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Six ways business will stay changed once COVID-19 passes

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 30, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world with devastating speed. New ways of working that were waiting on the sidelines are suddenly mainstream

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Most of the time, the future arrives gently. Despite the high speed of technology change, we absorb its effects into our daily lives far more slowly — especially at work. Faced with the option of retiring familiar old ways of working in favor of more streamlined, emergent alternatives, the response is usually, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' Change gets deferred — until one day something happens and suddenly everything that was familiar is broken. At a stroke, all those fixes that have been waiting on the sidelines get fast-tracked to the mainstream. We are in one of those exceptional moments.

Of course we still hope for everything to get back to normal as soon as possible. We especially want to put all the anxiety, fear, suffering and tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic behind us. That day will come, but the world afterwards will not be the same as before. In adjusting to the new abnormal we are learning new habits and skills that we won't want to unlearn. [By the way, this is a 15-minute read — if you want to come back to it later, click the red bookmark symbol by the headline to save it to your story library].

Those new ways of behaving are already known to us. A few early adopters have been honing the underlying technology and developing the skills to make best use of it. Many of us have seen what they've been doing and thinking that maybe, one day, it will make sense to switch. Then suddenly, everything changes and the time to make the switch is now.

We've seen this play out with earlier shocks, most recently in the 2007/08 banking crisis, which accelerated adoption of cloud computing, as Unit4 CEO Mike Ettling pointed out to me earlier this week (and mobile off the back of cloud, I would add). A couple weeks ago, Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo made a similar point, also citing the rise of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) in the wake of the dot-com bust in 2000/01.

In some ways, the shock of COVID-19 ushers in the next wave of those same trends, as distributed working takes mobile and cloud computing to a whole new level. But there's so much more that is going to change — or is already changing — in the coming year. Here are six of the big changes coming in business as the pandemic sweeps in new ways of digitally connected working that we already knew made sense, but which we now have no choice but to adopt.

1. Remote digital teamwork becomes the norm

People have been working remotely — or as we are now calling it, working from home — for many years already. Web conferencing got started before the turn of the century. Email and remote access over VPN dates back even further. Over the past two decades, the broadband infrastructure has progressed enormously, while the tools have become far more sophisticated. Just when we need it, we have the resources at our disposal to weave a collaborative canvas to connect digital teamwork across the enterprise, even when many participants are physically isolated.

Yet remote working has always seemed a second-best choice in organizations where most work is centered on the office, while working from home is often seen as 'slacking off'. It's only now that almost everyone is forced to work from home that the tables have turned. Suddenly, working from home is the mainstream choice and we are all learning the etiquette of video team calls, how to keep our work in sync with other members of a distributed team, and how to balance work deadlines with domestic demands.

When the Prime Minister of Britain, now self-isolating with COVID-19, says that he can stay on top of his job from home "thanks to the wizardry of modern technology," you know that this has gone mainstream. The millions more users joining Microsoft Teams, exchanging messages on Slack or joining web conference calls on Zoom or Google Hangouts are forming habits that will last a lifetime.

2. Conferences go virtual

People have been trying to run virtual conferences since the mid-2000s, but it never really caught on. There was never any great incentive to invest in a virtual alternative when everyone was still willing to endure the huge cost and travel disruption of the traditional trade show or vendor conference. Suddenly virtual events are all the rage because travel and large gatherings have been abruptly vetoed. Every event planned since early March has either been put off or else switched to online — with varying degrees of success.

But here's the thing. Now that everyone has an incentive to make a success of virtual events — because there's no alternative — huge amounts of talent, creativity and funding are suddenly being devoted to finding out what works best. The sector is finally getting the attention and resource it's been starved of, and as people learn from each other's experiences, the quality of online events will rapidly evolve.

This is somewhat different than the shift to remote working, where the tools and the techniques are already mature because there are have been many early adopters, including some very large and well-resourced enterprises. Virtual events are at a much earlier stage, but that doesn't mean they can't make huge progress over the next few months.

Once there have been several significant successes that show how to replicate much of the experience of a physical event without a large part of the cost and hassle, what appetite will there be for a wholesale return to the old model? That's even assuming that travel restrictions — especially international — are going to get lifted soon enough to allow it. No, the business world is going to figure out virtual events over the next few months and they will become a formidable rival to old-school trade shows and conferences.

3. Education goes on-demand

Just as the move to remote working was held back by existing structures and habits that have suddenly and forcibly been abandoned, so too with the transformation of the education sector. Despite the rise of massively open online course (MOOC) providers such as Coursera, Khan Academy and Udacity, the growing number of online courses offered by academic institutions, and the growth of industry-specific online training platforms such as Salesforce Trailhead, most education remains stubbornly classroom based. Why?

The old model of young people spending three or four years at college amassing knowledge that will set them up for a lifetime career is already broken. But the institutions and methodologies that delivered that model still exist, and so they perpetuate an educational system that is no longer fit for purpose — sustained by a funding model that imposes often unsustainable financial burdens on graduates.

Once working from home becomes mainstream, won't it become just as natural to study from home? Although this is a change that will likely take longer than some others, I think the demand for change will become overwhelming. Already, schools and colleges that have closed for the pandemic are turning to online classes so that they can continue teaching. When they finally reopen, they may discover that online interaction has become fundamental to their continued existence.

4. The rise of local sourcing and 3D printing

Another technology innovation that's seemed slow to take hold has been 3D printing. For the past decade, we've heard the promise of printing components locally, on demand, without having to wait for them to ship from some faraway factory. But the reality of 3D printing has been more of a niche role, creating one-off custom designs such as prototype parts or custom medical implants.

In a highly predictable, homogenized and globalized world, we haven't needed the flexibility of local sourcing to fulfil our needs. Demand planners have been able to precisely hone their demand forecasts and co-ordinate just-in-time production from faraway factories to deliver components where they're needed, using a reliable global logistics network. Maintaining alternative, local sources of supply was an unnecessary overhead.

But then came the Coronavirus panic and suddenly demand planning ceased to be predictable, at the same time as the supply chain ground to a halt as many producers abruptly shut down. The fragility of the just-in-time supply chain was laid bare and the new mantra, as political risk analyst Ian Bremmer recently put it, is just-in-case. Supply chains need to build in redundancy and alternative sourcing as a cushion against unexpected disruptive events.

This new awareness of supply chain risk will lead businesses to seek ways of achieving much more agile modeling of demand and supply, of managing more agile sourcing, and taking advantage of more agile production — which is where 3D printing can play a bigger role. This story of a 3D-printed ventilator designed in Spain in less than a week and already in production shows the potential.

These changes won't happen overnight — refactoring a supply chain is no easy feat, as we've all seen in our much changed experience of grocery shopping these past few weeks. Many will want to breath a huge sigh of relief once the panic is over and return to their old habits. But that nagging fear of getting caught out again isn't going to fade away, and governments too will see strategic value in ensuring local sources of supply for critical items. Agile, risk-aware supply chain planning is here to stay.

5. IT projects go agile

At times of crisis, the time horizon for action is short. Nobody at the moment is thinking about multi-month IT projects, unless it's how to put them on hold. Instead, IT leaders should be looking at much shorter timelines, falling into two waves. The first priority is rapidly redeploying resources for immediate needs, whether that means putting in tools to support people working from home, accelerating information gathering and analysis to get in front of stresses in the business, or switching to lower-cost alternatives.

Anything of this nature is only worth doing if it can be put in place in a matter of days or a few weeks at most. In technology terms, that means looking at SaaS applications that can be deployed ready-to-run, rapid application development toolkits or low-code/no-code tools that can deliver working solutions fast, and agile development methodologies to quickly work up new applications for deployment on public cloud or serverless infrastructure.

We know all of this works because it's what digital businesses have already been doing to manage rapid change — some of the most advanced are already using continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD) to ship hundreds of code changes a day. Everyone else has been trying to gauge the best time for them to make the leap to this new more agile world of SaaS, RAD and CI/CD. That time is here, now.

While there are some changes that can be brought in overnight — such as deploying Zoom, or switching on Teams or Hangout if you already use Office 365 or G Suite — others need a little more time to put in place. Here's where the second wave of action comes into play.

There's probably an 8-12 week window ahead, through the peak of the initial COVID-19 crisis, until restrictions start lifting so that most businesses can tentatively begin to resume operations. Until that time, many are effectively furloughed by forced closures of their own operations or those of their customers. During this window of reduced or mothballed operation, consider what projects can be completed that will be most useful once activity picks up again — remembering that when it does, agility, responsiveness and up-to-date information will be even more valuable than ever.

Perhaps it's rolling out one or more SaaS applications, firing up a new RAD tool to fast-track some priority development work, or implementing API-based connectivity to replace some of the more fragile middleware that's been holding back transformation plans. With core systems ticking over at idling speed or even stopped entirely, this is a rare opportunity to tackle some of those nagging issues that were never possible to fit into routine planned downtime.

Maybe this is the time for the development team to learn some new skills, adopt some new tools, or reorganize into more of an agile team structure that's better suited to delivering new or changed functionality in a more unpredictable business environment. Or take the opportunity to fix some of those data consolidation challenges that have been getting in the way of connecting up more agile workflows or building more accurate, up-to-date and flexible reporting and dashboards.

Often these projects will have been mooted many times before, but always got sidelined by other more mainstream priorities that seemed more urgent. Suddenly, the new circumstances have advanced them into the mainstream and propelled them to top priority. Now they're here to stay. They won't be going back on the shelf when this is over.

6. You must connect to customer success

The other huge trend that I believe now gets accelerated to the mainstream is one that builds on the connected digital infrastructure that's come out of earlier waves of SaaS and cloud adoption. This is a trend I've called the XaaS Effect, because it takes the lessons of SaaS and applies them to every other industry, in other words Everything-as-a-Service (XaaS). What SaaS providers discovered very early on was that their continuous digital connection to customers meant that they could stay engaged with them, monitor how they were using the products or services, and then make iterative improvements to deliver better outcomes. Note that this goes beyond customer satisfaction or experience at the time of purchase. Through digital connection, real-time analysis and dynamic teamwork, it's focused on understanding what the customer wants to achieve:

  • Engage — Know what success means for your customers.
  • Monitor — Measure whether they're experiencing success.
  • Improve — Find ways your business, product or service can help them be even more successful.

This is a huge switch from the old disconnected product sales model, and one where customer service becomes a crucial part of maintaining and developing the customer relationship. It also requires joined-up collaboration across the organization, which is why it ties into both the collaborative canvas concept that I mentioned earlier and the overarching framework of frictionless enterprise, which breaks down the old organizational barriers to cross-functional teamwork.

So what just happened with the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic? Suddenly, your customer's needs may be nothing like they were just a few weeks ago. Instead of working out what quantity, color or size they're going to want next, you're co-ordinating with them to help them protect their staff, ease their cashflow or co-create a completely new product line. Your capacity to accurately listen to customers, understand their needs and then rapidly swarm to adapt your offering is being tested at an unprecedented intensity. And now that everyone is remote working, their expectation that you can deliver on all of that across distance and timezones just went up several notches.

The change in expectations has been as sudden as flicking a light switch. And yet those changes are grounded in reality. These trends may have become mainstream overnight, but they were always standing on the sidelines — I first wrote about frictionless enterprise in 2011 and as early as 1999 was advancing the cause of cloud computing and serverless architectures. This was always going to happen, we just kept on putting it off.

In the beginning, the technology lacked maturity, then even when the technology improved, the time was never right, and when the time had finally come, the business case was never compelling.

But now the business case has arrived, demanding immediate action. The world has changed in a few short weeks and, however much we may yearn for a return to what we knew as normality, all of these fringe ways of working — remote working, virtual gatherings, on-demand education, just-in-case sourcing, agile IT and engaging with customer success — have now become the new mainstream.

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