Given the tragic human consequences it may feel wrong to talk about upsides from the COVID-19 epidemic. We will certainly see a huge financial aftershock, but in the long-term current events have huge potential to transform the way billions of people work around the world.
Self-isolation on the scale implemented in the UK in recent weeks would have been virtually impossible just a couple of decades ago. Imagine trying to work remotely in the way millions of people are today using a dial-up modem connection. Conversely 10 years hence it might be far easier.
While many industries, such as transportation and hospitality, have been devastated, the knowledge and digital economies, the sectors that probably have most potential for the future have transitioned, relatively painlessly to virtual working. This has been achieved on a scale that most organisations would have thought inconceivable just a couple of months ago.
The economics of manufacture will be transformed in the near future by robotics, 3D printing and artificial intelligence, so that transportation will be a far larger function of cost, hence far more will be produced locally but with very little human involvement. Jobs of the future are digital and knowledge based.
Necessity will drive innovation. The greatest advances in technology invariably take place during wars when traditional cost benefit analysis is suspended. The hiatus caused by Covid-19 should give us an opportunity to reflect on our future direction. What learning lessons can we learn from this enforced experiment in different ways of working?
Wellness in its many forms has been a growing part of the benefits agenda for several years. Recent events will further accelerate this trend. It is too soon to have any serious understanding of how long lockdown will continue. Most businesses I’m talking to are assuming the isolation period will extend for three months or more.
At the end of this we will have adapted, learnt to live with our families in different ways and embraced changes that would never have happened had they not been forced upon us. If we have proved we can work remotely for extended periods, then it will be fascinating to see if commuters wish to return to a traditional five-day office week, when they have the opportunity.
What economies will be possible for businesses if they can significantly reduce their expenditure on traditional accommodation? Can remote working provide significant enhancements to quality of life and the sustainable level of engagement between families? How can it positively impact childcare and education responsibilities?
How much can we reduce our carbon footprint by making commuting perhaps a twice- a-week event? In practice there has been a growing part of the workforce for whom remote working has been normal for some time. Covid- 19 is forcing us to learn if far more people can benefit from this.
It remains to be seen whether social distancing applications similar to those used in China will be imposed upon the UK population. While they may appear Draconian if the choice is between freedom or death or serious illness people may be willing to accept the capture of significant levels of very personal data.
Equally in the very near future the next generation of wearables devices will have the capacity to capture clinically valid data on a constant basis. Devices like Vitaliti from Cloud DX will constantly monitor a wide range of health biometrics to a level that can facilitate significant early warning.
This could be an enormous benefit in protecting against future epidemics and could also enable far more tailored personal healthcare. If these devices can be linked to some of the most advanced wellness solutions like those deployed by Aon and Mercer recently this could represent a huge further leap in wellness and health management.
When we are able to return to normal, or perhaps more accurately a “new normal”, there should be huge opportunities for the benefits industry to operate in new and creative ways to support enhanced work life/balance. I see a near future where corporate advice will focus on far more diverse health and wellness solutions than just pensions, savings and life insurance. We are living through the days that will accelerate this.