2021 will be the year of transition. Barring any unexpected catastrophes, individuals, businesses, and society can start to look forward to shaping their futures rather than just grinding through the present. The next normal is going to be different. It will not mean going back to the conditions that prevailed in 2019. Indeed, just as the terms “prewar” and “postwar” are commonly used to describe the 20th century, generations to come will likely discuss the pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 eras.
The future of work arrives ahead of schedule
Before the COVID-19 crisis, the idea of remote working was in the air but not proceeding very far or fast. But the pandemic changed that, with tens of millions of people transitioning to working from home, essentially overnight, in a wide range of industries. For example, according to Michael Fisher, president and CEO of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, there were 2,000 telehealth visits recorded at the organization in all of 2019—and 5,000 a week in July 2020.19 Fisher thinks telehealth could account for 30 percent of all healthcare visits in the future. In Japan, fewer than 1,000 institutions offered remote care in 2018; by July 2020, more than 16,000 did.
The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that more than 20 percent of the global workforce (most of them in high-skilled jobs in sectors such as finance, insurance, and IT) could work the majority of its time away from the office—and be just as effective. Not everyone who can, will; even so, that is a once-in-several-generations change. It’s happening not just because of the COVID-19 crisis but also because advances in automation and digitization made it possible; the use of those technologies has accelerated during the pandemic. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted in April 2020 that “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months
The return of confidence unleashes a consumer rebound
There are lines outside stores, but they are often due to physical-distancing requirements. Theaters are dark. Fashions are in closets rather than on display. If the Musée du Louvre were open, the lack of tourists might even create the opportunity for an unobstructed view of the Mona Lisa. In these and other ways, consumers have pulled back.
As consumer confidence returns, so will spending, with “revenge shopping” sweeping through sectors as pent-up demand is unleashed. That has been the experience of all previous economic downturns. One difference, however, is that services have been particularly hard hit this time. The bounce back will therefore likely emphasize those businesses, particularly the ones that have a communal element, such as restaurants and entertainment venues.
The crisis sparks a wave of innovation and launches a generation of entrepreneurs
Plato was right: necessity is indeed the mother of invention. During the COVID-19 crisis, one area that has seen tremendous growth is digitization, meaning everything from online customer service to remote working to supply-chain reinvention to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to improve operations. Healthcare, too, has changed substantially, with telehealth and biopharma coming into their own.
Disruption creates space for entrepreneurs—and that’s what is happening in the United States, in particular, but also in other major economies. We admit that we didn’t see this coming. After all, during the 2008–09 financial crisis, small-business formation declined, and it rose only slightly during the recessions of 2001 and 1990–91. This time, though, there is a veritable flood of new small businesses. In the third quarter of 2020 alone, there were more than 1.5 million new-business applications in the United States—almost double the figure for the same period in 2019.
Digitally enabled productivity gains accelerate the Fourth Industrial Revolution
There’s no going back. The great acceleration in the use of technology, digitization, and new forms of working is going to be sustained. Many executives reported that they moved 20 to 25 times faster than they thought possible on things like building supply-chain redundancies, improving data security, and increasing the use of advanced technologies in operations.12
How all that feeds into long-term productivity will not be known until the data for several more quarters are evaluated. But it’s worth noting that US productivity in the third quarter of 2020 rose 4.6 percent, following a 10.6 percent increase in the second quarter, which is the largest six-month improvement since 1965. Productivity is only one number, albeit an important one; the startling figure for the United States in the second quarter was based in large part on the biggest declines in output and hours seen since 1947. That isn’t an enviable precedent.
More positively, in the past, it has taken a decade or longer for game-changing technologies to evolve from cool new things to productivity drivers. The COVID-19 crisis has sped up that transition in areas such as AI and digitization by several years, and even faster in Asia. A McKinsey survey published in October 2020 found that companies are three times likelier than they were before the crisis to conduct at least 80 percent of their customer interactions digitally.
Photo credits: McKinsey