Present Tense Future Bright

Present Tense Future Bright

Coronavirus has changed the world. But when the pandemic is finally banished to our memories, we may find it improved our lives in unexpected ways. While the death toll is staggering and sobering, the legacy of coronavirus will include several silver linings that help to temper the many destructive downsides.

To understand what life might be like in a post-pandemic world, we must understand what it is we’re going through right now and consider how systemic shocks like the Great Depression, war, economic downturns and the 9/11 terrorist attacks affected us.

COVID-19 has been a test of our society, our economy, every business and every person on earth. And it will continue to test us for some time to come. It’s important to recognize that we will not return to “the before times” of December 2019.

The unstoppable modern world turned out to be stoppable. For a time, the economy ground to a halt, and things we took for granted – time with friends, chance encounters, a visit to the hair salon – evaporated before our eyes.

To reveal problems in newly built pipelines, engineers run a pressure test and look for leaks. This pandemic is a pressure test for our society. It has revealed or highlighted the weaknesses of our modern world: inequality, poor governance, frail businesses, even weak relationships. This societal fragility caught many by surprise.

By revealing the strengths and weaknesses in our society, COVID-19 offers us an opportunity to watch and learn, to double down on the things that work well and shore up the things that don’t. So, what have we learned?

The U.S. economy can take a punch. 

The Treasury was able to conjure up trillions of dollars and pump them into the economy to keep it afloat. By the time we’re done, it may pump in a couple trillion more. Whether we have a V-shaped, U-shaped or other-shaped recovery, the entire world is counting on the United States to bounce back. Just as we rely on China, India, Vietnam, Mexico and other countries to supply us with goods, they rely on us to buy them.

Domestic American consumption makes the world go around. U.S. travelers contribute, too. European countries expect over 20 percent fewer visitors as U.S. travelers are benched for 2020. The global economy needs us to keep spending and to maintain a buoyant domestic economy if we are to avoid a broader economic meltdown. The rest of the world is dismayed by our handling of the pandemic, but it’s rooting for us to succeed.

Creative destruction is painful but brings long-term improvements.

Some industries have been hit harder by coronavirus than others. Hotels, restaurants, bars, travel, non-grocery retail, ridesharing, amusement parks, cinemas and the performing arts – all industries that rely on close human contact – have been devastated by the sustained need for social distancing. Broadway will stay dark until 2021, and bleak estimates abound that suggest 20 to 30 percent of retailers and 40 to 60 percent of restaurants will close their doors by the end of this year.

Amid the retail carnage, there will be opportunity. Like a brush fire clears away forest debris to enable new plants to flower and flourish, the pandemic will clear away inefficient, lower-quality and weak businesses to make way for the new.

There’s no doubt that this will be a painful and difficult process for the people directly involved. It doesn’t feel good being the old when you’re being cleared out for the new.

We will all lose some of our favorite restaurants, but the post-pandemic world will be filled with great new ones that pop up to replace those that didn’t survive, bringing new jobs with them.

What applies to restaurants applies to all other businesses, too. COVID-19 has revealed weaker businesses that were never likely to survive in the long term. As Warren Buffett says, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

Digital technology makes businesses more resilient. 

Well-run, strong businesses are more likely to navigate the pandemic than weak ones. These companies are willing to adapt and embrace new ways of doing things. Digitally oriented companies have proven far more resilient than those that have resisted the digital revolution.

I recently bought printed cardboard boxes for mailing my latest book to reviewers and influencers. I went online, designed the boxes, viewed them in 3-D, made edits, communicated with customer service via internet chat, and purchased them without leaving the comfort of my office. That company, Packola, demonstrates that even traditional industries like manufacturing can embrace the digital era.

If they want to survive and thrive, every company must ensure its customer journey – the way customers discover, consider, buy, get service from and remain loyal to a brand – is 100 percent digital, end to end. Consumers were already demanding this convenience, but in the era of COVID-19, digital is now an essential component of every business.

The widespread embrace of digital technology forced by the pandemic will make companies more efficient, boost convenience for consumers and eventually reduce prices. 

COVID-19 is the great accelerator, and the great defroster. 

The pandemic has hastened many changes that would have come anyway. Automation projects are being accelerated, in part because robots don’t get sick. Digital transformation is speeding up because digital stores don’t get overcrowded and employees can work from anywhere.

Innovation is the mother of necessity, and we should expect a lot of positive developments to come out of these circumstances. There’s precedent for this: World War II led to the development of modern air travel, satellite communication and antibiotics. COVID-19 will fuel innovation, too.

The necessity of change unfreezes businesses and institutions stuck in their ways because of tradition, regulation, inertia, risk aversion or good old complacency. For example, the education sector has had to embrace distance learning, and health care has seen a huge shift toward telehealth as people avoid the “cough-o-rama” of the doctor’s waiting room and connect via video chat. Forrester
Research predicts up to 1 billion U.S. telehealth visits in 2020.

There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror, education and health care will likely maintain a significant digital component.

While there’s no substitute for in-person tuition or care, digital platforms are more convenient, more efficient, more scalable and lower-cost. A hybrid of face-to-face connection and high-quality digital capabilities may turn out to offer a compelling model for the future.

The rapid shift toward using digital devices to talk with doctors or teachers will open the floodgates to more innovation. New connected devices in the home will help patients with chronic diseases monitor and manage their symptoms. Teaching talent may become less tethered to specific institutions, giving students access to the best specialist teachers on specific topics in addition to those who work at their school.

By embracing digital technology, the cost of quality higher education may tumble, and access could significantly increase. At a time when we must reskill or upskill millions of people so they can fully participate in the 21st-century economy, that’s an important silver lining.

“Anywhere” workers will redefine the economy. 

Remote or “anywhere” work is likely to get a long-term boost from COVID-19. The pandemic exploded the myth that remote workers slack off when not under the watchful eye of a supervisor.

While not all people can work remotely, for those who can, working from home has become the new default. Visits to the office will become the exception to the rule – for collaborative work sessions, to build personal relationships, and to benefit from the serendipity of chance meetings in the café. Some will make the trek to escape a noisy home environment or because they enjoy some separation between work and home life. But for many Americans, working from home will be part of their next normal. The benefits of this shift will be profound: reduced traffic, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and less time and stress expended on the daily commute.

Employers will benefit, too. More floor space can be devoted to collaboration zones and less to offices and cubicles. Real-estate footprints may shrink, saving cost. Talent pools will expand from the commutable zone surrounding a company to literally anywhere on earth, which gives managers access to the best talent available.

Serious conversations are under way at many companies on the viability of a shift from an “office-first” to a “remote-first” or “zero footprint” model. Not great news for the commercial real-estate industry, but there are societal benefits to be had. Remote work distributes wealth creation into far-flung communities as “anywhere” workers flee major economic hubs in search of a different quality of life. Rural areas will benefit as workers relocate away from expensive, crowded cities and come to spend money in small, local economies. Home prices in cities may stabilize or drop, increasing the affordability of housing and reducing homelessness.

With satellite constellations due to blanket the entire surface of the earth with high-speed internet connectivity in the coming five to 10 years, the digital divide should narrow, and new work options will emerge for many people around the world. Young people with an internet connection growing up in a remote rural locale will no longer feel they have to abandon their communities in search of economic opportunities.

Another result of this shift in work is that economically depressed but attractive locations will compete to roll out the welcome carpet to “anywhere” workers. Barbados recently announced it is exploring the launch of a 12-month “digital nomad” visa to entice people to its shores.

For many, the result of COVID-19 will be increased flexibility and a different way of living.

Physical work will remain tethered to location. 

For physical workers – restaurant, construction, retail, agricultural, manufacturing and other workers who must be physically present to perform their jobs – it will be a slower return to work. Employers must earn back every worker’s trust and offer the safest environment possible.

An upside of COVID-19 has been a greater appreciation of how vital many unseen workers are to society. The terms “essential” and “front-line worker” define the innate value many physical workers bring. The open question is whether we will acknowledge this value by paying physical workers more fairly for their contributions.

For U.S. businesses, it’s survival of the fittest. 

COVID-19 grabbed every leader’s attention and sent them scrambling to make their businesses more resilient and prepared to face the next big challenge.

By cross-training staff and putting succession plans in place, companies can maintain smooth operations even when someone needs to step aside for a while, or leaves the company. Many are starting to diversify their suppliers to reduce their reliance on any one region, country or company. Lean businesses will seek to boost their cash reserves and negotiate more flexible contracts to increase their financial resilience and avoid the bust-and-boom layoff/rehiring cycle when tough times return. Such changes, made in response to the pressure test offered by COVID-19, will stand these companies in better stead for the future.

Don’t be surprised if large companies with centralized campus headquarters begin to distribute themselves geographically to reduce the risk presented by a localized disaster. A major Cascadia earthquake affecting Seattle and Portland, Ore., would pose a major challenge to companies such as Amazon, Microsoft or Nike. Geographic diversification will spread economic opportunity more broadly as satellite facilities open across the country.

It will take some time to restore consumer trust. 

We will all need to learn to live with the ebb and flow of the virus if and when it spikes and sends us back into lockdown. Airlines, restaurants, bars, concert venues, theme parks, cruise ships, public transportation – any spaces that cram humans close together – will need to win back our shattered trust.

With great takeout options and a cold six-pack of beer in the fridge, will we ever go back to restaurants and bars? Will we venture back to offices when we can work from home and skip the commute? Will we go back to concerts and sporting events when we can watch them on TV or experience them on the couch in the wonderful world of virtual reality?

Yes, we will. Humans are first and foremost social animals with a fundamental need to connect with others. To gather. To fuel our curiosity. To explore, travel and experience new things. Look no further than the millions of Zoom happy hours, people enjoying socially distanced conversations while sitting on camping chairs in the park, and the hordes of folks who packed bars and beaches when it wasn’t prudent to do so. 

When the need for distancing has passed, our craving for connection will bring people together again. Bars, restaurants and coffee shops will be full, and we will be reminded of just how much we have missed it all.

We have a new appreciation for the great outdoors. 

The pandemic has led many to rediscover the outdoors as an alternative to the indoor activities that tend to fill our lives. More people are running, biking, and hiking, and the use of public parks, rivers and lakes is up. Many cities have granted permits for restaurants to create outdoor dining in place of street parking. Hopefully, many of these changes will last. Smart city planners may even close some street segments to traffic and convert them into outdoor eating and pedestrian zones, making cities more walkable and livable.

Despite the significant challenges presented by the pandemic, people have found ways to maintain and strengthen connections with the people they love, reaffirming our basic humanity. We come together for everything from socially distanced tailgates in the local Walmart parking lot to Zoom dinner parties and FaceTime sleepovers.

Good-hearted people regularly check in on folks who live alone. Others offer to pick up groceries for elderly neighbors. We must take heart in the incredible resilience and extraordinary goodness of people during this unusual time in history.

Remember that this too shall pass. And when it does, unexpected silver linings may actually have reshaped our world for the better.  

Steve Brown is a futurist, keynote speaker, author and adviser with over 30 years of experience in high tech. He is the author of “The Innovation Ultimatum: How Six Strategic Technologies will Reshape Every Business in the 2020s” (Wiley).