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Death, downturn and dramatic digitalisation – COVID-19’s legacy-to-be

5.4.2020 | 7 minutes of reading time

The coronavirus is thrusting society towards digitalisation. Expect many changes to remain long after the crisis has gone.

Mike Chang, Product Owner at Altoread (names changed) briefed his technical staff last week in regards to COVID-19: “We need to prepare for traffic at up to 4x normal levels…”

Altoread offers readers computer and smartphone-based alternatives to traditional paper books. As libraries shut their physical buildings over the past weeks, they pointed their readers towards such digital services.

But the second half of Mike’s statement was the most interesting part: “We are expecting this to be a permanent change. After the crisis, traffic will not fall again.”

COVID-19 has already had a dramatic effect on the world. But much more is to come. As governments prepare to spend “unlimited” amounts of money to prop up their economies, people around the world in various stages of lockdown are being forced to find new ways to get on with work and daily life. They are charting new waters, waters which in many cases, no amount of persuasion up to this point had caused them to venture into. And be it video conference, grocery delivery or online shopping, those waters are almost exclusively digital services.

Many of the old, non-digital habits will return after COVID-19 is gone, but some won’t. In 2014, a strike on the London Underground closed some tube lines, forcing commuters to create new itineraries using the remaining lines to get to work and back. A study by Oxford and Cambridge universities revealed that after the strike had ended, 5% of passengers continued using their new itinerary, apparently preferring it to their previous route. Could something similar happen in the online space after coronavirus?

Digitalisation by force

The world was already on a trajectory of going digital. This inevitable change nevertheless takes time. People stick to their old habits, and it’s quite difficult for firms to persuade them to try something new. Grocery shopping is a case in point. In the US, Target famously used customer loyalty-card data to predict, with impressive accuracy, which of its shoppers were in their second trimester of pregnancy. They then bombarded these ladies with promotional material intended to influence them to switch to Target as their main household shopping source. The second trimester of pregnancy, science has revealed, is one of the few times in life that people are especially open to breaking old habits and forming new ones.

The novel coronavirus has put us into a similar situation, though rather by necessity and force than by hormones or nature. In Spain and some other European countries, police and the armed forces are patrolling the streets and enforcing the lockdown. There is no longer an option to resist digitalisation and avoid “new-fangled stuff”. You no longer have a choice to support your local bricks-and-mortar book seller. You are literally being forced to conduct business online by people carrying guns. That beats even the second trimester.

This gives a new meaning to “One-Click Ordering”. Comic by Florian Schneider .

Ordering a New World

The effect is being felt in digital demand. Amazon is employing 100,000 new warehouse and logistic workers to deal with the increase in orders. Microsoft Teams remote collaboration software has stuttered under sudden demand, whilst the share price of Zoom, a video communications service, has rocketed against the backdrop of a wider market freefall. And as for grocery shopping, Woolworths, an Australian supermarket, has suspended online shopping and delivery in some regions, unable to cope.

Perhaps shoppers who only know how to cook pasta are preparing for Italy to disappear

The changes are everywhere. Teachers are sharing their contact details with students in order to be able to instruct them remotely, previously a taboo idea for many in their attempt to strictly separate work and private life. Churches are holding services entirely online. “Ghost” music concerts (be it pop or classical) are being played in empty theatres and broadcast for free. Tomorrow Lead Dev Live will kick off, one of many free online events created to replace a cancelled in-presence conference; over 10,000 people have signed up. Localised small interest groups have switched to online.

Before Corona, aficionados would probably have told you that these events can only be conducted in-person. Isn’t the entire purpose of church, or a software conference, physically coming together to socialise, interact and exchange ideas? Live-recorded music concerts were always just a flavour of recorded music. Homeschooling is/was either banned or vaguely tolerated in most countries. But when it’s virtual or nothing, virtual suddenly has virtue.

Borders close. Online communities open.

These approaches are already opening new horizons. This month, codecentricer Chris Dutz will present live from his home in Frankfurt, Germany at the Melbourne, Australia IoT meetup. The Lead Dev London could never have handled so many attendees at the physical conference – this newfound reach might be something the organisers would like to continue. Will virtual meetups continue after the crisis, defined by time and language rather than by region? In the education space homeschooling is unlikely to take off, but expect to see a few new methods filter through into normal practise after the crisis.

As long as each participant in a video conference remains 1m from his monitor, the mandated 2m is maintained between any two participants at all times.

Earlier in the crisis, when social distancing was only beginning to be encouraged, there were reports on Twitter of managers continuing to insist that employees come to the office, because permitting employees to work from home “might create a precedent”. In other words, after COVID-19 crisis has passed, people might ask their bosses why they shouldn’t continue to work from home : “I avoided a long commute, I was able to work without distractions, and as you can see, I got more done than ever.”

Assuming the reports are true, these managers are spot on. Employees will request this and more, and citizens will make other changes. The net effect on society is going to be a sudden jump forward in digitalisation, where heretofore unreachable people, having broken down the mental or cultural barrier, jump on the train of online shopping, banking and other services.

Reopening unemployment

Sadly, many of the businesses which are hardest hit right now will also carry the cost of this change forever. Bricks and mortar stores might struggle to reopen, only to find that 10% of their customers have permanently disappeared. Employee layoffs could create structural unemployment – a situation in which existing skills have become irrelevant and previously talented people become unemployable. It’s not an easy problem to solve, and governments will be further restricted in their ability to help by the debt which they have racked up during their “save the economy” spending sprees.

The future is bright for digitalisation enablers like codecentric. Management consults tell me of their attempts to convince heads of business that they are not, for example, a bank which has some supporting IT, they are an IT company which offers banking services. This message is getting easier to understand. The need for digital enablement support in every type of company will only increase.

Hopefully, companies like codecentric can also help with the structural unemployment. We can’t work miracles with totally unqualified people, but we do try hard to make our hiring as inclusive as possible – the qualifications to work with us are soft rather than hard. Demonstrating initiative and a deep desire to learn can be worth more to us than a university degree. Besides listing open positions, we also accept applications for any unlisted job – maybe we need you and we just don’t know it yet.

As for those digital reading services, Altoread is perfectly positioned to handle the surge in demand from the bunkered-down bookworms. codecentric helps them to run their digital services as a cloud-native company. This enables them to automatically scale their IT infrastructure up to cope with surges in customer traffic. As the traffic drops again, the systems scale back down. That is, if the traffic ever drops down again.

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