I don’t think any of us could have forseen the impact that Coronavirus has had on our lives. In just a few short weeks, its grip has tightened to the point that the UK is approaching its first two weeks of a country-wide lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.
We’ve already seen behavioural changes, and many of these are linked heavily to our digital lives. Staying in contact is easier thanks to a blend of social media and free video or audio calls, while the things we need can be delivered to our door – a recommendation, in fact, by government – to limit the virus spread still further.
You can start to see a digital legacy of Coronavirus that, when we do break through this difficult time, will no doubt persist thanks to its uptake, convenience and cost saving.
FaceTime reaches all age groups at last
Facebook reported a 70% growth in use of its Messenger video app last week, as more and more of us stay in touch via free video calling apps on our devices. “I never look good on the camera,” my Mum would complain when I suggested the same in the past, instead of our regular Sunday night calls. Now my folks are asking me when we can video call (mainly so they can see their grandchildren).
The stay-at-home advice has meant that digital groups always traditionally hard to reach, such as the elderly, are turning to these solutions. What may have helped was Mother’s Day on Sunday, 22nd March, where even Boris Johnson warned against family visits. Guides have also appeared online prompting families to help others with technology, which will help increase uptake still further.
Online food delivery
It was notable in the recent government definition of key workers that this included both supermarket and van delivery drivers. Ocado, one of the UK’s biggest online food delivery companies, actually shut its website ahead of the shutdown to help build more capacity into its services, both online and offline in fulfilment. And then during the full shutdown announcement, given by the Prime Minister on Monday, 23rd March, Boris Johnson said: “…use food delivery services wherever you can.” Endorsement of such services doesn’t come from any higher authority.
Like many families, we’ve been using these services for a while and they are very convenient. But as we’ve now seen, an unexpected consequential benefit is that they could help prevent the spread of a virus too. I would expect a good level of the current usage to persist as the crisis subsides. Convenience has become surpassed by safety.
Remote, flexible working has been around for some time and its benefits to both companies and staff are well known. In the early phases of the Coronavirus outbreak, it was an easy recommendation to make from both companies and government: work from home if you can. An easy lever to pull. But there are of course many frontline roles and other businesses where this just doesn’t or cannot work; most types of distribution being a good example. In theory, by keeping a percentage of the workforce remote, you allow safe commuting for those who do need to go to a workplace.
Yet what this approach has uncovered is that perhaps more of the workforce can be remote than first thought. Laggards in this space, those corporations who maybe incorrectly associate remote working with domestic leisure time, have caught up quickly, when realising that some amount of productivity can be retained. There are those who said it wouldn’t be possible either, only to be overtaken by tools such as Microsoft’s Office 365 suite, that allows access to pretty much all your corporate resources from any device. That it includes the impressive Teams video calling capability – another service in much demand these days – is the icing on the cake.
Critically however, we may have now reached a tipping point in favour of remote working. In the immediate term, Coronavirus means we can easily stay segregated. But for business, the option to run smaller offices with a lower energy and facilities footprint, and happier, more agile staff, will look tempting in the months and years ahead.
But what of retail? Already on its knees in many city centres across the UK (and beyond), with dozens of shop closures enacted and planned, the virus outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time. Our high streets have long been shadows of their former selves. Yet some retailers are fighting back, and this might open the door wider for something already in its infancy and just needing the right break: virtual retail.
One store in Florida is using FaceTime to help shift its clothing stock remotely. True, there may be size and fitting challenges, but we order a great deal of apparel online already. And certainly, for serious buyers, it’s a much more engaging way of making sales for vendors.
There are limits I think; some items need to be seen in the flesh. Selling cars for instance, especially used ones, is better in the real world. Something tangible is arguably harder to sell virtually. Even new cars will need to be experienced for real – even if the buyers rush back to their laptop to place an online order (more cheaply) elsewhere.
In summary, it’s early days. By all accounts, including those of experts in different fields, this will be a long journey. I keep hearing talk of “the new normal” – but we don’t yet know if there is one, or even if life fully reverts to how it was. For further reading, McKinsey’s excellent COVID-19: Implications for Business article is regularly updated and makes for fascinating reading. Stay safe everyone.