By Bill Sarris, CEO, Linqto, Inc.
Covid-19’s dramatic spread has sparked unprecedented societal challenges. While most people expect these changes to be temporary, many will survive the virus. Businesses, communities, and livelihoods are being forced to adapt. But just as personal habits are tough to change, once transformed, they become the new order; the new way we live and work. From Twitter’s new “remote working forever” pledge to delivery drones, where are we now, and most importantly: what’s next?
Remote Working – From Doom to Zoom
Before the pandemic, in-office productivity had already hit an all-time low in the Western World. Employers allowed flexible working, but just as an extraordinary perk. Between premonitions of plummeting productivity and suspected daytime Netflix binge-watching, bosses had their reservations. Whether called Working From Anywhere (WFA) or Working From Home (WFH), remote working programs proved to be a success for everyone. For workers, geographic flexibility has the incomparable advantages of having the freedom to walk your dog during lunch break, or simply enjoying more personal time.
A two-year Standford University study found that remote workers are significantly more productive than their counterparts: “…the robust, nearly two-year study showed an astounding productivity boost among the telecommuters equivalent to a full day’s work…employee attrition decreased by 50 percent among the telecommuters, they took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off… Oh, and by the way, the company saved almost $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing the amount of HQ office space.”
In the meantime, Covid-19 started to super-charge the already-existing Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend, with Zoom and Skype becoming a quarantine quick fix for work AND socializing. Yet, they’re expected to stay as the go-to solution for avoiding in-person meetings as much as possible in the future. Their fault? The lack of multi-sensory human interaction. And that’s where Virtual Reality (VR) and immersive environments rush in, filling the gap.
It’s estimated that by the end of 2020, we could meet our work colleagues in a virtual replica of our regular meeting rooms. And if you worry about “zoombombing” (kids crashing your work chats), don’t! You’ll be wearing a VR headset that blocks unwanted noises anyway. At last, remote work will feel more real.
Workspace-design-wise, with health and wellbeing coming to the fore, the end of the “open-floor” will prompt de-densified office layouts and circle markings on the floor will help people judge safe distances. We will see motion-sensor or voice-activated entrance hardware, organized elevator usage or staggered arrival times to reduce the traffic flow, and screens will separate desks.
The Impact on Retail and Shopping Habits
With e-commerce, the story is simple: in the past two decades it has gone from “non-existent” to a “multibillion-dollar industry.” In the US, growth in online shopping reached 65.2% of all retail gains at the end of 2019. Although shopping online aims to replace shopping in person, there are significant glitches, mostly related to cart abandonments caused by high shipping costs and long delivery times. Coronavirus only fast-tracked the shift from cash to digital payments, e-commerce trends, mobile shopping, and the contribution of social channels and influencers.
Before the pandemic, cynics scoffed at the prospect of commercial drone deliveries. In the new socially-distanced world, a buzzing robotic aircraft is practical, safe, and could save lives by eliminating direct human contact. Bonus: the positive impact on traffic and climate change. Home-confined buying has pushed people out of their comfort zones overnight, and even traditional retail behemoths had to listen. According to Sense360, in April, 31% of U.S. households used an online grocery delivery or pickup app for the first time. In the post-Covid-19 world, stores will still exist, but only for the customer experience. To secure survival, retailers will have to offer a mix of convenience, value, and speed. The ability to guarantee same-day or next-day delivery, along with free shipping could make or break retail businesses, especially since considering the staggering economic recession, consumers can’t afford to pay for delivery fees or memberships anymore (in April 2020 alone, 20 million Americans lost their jobs).
The pandemic pushed wait times and product availability, giving physical retailers who sell essential goods a temporary competitive advantage. Yet to survive the pressure of digital retailers like Amazon, they’ll need to up their e-commerce game, adopt in-store contactless technology, allow shoppers to scan barcodes with their smartphones and leave without having to pay at a counter, or provide self-checkout kiosks. Traditional checkouts will be shielded by protective screens, for sure.
Cutting transmission risks will speed up the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic automation within supply chains, fueling the AI-driven economies of the future.
As for restaurants, many will likely rely on drive-thru and delivery as low-contact options. Public touchscreens used for paying or ordering tickets or food could be deemed a hazard, and alternatives could include gesture control, voice activation, contactless technologies, mobile app ordering, and digital payments.
The Events Industry – Could Live Streaming Get You Goosebumps?
If we can survive without seeing our boss in person, can the unique buzz of socializing, sharing ideas or enjoying a concert be replicated in a live-streamed event or in an ultra-realistic VR world? The live events industry is at an unprecedented standstill. In recent years, VR headsets or live holograms have taken people into an alternative space and time. A second life. But is it feasible?
With Denmark and Germany already getting around the social distancing rules by hosting drive-in raves and concerts in huge parking lots, looks like VR, holograms, and haptic technology will become widespread, substituting the tactile visceral excitement of live events with unlimited immersive options. Will we be able to experience goosebumps or digital serendipitous bonding, right from the comfort of our sofas? That remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, with sports and entertainment venues being among the last to re-open in the new socially distant reality, expect thermal scanning or thermal cameras at entry points and reduced capacities with 50 to 75%.
Riding the Pandemic by Investing In The New World
Some of the greatest innovations and fortunes in history were built during depressions and recessions. From J. Paul Getty to Bill Gates, those who saw the future created the base of their fortunes during hard times by providing solutions that bridged the future. For instance, robotics is the new revolution, and one of the recent millionaire-maker trends rushed by the Coronavirus global challenge. From the vacuuming Roomba to industrial robots, robots will take over factories and hospitals, gaining the same traction as Microsoft, Apple or Dell 30 years ago.
What this pandemic and past crises have taught us is that even in the worst of times, entrepreneurs will rise to the new challenges and create new solutions to new problems, which provides exciting new investment opportunities. We’ve also learned that many of the societal changes we are experiencing today are likely to remain.