Even before the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, 70% of companies were on some sort of digital transformation journey. During lockdowns around the world, a billion people have surged onto digital platforms to work from home. As a result, the world’s digital transformation has accelerated by 3-5 years and digital is no longer a differentiator, it’s mission critical. Working from home used to be an employee benefit, now people are curious when someone on the call says they are actually in the office. Progressive companies have long seen WFH as a productivity gain with mutual benefit. Employees who keep fit or spend time with families instead of sitting in traffic get more done during the day – even if they still spend the same number of hours actually working. Younger workforces prefer mobility and digital natives have no need for the office trappings of cupboards and printers. Even the large corner office at the top of the corporate ladder is losing its appeal.
Those trends were true in 2019, but they are irrelevant in 2020. Every physical or analogue interaction in company processes have been challenged and digitised where possible. Entire industries have given up old thinking and adapted to a mostly distributed workforce. Some companies like Twitter have announced that their employees can work from home forever. While this offers rapid efficiency gains (many of which were already promised by digital transformation), there are challenges such as culture, collaboration, information security risks and even mental health. The global WFH experiment is testing all these issues and future operating models will be based on real data, not digital transformation hype. Some professions and industries are more easily digitised than others but the last decade has already thrown out the rule book on many other assumptions.
There are some clear winners and losers; restaurants in many countries have been devastated, even established chains. Even though some countries may start opening up in the coming months, many believe that irreversible damage has already been inflicted on a surprising large employer: 15,6m in the US. Job losses across the US have been up to 10x higher than previous peak periods of recession and even the once exponential firm Uber has had to lay off thousands and shut a number offices while. On the other hand, tech companies such as Zoom and Microsoft have seen unprecedented demand for their products. Zoom users jumped by 50% in three weeks during March, while Teams saw a massive 1000% increase in traffic. Entertainment platform Netflix also saw impressive gains, even though many streaming services were throttled to keep the internet stable. Billionaire shareholders in these companies have done extremely well; Bezos (Amazon), Yuan (Zoom) and Ballmer (Microsoft) all saw their net worth increase by over $1Bn during March / April 2020.
To some they seem like “pandemic profiteers” but I’m glad these visionaries managed to build platforms before the world suddenly depended on them. On the other hand, I sincerely hope our restaurants survive. No matter how good the technology, we are social creatures and I am craving the smell of a wood fired pizza oven and a glass of wine with friends.