Finding the light amid pandemic darkness
Something for the weekend: do we really want to go 'back to normal'?

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As summer begins its inevitable transition into autumn, you’d be forgiven for assuming there isn’t change in the air. There is, and as we’ve said so often these past 18 or so months, we have the pandemic to blame.

You can see the evidence virtually everywhere. Teachers in some regions are busy preparing their classrooms. Students in other districts have already taken their first halting steps back into schoolyards. Parents lucky enough to have jobs listen for news from their employers about return-to-office (RTO) plans.

After two disrupted academic years, it would be nice to think we’re finally on the cusp of going back to normal – whatever normal is. Students and teachers at all levels have been hoping that this new academic year would be a turning point. But headline after headline makes it abundantly clear that academics and teaching staff are still planning for uncertainty. They’re not sure how much of the teaching will be in-person and how much online.

The vast majority of educators and students now have the right tools, skills and processes in place for online teaching. They have adjusted to the subtleties of delivering curriculum virtually. But uncertainty over where we’re headed – driven largely by soaring delta variant-driven infection rates and stalling vaccination numbers – means what comes next is anybody’s guess. Some school districts have dialed back plans for in-class teaching, many organizations have pushed back their RTO dates, and event planners have begun shifting some in-person events back to virtual.

A lousy year, but…

While Nostradamus’s predictions for 2021 of a zombie apocalypse haven’t materialized (yet), 2021 has continued to build on the challenges of 2020. Wildfires continue to burn in the U.S., Greece, and elsewhere. Once-in-a-century floods have destroyed communities across Europe. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has raised security fears both in that war-torn region and globally. All of this threatens to further erode our confidence, already shaken by over 18 months of pandemic life.

Global disparity in the response to the pandemic only adds to the worry. While some countries have vaccinated a large proportion of their population, many poorer countries are only just getting access to vaccines and starting their rollout. It also seems clear that we’re going to need ongoing vaccination programs, and that international travel is never going to be the same again.

Yet, for all the doom and gloom that now surrounds us, we don’t want to dwell on it. We think it’s time to stop talking about getting ‘back to normal’. Instead, we need to create a new normal, and find a way of living and working in a permanently changed world.

Finding the light

It may seem odd to say it out loud, but there have been a lot of positives as a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

A McKinsey report concluded North American companies advanced their digital agendas by seven years in the first few months of the pandemic. The McKinsey study includes some eye-opening data, including how organizations shrank cloud migration timelines by a factor of 27 – from 547 days to 23 – to meet exploding demand for customer-facing online ecommerce.

And we can expect that acceleration to continue: a Harvey Nash/KPMG survey of global CIOs concluded tech investment in the early stages of the pandemic grew faster than at any time in history, and 29% of those surveyed said the pandemic had permanently boosted their IT budgets

This data reflects how the pandemic has inspired innovation in numerous industries that pivoted to serve the needs of a population confined to their homes with an explosion of home-delivery and online businesses.

From local breweries delivering beer to the door to bakeries ensuring quarantined residents won’t miss their afternoon tea, there’s ample evidence of local businesses leveraging next-generation technologies and processes to pivot toward new models. On a larger scale, connected exercise devices like Peloton and Mirror have brought online fitness into the home, and have deservedly experienced explosive growth in the process. In particular, Peloton became a household name after pivoting its go-to-market strategy in the early days of the outbreak. And at SHI, we delivered IT equipment to our customers’ employees’ homes to ensure they could keep working when their offices closed.

In the workplace, it has acted as a catalyst for digital transformation in businesses that had been avoiding dealing with technology debt. It has inspired innovation in numerous industries that pivoted to serve the needs of a population confined to their homes with an explosion of home-delivery and online businesses.

Giving thanks to the essential

As challenging as the isolation has been, it has also allowed us to appreciate who the truly ‘essential’ workers are – the ones who make up the infrastructure of our lives, from food producers, retailers and healthcare staff to truck drivers and the folks who pick up our trash.

We’ve learned to be flexible how, where and when we work. We’ve become adept at using collaboration tools to drive productivity in fully remote and hybrid work environments. We’ve had glimpses into the lives of others. And while many people would like to go ‘back to normal’, there are also many who want to keep the good things that have come out of the pandemic. For what it’s worth, online yoga and Pilates are at the top of my list (that’s Victoria’s list, not Carmi’s).

With the ongoing uncertainty about how the pandemic will continue to unfold, we must remain flexible – wherever and however we live and work. Investment in digital transformation must continue to ensure organizational systems are resilient and fit for purpose as online activity increases and activity at the edge continues to grow as a result of both remote working and investment in IoT.

Toward hybrid everything

We need to continue to plan for hybrid working, hybrid education and hybrid exercise. And we need to embrace flexibility and asynchronous working – not just for those of us who can work as easily from the sofa as from the office. We can do the same for those who have what might appear to be less flexible roles. For example, we can put tools in place to let them pick their own working hours, or swap shifts with colleagues. Why not use this as a chance to upskill, and give them the opportunity to work on different projects or activities? Or try offering different working patterns (5-days-in-4 for example, or split shifts). We can cross-train staff so that they can switch roles in the event of individual having to isolate in order to reduce the business impact and remove the need to take sick/unpaid leave.

This isn’t the first time Planet Earth has faced epic uncertainty. In the past depressions, wars, epidemics and other scourges reshaped the fabric of daily life for millions of people. So these events have laid the groundwork for resilience, agility, and innovation amid a population that, pre-COVID, may not have been as focused on the need for transformation – digital or other – as we should have been. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different. Based on the shining examples of creative adaptation we’ve seen throughout our globalized economy so far, we expect the light to continue to banish the darkness. If anything, returning to normal, whatever normal might be, should be the last thing we wish for.