluctant to try such a setup are now beginning to see its benefits. Remote work lets companies save on office space and all of its attendant costs, while employees can skip their commutes and spend more time productively.
Video-conferencing applications like WebEx, BlueJeans and Microsoft Teams have seen a great surge in popularity, but recent weeks have also taught some companies an unexpected lesson: Remote work does not need to simulate the office environment. In fact, if done the right way, working from home can provide certain advantages that office work can’t deliver.
Employees can be anywhere in the world, and not just within a tiny radius around the company’s physical location. Collaboration does not need to be synchronous; key internal messages can be recorded and replayed by everyone, to ensure accurate understanding; those meetings which “could have been an email” can actually be an email; and the move away from a conference-room atmosphere can encourage more introverted team members to offer thoughts and opinions that they may hesitate to express in a group setting.
Global supply chains
COVID-19 has forced many countries to greatly scale down their production and logistics efforts, forcing businesses to compensate by developing alternative supply chain models. More resilient approaches are clearly needed, and technology is once again stepping forward to help.
The Internet of Things, reliable 5G networks, robots in warehouses, self-driving trucks, Blockchain-verified transactions, and other such innovations will play major roles in the supply chain landscape in the years to come. Companies that are quick to innovate and capitalize on these technologies will find themselves dominating regional markets in due time.
Digital infrastructure for smart cities
Central planning is often associated with bureaucratic delay, but the rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced many governments to focus their efforts on achieving quick results. The Chinese government took just 10 days to build a massive 645,000-square-foot temporary medical facility with over a thousand beds. After an early period of rapid infection, the South Korean government was able to effectively contain the spread of the virus via scaled-up testing, collaboration with private businesses, and real-time smartphone alerts for citizens.
Technology has become the key player in fighting the pandemic, and one enduring lesson is likely to be the value of “smart city” infrastructure. Governments, seeing the need for fast action, clear information distribution, and coordinated efforts across entire populations, are likely to invest in the technology needed to enable these outcomes.
Innovation and the human spirit
As society adjusts to new circumstances, we will surely see an accompanying increase in new ideas as well – many of them from people who had been too busy before the crisis to develop them fully. Already, the coronavirus has led to more digital transformation in a matter of months than society had previously seen over the course of many years.
This transformation may also bring deeply positive effects for people, even beyond the material support that it provides. A great number of startups, for example, are figuring out new ways to provide mental health support to clients regardless of their location. These digital initiatives aim to blur the boundary between the personal and the digital, leading to increased well-being for us all.
Although the pandemic continues to leave real tragedy in its wake, it is unable to dim the human spirit. We will emerge from this crisis wounded and shaken – but also more experienced, and hopefully wiser as well