AC/BC - Four things that will never be the same again


COVID-19 will likely go down in history as – among other things – an accelerant for a range of tendencies are already present prior to the pandemic. AC (after-COVID), these are the four major behavioral changes that are unlikely to revert to life as we knew it BC (before-COVID).

1: Work from home – could it become the new normal for a quarter of the workforce? These are US statistics and this will vary from country to country, but these numbers give you a sense of the size of the shift likely underway, globally.

According to research-based consultancy Global Workplace Analytics, 56% of the US workforce had jobs that were compatible, or at least partially so, with remote work. But only 3.6% worked from home “half time or more”, said GWA.

Based on historical trends, those who were working remotely before the pandemic will increase their frequency of working from home even after they are allowed to return to their offices, says GWA. For those who were new to remote work until the pandemic, there will likely be a significant upswing in their adoption. GWA estimates that we will see 25-30% of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021.

Work from home (WFH) for at least part of the work time was already the preference for 80% of employees. One-third would have taken a pay-cut for that WFH flexibility, says GWA.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought home to companies the usefulness of WFH as part of “business continuing planning”.

Employers would also have come to realise that WFH workers can be as productive – as possibly more so, after taking out commuting time – as when they were in the office.

GWA also points to global studies that found that employees were not at their desks 50-60% of the time anyway, raising the issue of costs and necessity of having so much office space.

In China, McKinsey & Company said WFH “skyrocketed” after the advent of Covid-19. Around 200 million people were working remotely by the end of the Chinese New Year holidays.

According to China Daily, statistics from companies in China showed that more than 60 percent of people in the workplace had experience in telecommuting.

"More flexible working hours and telecommuting, which provide employees with more freedom to achieve a work-life balance… will become a trend in the future," Lu Jian, president of LinkedIn China, was reported saying in the China Daily. "New technologies, such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence, may empower such a trend."

# 2: Shopping – surge in online sales, with significant segment likely to “stick” AC. The overflowing bag of figures for the surge in online retail sales are staggering. A quick glance would suffice to tell the story.

Between March 29 and April 12, pure-play online retailers saw their orders in the US and Canada increase from about 55% to 76% compared to the same period last year, according to The Future of Commerce website. Retailers that were primarily brick-and-mortar saw online orders in the US and Canada shoot up 42% to almost 90% year over year between March 29 and April 12.

According to a World Economic Forum article, contributed by China’s, the first four months of 2020 saw Chinese online retail sales growth by 8.6%, taking online sales to RMB 2.56 trillion.

“On the first day of the 618 Grand Promotion, JD Super, JD’s online supermarket, saw its sales increase by 100% while online sales of fresh groceries rose by 140%, compared with the same promotional day last year,” the article said.

McKinsey wrote in a recent report: “Early lessons from China suggest that three to six percentage points of online market share will be “sticky,”9 driven by older generations newly comfortable with digital channels and by new consumer segments who have overcome barriers to trial (such as account setup).”

#3: Entertainment - from trend to deluge. Growth trends in streamed, live and multi-player content that were evident BC have “sky rocketed” AC, according to consulting firm Deloitte.

A study from Deloitte found that 38% of consumers surveyed had tried a new digital media subscription or activity, such as playing video games or streaming videos, for the first time since the advent of the pandemic. More than two-thirds of them said they would continue with the activity or subscription after the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the average consumer had three paid media/entertainment subscriptions, Deloitte said. Since the pandemic, that increased to four.

In China, according to Maoyan Entertainment, TV viewership surged during the pandemic. For the extended ten-day Chinese New Year holiday (January 24 to February 2), the audience in China spent an average of 347 minutes watching TV per day, up 33% over the previous ten days (January 14 to 23), and 13% more than the same holiday period in 2019.

The pandemic also led to soaring traffic for online streaming platforms. Total users increased by 17.4% to reach 310 million during the Chinese New Year holiday compared to a regular week (January 2 to 8), Maoyan reported.

Meanwhile for smartphones, the average weekly download of apps in China during the first two weeks of February rose 40% over the average for the whole of 2019, according to the Financial Times, citing data from AppAnnie.

Of course, a lot of that growth will likely be temporary, easing back when the pandemic is over. Yet, a large proportion will likely “stick” to new habits. According to the EY Digital Home Study, 27% of all respondents and 43% of respondents aged 18–34 said their TV/content consumption habits will permanently change as a result of COVID-19.

#4: Online learning – “tipping point”. In 2014 Michael Trucano, a World Bank specialist on education and technology policy, wrote of the importance of “tipping points” to push educational technology into the mainstream, according to Carlo Perrotta, a Senior Lecturer from Australia’s Monash University.

Michael Trucano suggested that epidemics (he talked about the 2003 SARS epidemic, but the argument applies to COVID-19) could be ‘black swans’ that might trigger such a tipping point, wrote Mr. Perrotta.

Schools and institutions of higher learning have been suspended or disrupted in one manner or other throughout the world, with students from primary to tertiary education being forced into distance learning at some point over the past few months. Then there are the international students who cannot travel back to their universities.

Children will return to schools after the pandemic, such being the value of social interaction in the education of a child. But schools have been forced to fast forward their online capabilities by years, within a few weeks. These capabilities will likely have a profound impact via some form of blended/hybrid teaching in coming years.  

Schools will make much greater use of online tools, according to Douglas Harris from the Brookings Institute.

Referring to the US, Mr. Harris said: “Most students in the country will soon have laptops and some type of internet access…..Teachers are going to like many of the tools out there, and they will have an easier time using them now that students have some experience with them.”

Those online tools can be helpful complements to in-person instruction—instead of a replacement for it—allowing teachers to focus more on engaging students and mentoring them, he wrote.

Looking at China, Claudia Wang from Oliver Wyman wrote that “the experience of online schooling will have a lasting impact. China’s unprecedented experience will provide wider lessons about how best to structure remote learning. It has also awakened an interest in online learning in teachers, parents and students, as well as in the country’s tech giants – Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.”

“A similar phenomenon could occur in the United States and Europe. In areas where remote schooling has proved effective, online solutions could easily be attractive in the longer term – to schools looking to supplement their staff and teaching materials; to parents who want to give their children an extra boost in some aspect of their education; and, possibly, to some children who enjoy learning outside the classroom.”