This report explores of some of the key implications of COVID-19 for business and society. With a bias towards the UK.
Great uncertainty, such as that presented by the current pandemic, can make long-range planning seem daunting. However, for those brave enough to be bold, the rewards can be significant.
As Richard Rumelt said: "During hard times, a structural break in the economy is an opportunity in disguise. To survive—and, eventually, to flourish—companies must learn to exploit it. [...] There is nothing like a crisis to clarify the mind. In suddenly volatile and different times, you must have a strategy." (Source: Strategy in a ‘structural break’ | McKinsey)
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The disruption of globalisation
Globalisation was already under pressure:
- The middles classes in the developed world were feeling left behind.
- The US and China are economically intertwined and a cold trade war was building.
- A new sense of nationalism was emerging. This was particularly evidenced by the #MAGA (Make America Great Again) and Brexit (#VoteLeave) campaigns.
Implications for businesses could be profound. We have already seen that, in pharmaceutical development, residents of the country where a pharma company has its headquarters may expect to get a new drug first. (Source: Coronavirus: 15 emerging themes for boards and executive teams | McKinsey)
Apple is reported to be trying to reduce its production out of China by 20%. (Source: 4 futurists on how to be forward-thinking in a post-COVID-19 world published 24/05/2020)
In the UK:
- The UK is facing the biggest recession in 300 years (when the Great Frost swept Europe)
- GDP is predicted to nosedive by more than a third in Q2 2020
- The country's economy shrank by 20.4% in April - the largest monthly contraction on record - as the country spent its first full month in lockdown. (Source: Bank of England 'ready to act' as economy shrinks record 20% - BBC News published 12/06/2020)
- Public debt set to top £2trillion by end May 2020 as the government borrows an estimated £300billion this year
- The number of people claiming employment benefits has soared by a record 856,500 to 2.1million during April 2020 (the first full month of the coronavirus lockdown). This despite the furlough scheme keeping millions formally in work.
- February to April saw the biggest fall in job vacancies since comparable records began in 2001, down 170,000 to 637,000.
- The furlough scheme is now supporting 7.5million jobs and is expected to cost a net £50billion.
Source: Coronavirus UK: Charts show economy in unprecedented recession | Daily Mail Online published 20/05/2020 except where otherwise indicated.
Across the ocean, the picture is not much better. 18 million people have been furloughed int he US since mid-March. (Source: You’ve Been Furloughed. Now What? published 26/05/2020) 6.6 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the week ending March 28, the single highest spike in U.S. history. (Source: How to respond when a crisis becomes the new normal)
In France, close to 100,000 companies covering 1.2 million workers have signed up for the government to pay a portion of their wages. (Source: How to respond when a crisis becomes the new normal)
Globally, 3bn people have experienced some form of lockdown. (Source)
China is most advanced in its recovery. Three months since lockdown, it has returned to around 90% of its pre-Covid performance. However the missing 10% includes large chunks of everyday life. Travel on public transport and domestic flights are down by a third. Discretionary consumer spending, on such things as restaurants, has fallen by 40% and hotel stays are a third of normal. (Source)
The result may be a return to austerity before the economy has recovered from the last bout of it. This could include:
- public spending cuts and
- rising taxes (both in terms of increasing rates, and reducing tax breaks).
- Local government funding.
- The long-neglected social care problem.
- Pensions and entrepreneurs tax reliefs.
Bloomberg has projected a $2.7trn economic loss. (Source)
The Office for National Statistics (ONS):
- The number of people claiming employment benefits has soared by a record 856,500 to 2.1million during April 2020.
- February to April saw the biggest fall in job vacancies since comparable records began in 2001, down 170,000 to 637,000.
(Source: Coronavirus UK: Charts show economy in unprecedented recession | Daily Mail Online published 20/05/2020)
In PwC’s April 14 survey of global chief financial officers (Source: How to respond when a crisis becomes the new normal):
- 71% said their biggest fear was a global recession, up from 67% on March 30;
- 77% said they are looking at cost-containment measures, and
- 65% said they are thinking about deferring or cancelling investments.
A corporate winnowing
Winnowing is the process of separating grains from the wheat and chaff by means of the wind. The COVID-19 crisis may be the wind that separates weaker companies from their more future-fit competitors.
The Kauffman Foundation sponsored a 2009 study that found more than half of the companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list were launched during a recession or bear market. (Source: Top Companies Started During A Recession | HuffPost UK)
Business in high and negatively impacted sectors, such as travel, are most likely to struggle. More traditional players with high fixed costs and low margins, like airlines, railways, hotels, are more likely to struggle than those with more variable costs and better digital reach, like Airbnb and Uber. The stronger players stand to benefit when the market starts to return after some of their competition has been eliminated.
Other sectors, such as those catering to remote work and telemedicine are receiving a short-term boost. At least some of this will be retained in the longer term.
Across all sectors, the winners are likely to be those that:
- most embrace flexible working,
- provide flexibility in channels, and
- have greater control over their supply chains.
Note that all of these factors were already present in the market. COVID-19 will not create this change. It will merely accelerate it.
There will be a flurry of creativity as increased unemployment leaves people with time on their hands and disruption opens up new opportunities to exploit. Intellectual property lawyers have reported is a rush of new applications since the lockdown period began. (Source: Eureka moment? Law firms report rush to patent ideas amid UK lockdown | World news | The Guardian published 24/05/2020)
GM launched in 1908, when the US economy was in turmoil after "the Panic of 1907" financial crisis. (Source: Why a recession can be a good time to start a business - BBC News published 18/06/2020)
Burger King flipped its first patty in 1953, when the US was again in recession. (Source: Why a recession can be a good time to start a business - BBC News published 18/06/202)
Uber set up during the financial crisis of 2007-9. (Source: Why a recession can be a good time to start a business - BBC News published 18/06/2020)
Former CEO Andy Grove said: “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis, good companies survive them, great companies are improved by them.”
Airbnb set up during the financial crisis of 2007-9. (Source: Why a recession can be a good time to start a business - BBC News published 18/06/2020)
With its better digital reach and lower fixed cost base, Airbnb may be able to outlast more traditional hotels with higher fixed costs. When the market returns, even if only in part, it may have the upper hand against those weakened competitors.
CNN started its news broadcasts in 1980, when US inflation hit almost 15%. (Source: Why a recession can be a good time to start a business - BBC News published 18/06/2020)
A new sense of community
A YouGov survey found that Brits perceive that social bonds have grown stronger. 40% report feeling a stronger sense of local community and 39% feeling more in touch with friends and family. (Source: Brits see cleaner air, stronger social bonds and changing food habits amid lockdown - RSA)
Millions of people across the UK have regularly paused to applaud frontline NHS staff, carers and health workers since the coronavirus outbreak. This typically happens on Thursday evenings at 8pm.
Flexible/remote working becomes mainstream
The movement towards flexible working has been growing for some time. For example, in the UK in 2018, of the employed population:
- 7.2% reported working mainly from home.
- 30% reported having worked from home sometimes.
- technically feasible,
- culturally acceptable.
- The transition was sudden and unplanned. People struggled to acquire, set up and learn to use the technology required for remote work.
- Many processes are unsuitable for remote work. In general, organisations which had invested in digitising processes found the transition easier.
- Parents with young children struggled to make the transition to remote working on top of the already difficult transition to remote schooling.
- Not all homes are suitable for remote work. Conducting your video calls from a well-appointed study is one thing. Doing so from a kitchen table where your children are also trying to do their homework is quite another.
- The change comes on top of a number of other stresses. For example, people may be concerned about the health of their friends and family. On top of their work lives, their social lives have also been disrupted.
- Newly remote workers have complained of 'Zoom* fatigue'. That is, the sense that a day spent in video-conference meetings feels more tiring than a day in physical meetings. There are many theories about what could cause this. Some of them relate to the other issues described above rather than to the nature of the meetings themselves.
- Serendipitous conversations around the proverbial water cooler.
- Quick conversations as you pass each other in the corridor.
- Greater awareness of peoples' dispositions. When it's OK to interrupt them and when it's better to wait.
- The creation of social bonds with people even when you're not formally meeting with them.
- Those shared cups of coffee or drinks after work.
- Increased non-verbal communications through body language.
- The role of the commute as a buffer zone between work and home life.
The COVID-19 lockdown has made illuminated, on the other hand, the many advantages of remote work:
- Fewer interruptions.
- Better work-life-balance as a result of less time spent commuting.
- Less time and money wasted by travelling between meetings.
- The ability to hire the best person for the job; not just the best person for the job who just happens to live near your office or is willing to relocate.
- Greater opportunities for people with certain types of disabilities.
- A reduced environmental footprint.
A survey conducted by the research firm Gartner reported that 75% of respondents plan to increase the number of permanent remote employees. (Source: How Working From Home Is Changing The Way We Think About Where We Live)
However, instead of returning to the old ways of working when the lockdown is lifted, forward-thinking employers and employees will find new ways of working which provide the best of both alternatives.
If nothing else, we will gain two ways of working instead of one. More individuals will be able to choose between in-office and remote work according to their personal preferences and styles, rather than almost everyone being forced into in-office work whether it suited them or not.
This reconfiguration of work will also provide an opportunity to address some of the toxic meeting cultures found in many organisations.
- Too many meetings.
- Poorly structured or absent agendas.
- Inadequate preparation.
- Too many and/or the wrong attendees.
- Poorly chaired meetings.
- Meetings dominated by the most senior and/or loudest voices rather than those best able to contribute.
- No clear outcomes.
Simply replicating in-office behaviours and processes into remote environments will reduce, instead of increasing productivity, and lead to more stress instead of less. (See The 5 levels of remote work - and why you're probably at number 2.)
- used to create more spacious, but expensive, offices which better accommodate social distancing.
- repurposed as inner-city residential space.
Slack will introduce a permanent flexible working policy for the majority of its 1,664 employees, following on from the changes made during the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. (Source)
Mark Zuckerberg predicts half of staffers will work remotely within five to 10 years. He also warns that staff will face pay cuts if they move to cheaper areas. (Source: Facebook employees face pay cuts if they move to cheaper areas | Daily Mail Online published 22/05/202)
Twitter has been one of the most vocal leaders in this area, announcing that "So if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen." and "Opening offices will be our decision, when and if our employees come back, will be theirs." (Source)
The threat of pandemics as a new reality
Some say that generations are defined by the threats they faced. The lost generation lived through World War II. The baby boomers lived through post-war scarcity. Generation-X lived through the threat of nuclear annihilation. The next generation may be defined by the fear of future pandemics.
Pandemics are not new. Records extend back to at least the Antonine Plague. This killed 5m people between 165 and 180 AD. More recently, HIV/AIDS has killed an estimated 25-35m people since 1981. SARS and MERS are more recent, albeit less deadly examples. (Source)
Scientists and others warned us of the risks of pandemic. See this 2015 Ted Talk by Bill Gates, for example. Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Laurie Garrett have provided similar warnings. (Source: The Pandemic Isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System | The New Yorker published 21/04/2020)
Some of the risks are endemic. Others are more of our own making.
- Factory farming produces antibiotic-laden foods with fewer nutrients.
- Global travel and supply chains allow epidemics to spread more rapidly.
- Our population is ageing with fewer and fewer people dying from before they reach old age.
Out attitudes towards death are also changing. Death is no longer something we have learned we must accept. It is something that must be fought at all costs for all people.
A new environmentalism
COVID-19 may have done more for the environmental revolution than a thousand Greta Thunbergs ever could.
During the lockdown, people have experienced for themselves that:
- they can live with a reduced environmental footprint, especially from reduced travel and consumption.
- that the planet can recover quite quickly, especially with regards to air pollution, and
- they like the benefits in terms of cleaner air and birdsong. A YouGov survey found that 51% of Brits say they have noticed cleaner air, and 27% more wildlife since the lockdown began. (Source: Brits see cleaner air, stronger social bonds and changing food habits amid lockdown - RSA)
A new culture of localism
The fragility of global trade has been exposed.
Forced into lockdown, many people have been exploring their local areas and amenities. Some for the first time.
There is renewed interest in consuming goods, especially food, closer to their point of origin.
The network becomes ubiquitous and invisible
'Online' and 'Connectivity' ar the big winners of this crisis.
Estimates of internet usage are up 40% since the start of the year across major economies, especially in sectors including retail, education, healthcare, leisure, and entertainment - Google's top three searches in the U.S. through 12 April are Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon. (Source: Industry Voice: Post-COVID Economy: Not the Way We We)
Digital networks will become more pervasive. They will become a basic requirement to support economic and social activity. Broadband and 5G will become core utilities.
Ultimately, like electricity or even air, they become omnipresent and therefore largely invisible They become something that is just there without us being particularly aware of it - until it's not.
Capacity planning for network bandwidth and energy consumption will have to be adjusted to increase capacity in dispersed urban home-based networks (as opposed to centralised office environments).
3D printing increases self-sufficiency
We have realised that we can't always rely on the availability of goods manufactured half-way around the world. This could give a boost to 3D printing, which allows for the manufacture of some parts at the point and time of need.
The growth of virtual education
Education, like tourism, has historically relied on moving the customer to the supplier.
Unlike tourism, digital and immersive platforms (VR, MR and XR) can be used to take education to where the customers are. This could prove hugely disruptive. Any student, anywhere in the world, may soon be able to study at any university in the world. This could bring huge economies of scale to education and necessitate educational institutions to differentiate themselves and tailor their experiences.
Automation will become the norm
In the first generations of computing, humans worked for the computers. They were co-opted as data capturers. They struggled to read and reconcile complex reports and to move data between systems.
Some companies resisted automation because of the impact it had on people and jobs.
But the crisis and resulting forced move to remote work has rewarded those that invested in digitisation and automation, and punished those that did not. The latter will find it increasingly hard to survive. They will finally adapt or die.
The impact on some may be as devastating as the closure of the coal mines was. For others, it may usher in a new era of freedom and prosperity.
AI will continue to flourish, especially in health sciences
We will see significant advances, especially in:
- telemedicine, and
- home-based diagnosis.
The aftermath of social distancing
Those parts of the economy that rely on bringing large numbers of people together will recover the most slowly. These include:
- Air and train travel: Travel will become less frequent (fueled by increase remote working), and more expensive (fueled by social distancing and reduced economies of scale).
- Theatres, cinemas and live events: Could we see a resurgence of drive-in theatres?
- Gyms: and other high-contact environments. Especially as people become more aware of their local amenities (see A new culture of localism)
- Universities and colleges: Schools may recover more quickly because they are considered to be more compulsory.
- Restaurants and bars.
Alternatives modes of transport and exercise, such as bicycles, on the other hand, are growing.
Has seen 2 seen "significant growth in sales [of bikes] through the cycle-to-work scheme - perhaps not surprising as consumers look for alternatives to public transport. We've seen increases in sales to women and to small children, suggesting families are cycling for leisure and exercise." (Source: Coronavirus: Bike sales surge as commuters search for 'new, isolated' travel | UK News | Sky News)
An extensive analysis of data logged via the full range of Garmin fitness devices concluded that "More people are exercising, but in different ways, to make up for the Coronavirus’s suppression of normal daily movement". For example, whilst total worldwide steps decrease by 12% in April 2020, worldwide steps from just workout activities increased by 24%. (Source: The Impact of the Global Pandemic on Human Activity: A Global Perspective - Garmin Blo)
Has seen a "30 to 40% increase" in bike sales. (Source: Coronavirus: Bike sales surge as commuters search for 'new, isolated' travel | UK News | Sky News)
The demise of cash
If people are afraid of cash as something that might transmit germs, contactless payment methods will receive a further boost.
This trend is also bolstered by The transformation of the high street.
PayPal experienced the largest single day of transactions in the company’s history — bigger than both Black Friday and Cyber Monday of 2019. April 2020 was also a record-breaking month for PayPal in terms of enrolment and use. PayPal added 7.4 million net new active accounts. PayPal also hit a record in Q1, adding 10 million net new accounts. That pick-up was rapidly outshined in April, when its daily net new customer rate averaged roughly 250,000 per day and counting. (Source: What happens if consumers stop consuming? - Chris Skinner's blog published 29/05/2020)
The World Health Organisation:
The WHO has said that coronavirus is not a "good" carrier of coronavirus. (Source: 4 futurists on how to be forward-thinking in a post-COVID-19 world published 24/05/2020) But that may not be enough to overcome the perception.
The legal profession has hitherto remained subbornly physical.
We could see a number of changes:
- Virtual court hearings (e.g. by VC).
- The demise of natories.
- The demise of "wet" signatures.
A global consciousness
We're living in a world where we have 7.7bn people on the planet. 85% of them are literate. A large proportion of those have access to the internet in at least some form. This gives them (theoretically) access to the entire cumulative knowledge of the world, as well as to each other.
And the pandemic has given people the world over a new sense of collectivism. We all share one planet and risk each others' misfortunes.
This allows people to organise, with comparative ease, global movements around common causes such as saving the environment or defeating the pandemic. (As well as to spread nationalism and other arguably less desirable ideas.)
In the knowledge sphere, organisations will be able to look for the best employees and partners across the whole globe. Similarly, individuals will be able to compete for jobs on a global scale.
The return of big government
The Conservative government's reponse to the crisis has been more reminiscent of Labour economic policy. This has created a national economic-political consensus probably not seen since the aftermath of World War II.
The unassailable NHS
The front-line healthcare workers of the NHS are emerging from the crisis as the saviours of Britain. Much like the fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain.
The NHS will become even more unassailable. This will prevent it from achieving the reform it almost certainly needs. It may also come at the expense of other national priorities like social care.
The transformation of the high street
Restrictions have pushed even more people away from the high street towards online retailers and grocers. Few will go back.
The traditional high street, already struggling, will struggle more.
It took about 15 years for 5% of retail sales to shift online, then another 10 to shift another 5%. It has taken 10 weeks for another 5% of retail sales to shift online by consumers who say that they will never return to doing those activities in a physical world. (Source: What happens if consumers stop consuming? - Chris Skinner's blog published 29/05/202)
In the worst outcome, high streets will dies and towns will become hollowed out.
In a more optimistic outcome, a new sense of localism will revive the high street as a social hub. Less a place to shop for essentials, and more a place to engage with your community.
Independent outlets have responded more creatively to the crisis. They have done so by offering support in their communities. This could be by changing their product mix (think bakeries selling flour) or channels (think restaurant's switching to takeaways).
The nuclear family
Forced lockdown with your family could make or break the nuclear family. Some have enjoyed the increase in time spent with their families. For others, it may have been more challenging.
The result may be both an increase in divorces and/or a baby boom.
Parents forced to home school (or at least to support whilst remote-schooling) their children may develop a new appreciation for the children's needs and for the roles that their teachers play.
The erosion of personal freedoms
Lockdown was an unprecedented curbing of civil liberties by both central and devolved government.
The battle to protect individuals at the expense of their personal freedoms began with the war on terror and continued with the war on COVID-19.
Will it relax after COVID-19, or will the erosion of personal freedoms continue?
Halfords sells around 25% of bikes in the UK. (Source: Coronavirus: Bike sales surge as commuters search for 'new, isolated' travel | UK News | Sky News)
A Bristol-based independent bike maker which also has a store in London.