Beyond Covid-19: Has anything changed for the better?

With the continued uncertainty - and of course, the unremitting joys of homeschooling, it’s fair to say that any novelty value of the lockdown is now long gone.

Even when restrictions do start to lift, we won’t be experiencing business as usual anytime soon. But is this an entirely bad thing? In terms of priorities, attitudes and new ways of living, here are some of the positives we may be able to carry with us into the future.

The green benefits of fewer commuters

When billions of workers across the globe were told to stay at home, the impact on the environment was both significant and immediate. Cities are currently a lot cleaner than they were - and there are plenty of obvious positives from this. As an illustration, Stanford University researchers estimate that improvements in air quality in China may have saved the lives of over 70,000 people.

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan points to the fact that anti-pollution measures introduced since 2017 had already led to a 35% drop in harmful nitrogen dioxide emissions across the capital. City-wide, the lockdown has caused those levels to fall by a further 27%. At some pollution hotspots, it is down by almost 50%.

So is this breath of fresh air just a temporary phenomenon? A lot will depend on our attitude to working from home (WFH) - and whether the lockdown has done anything to fundamentally change it.

If, on the whole, employers regard WFH as nothing more than a temporary workaround, then clogged-up transport routes and dirty cities will eventually become the norm once again. But of course, that doesn’t have to be the case. Many organisations find that WFH suits the business just fine, while staff appreciate it, too. If a lot more of us decide to retain at least some elements of WFH in the long-term, we might all notice the benefit.

New heroes emerge (and a handful of villains are uncovered)

99-year-old Captain Tom Moore, the NHS, carers, key workers: these are just some of the heroes that have emerged from the crisis.

Many businesses have also stepped up. We’ve seen brewers switch from beer to bottles of disinfectant and hand sanitiser, while clothing manufacturers have turned their production focus to protective gowns. Other examples include the hotels that have made their newly-vacant rooms available to homeless charities and key workers, along with the cafes that have shifted their focus to preparing food boxes for the elderly and vulnerable.

But of course, not every business will come out of the Covid-19 crisis with their reputation untarnished. Certain companies were seen as being a little too eager to lay off staff, just as the government was putting in place a furlough scheme designed to protect jobs. Other businesses have been accused of taking a cavalier attitude to staff health and safety, especially when it comes to social distancing measures and sick pay provision.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become a hot topic over recent years. Simply put, it’s a way of assessing the impact of business activities on individuals, communities and the environment.

It’s actually very easy for organisations to make bold CSR claims. But when things get tough, it can really put those claims to the test. Has this company treated its staff and suppliers fairly? Is it responding to the changing needs of customers and the wider community - or is it merely trying to exploit an opportunity?

This is perhaps one of the positives of Covid-19: it reveals the true colours of organisations. More than ever, customers expect companies to do the right thing. Behave responsibly, and it could go a long way in earning their trust.

New technologies come of age

At a very early stage of the outbreak, it was clear that the world was facing a critical shortage of ventilators, PPE and other key pieces of equipment. Part of the solution involved getting manufacturers with no previous history of clinical kit production to help in making up the shortfall.

Ventilator components, respirator masks, visors and other clinical-grade items have to meet pretty tough standards before they can be put to work. A decade or so ago, it would have taken many months for non-medical manufacturers to get up to scratch with these standards. But thanks to 3D printing technology, any producer with digital manufacturing capabilities can get to work within hours of being provided with the product design. From major motor industry players through to small-scale workshops, a vast range of manufacturers have been able to join the production effort.

Gaining a new perspective

The last few months has been a time for testing assumptions and re-examining priorities - and that’s no bad thing.

For instance, up until recently, rigid hours, close supervision and a tight chain of command were still hardwired into the corporate culture of a surprisingly large proportion of businesses. Covid-19 may have forced a rethink. Many businesses may have come to realise that giving employees much greater flexibility on how, when and where tasks are carried out doesn’t negatively impact performance. In fact, it often results in a productivity boost.

Meanwhile, book and bicycle sales have spiked, while many of us have taken the opportunity to tackle those jobs we’ve long been putting off. Organisations might want to take a similar approach, by taking a good look at their existing tools, processes and assumptions. Does anything need fixing? This could be the ideal time to get it done.

Life after Coronavirus, longer term impact on global trends, business and your wider world

Watch the keynote speech - 'Life after Coronavirus, longer term impact on global trends, business and your wider world' presented live at The Millennium Consulting Unit4 Financials Global Virtual Conference.

Presented by Patrick Dixon - Europe's leading futurist.