Human challenges in a post-pandemic era

In the wake of this once-in-a-century pandemic, COVID-19 has turned into a global crisis, evolving at unprecedented speed and scale. It is creating a universal imperative for governments and organizations to take immediate action to protect their people.

It is now the biggest global event—and challenge—of our lifetimes. As such, it is changing human attitudes and behaviors today and forcing organizations to respond.

As the immediate impact of the coronavirus shock becomes clear, we will inevitably turn to the question: what long-term changes will this bring about and how will all of us be affected?

COVID-19 has forever changed the experience of being a customer, an employee, a citizen and a human. Expect to see behavior change at scale for some time to come.

What will have changed in the way we think? How will that affect the way we design, communicate, build and run the experiences that people need and want? The answers to these questions will lie in the way people react and how individuals, families and social groups all sources of creative innovation hack new ways to live. Every organization must become a listener sharpening their sensitivity to signals in real-time in order to respond immediately.

We are witnessing massive behavior change at a scale and speed that we’ve never seen before, sparked by fear, proselytised by social media, encouraged by the government. Such change includes frequent handwashing, working from home and discouraging bad behavior such as toilet paper hoarding.

This goes way beyond “nudge” techniques, though some are being used, and extends to the outright insistence that is either working naturally or enforced. Twitter even launched a handwashing emoji.

The science of behavior change had already become a known subject of study and an increasingly important tool for design over the past ten years. Leading companies had already instituted tools and practices to monitor, collect, analyse and act on a mix of digital surveys, behavioral signals, listening and sentiment.

Now, the need for these capabilities will become foundational to experience creation, and the speed at which companies can and, increasingly must respond to them will become sources of competitive advantage.

The coronavirus pandemic is fundamentally shifting how we live and do business and will accelerate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, fuelled by smart technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and mobile supercomputing.

The formula is to listen, empathy, learn, execute reassess and execute again, using kaizen as a continual performance measure to everything we do.

Evidence-based research suggests that 20% of the world’s population is currently under lockdown due to the current pandemic. Those that are not in full lockdown are likely experiencing significant disruption to their usual routine. For the vast majority of us, these are strange and unprecedented times.

Isaac Newton was forced to practice the early-modern equivalent of social-distancing twice during his time as a Cambridge undergraduate. Like many others in Cambridge during the Great Plague of 1665-6, Newton retreated to the countryside to escape the disease-ridden city and spent two extended periods at his family home in rural Lincolnshire, Woolsthorpe Manor.

While many of us are struggling to adapt to the new and uncertain challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, Newton thrived in his period of isolation, and later described it as one of the most productive times in his life. Freed from the limits of the Cambridge curriculum, and from the rigor and bustle of university life, Newton found that he had the breathing space to reflect on and develop his theories on optics, calculus, and the laws of motion and gravity.

Another world event was the financial crisis of 2008, we saw cloud computing kicked into high gear and started to become a pervasive, transformational technology. The current COVID-19 crisis could provide a similar inflexion point for AI applications. While the implications of AI continue to be debated on the world stage, the rapid onset of a global health crisis and concomitant recession will accelerate its impact.

Times of crisis bring rapid change. Efforts to harness AI technologies to discover new drugs – either vaccine or treatment – have kicked into hyperdrive. Start-ups are racing to find solutions and established companies are forming partnerships with academia to find a cure.

Other companies are researching existing drugs for their potential applicability. AI is proving a useful tool for dramatically reducing the time needed to identify potential drug candidates, possibly saving years of research. AI uses already put into action are screening for COVID-19 symptoms, decision support for CT scans, and automating hospital operations. A variety of healthcare functions have started to be performed by robots, from diagnosis to temperature monitoring.

The time to act is now. Below I have set out 5 simple steps to support in the new era:

Trust
The erosion of trust will make purpose more important than ever before. This will necessitate a “trust multiplier” action that, to be effective, rebuilds trust quickly and credibly. Focus will be on purpose-building through every channel.

Justifiable optimism will sell well. All of this may change the nature of what we regard as premium products and services.

The online world
The enforced shift during the worst of the pandemic to virtual working, consuming and socialising will fuel a massive and further shift to online activity for anything and everything. Anything that can be done online will be.
Winners will be those who test and explore all of the associated creative possibilities and necessitate steps to protect and secure their IT infrastructure, irrespective of micro, small, medium or large users.

Your health and wellbeing is everything
The concerns about health amplified during the crisis will not ebb after it is over. Rather, health will dominate. A health economy will emerge with opportunities for all to plug into. Every business will need to understand how it can be part of a new health and wellbeing ecosystem that will dominate citizen thinking.

Innovative isolation
The desire for isolation at home, along with opportunities for those with creative strategies to enable it, will move center-stage for the same reason. Winners will be those who zero their sights on the home. At the height of the crisis, many workers, especially are spending more time at home. After, this pattern will endure with meaningfulness and comfort carrying a price premium.

A purposeful authority
A reinvention of a purposeful authority is likely after the effect of travel limitations, self-isolation and lockdown officially mandated by many governments. This is likely to be the trickiest of the five human implications as its impact could go one of two ways.
If governments get their handling of the crisis broadly right, expect top-down control to be back in fashion; if not, the reverse. This is likely to vary by geography. What role will companies play and how will this be implemented?

Another perspective….
All attempts to predict the future could famously turn out to be completely wrong. “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere,” claimed the New York Times in 1936, three decades before man landed on the Moon. Last year, the Economist magazine predicted that the 2020 Olympics would be a great success. Anyway, Mayo’s prediction is extreme; in the end, most people will return to the status quo.

Much science fiction has proved to be uncannily accurate. In George Orwell’s 1984, “telescreens” meant public and private spaces were filled with cameras. Today, CCTV and video calls mean we are constantly on screen. And people worldwide have been captivated by Dean Koontz’s 1981 novel about a virus called Wuhan-400. Maybe Mayo’s vision is not as outlandish as it seems.

My thoughts on the matter……
Covid-19 has triggered such an immense wave of social experiments that some change seems inevitable. But which experiments will we want to continue and which should we discard? Some, such as homeschooling, will be enthusiastically abandoned, while others, like virtual working, we might wish to keep at least in part.

We have already experimented with new ways of living and working on a vast scale, yet as we face the current crisis as a society, we must resolve the competing values of protecting health while also ensuring privacy and liberty.

And we must find a balance between business viability and protecting the ability of people to earn a reasonable living. There is no going back; we’re heading into a new normal. Immediately, the focus will have to be on managing the crisis with the best available tools.

This period could be 12-24 months until there is enough herd immunity, treatment therapies, and an effective vaccine.

During this time, governments will need to do everything possible to provide a social safety net, at least until business can resume and employment levels approach pre-crisis levels.

Concurrently, people should realize there will be new rules in the new normal, especially those who work in fields where automation is likely. They should use this period to learn new skills such as systems analysis and evaluation, problem-solving, ideation, and leadership. Many companies, from Shell to Amazon have announced plans to re-skill large segments of their workforce. More will need to do so.

Protecting privacy and liberty is perhaps even more challenging. Once surveillance technology is used in response to an immediate crisis, it is difficult to reverse. Surveillance does not need to be our manifest destiny.

One proposal out of Europe would limit the retention of collected data for only 14 days, the period of possible virus transmission. The only effective means to reasonably protect privacy is to require that surveillance powers assumed during a crisis expire when the crisis ends.

COVID-19 will accelerate the trend towards corporate-purpose made visible through experiences and corporations standing for something bigger than their core output. The legacy effect on the sustainability debate will be profound.

It will be interesting to see if, among the majority of customers locked down who have been forced to think for many weeks about their priorities, there is an accelerated shift to “conscious consumption” – buying only what matters and what they really need. Will life’s little luxuries rebound fiercely as everyday life resumes? Or will luxury be redefined?

A culture may emerge that’s far more sensitive to ostentatious displays of exclusivity. Brands now trading off luxury will face a choice. Should they embrace and communicate meaningful values that benefit the greater society? Or should they become an “invisible luxury” brand that eschews materialistic ostentation in favor of discreet experiences, for example, or relationships, and understated signifiers? This would not just change what these brands sell, but how they market and sell it.

Finally, the subject of EQ is not new, we all need to understand behavior: honing your emotional intelligence to better understand your customers’ and employees’ behaviors new, changed or those left unchanged. Be ready to draw on all three sources of data: big data, thick data (deep insights on people), and broad data (contextual and market trends). Ensure that all data sources are constantly updated and utilised across the organisation.

As the effects of COVID19 pan out we will have to wait and see exactly what takes place for the good of change.

Maris Popova, a successful Bulgarian writer once said:

“On the precipice of any great change, we can see with terrifying clarity the familiar firm footing we stand to lose, but we fill the abyss of the unfamiliar before us with dread at the potential loss rather than jubilation over the potential gain of gladnesses and gratifications we fail to envision because we haven’t yet experienced them.”

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