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Pivoting in Crisis: The role of technology

Our second Pivoting in a Pandemic webinar on panel 17th April, comprising Nick Chiarelli (Head of Trends, Unlimited Group), Shane O’Donoghue (Director, Nelson Bostock Unlimited), Leila Hajaj (Senior PR & Comms Manager, Ocado Technology) and Alfonso Ferrandez (CTO of Doctorlink), discussed how the role and contribution of technology is changing in the light of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Technology has kept us safe, fed, connected, and entertained in lockdown

COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to global governments, health services, corporations and individuals alike. With more individuals working remotely, technology is in the spotlight. Firstly, there has been a strong role for tech in keeping us safe and healthy. Healthtech has played a pivotal role in supporting the heroic efforts of individual healthcare workers. It has exploded very quickly from a start-up to provide critical services. Because of that, it is unthinkable that it will not continue beyond COVID-19.

Next, there has been a strong role for tech in keeping us fed and provisioned. Modern food provision cannot happen without a huge role for robotics and automation. This is especially the case when you consider the huge increase in demand we are currently seeing.

“This is an ongoing battle. The businesses that will win are those that bring people together and allow them to live as normally as possible.”

– Leila Hajaj, Ocado Technology

Another major (and perhaps unsung) aspect of how the tech industry has stepped up to address these unprecedented challenges is by breaking down competitive walls and enabling collaboration.  Apple and Google collectively have access to 3.5 billion smart devices worldwide. Using these devices for contact tracing in the fight against the virus is groundbreaking.

“Contact tracing itself is only effective if mass testing and diagnosis are also available. I think some of the big technology successes could be in the smaller areas, such as writing software that improves the productivity of human contact-tracers, online interview forms for potential contacts, visualisation dashboards for relevant data and telemedicine for remote diagnostics.”

– Shane O’Donoghue, Nelson Bostock Unlimited

Technology has boosted societal and workplace cohesion

During the lockdown apps that connect us, like Zoom and Houseparty, have taken off and (anecdotally at least) gone mainstream. They are no longer the domain of the young, upscale tech elite.

The pandemic has also changed communication in the virtual workplace. But the transition has not been perfect. In businesses that already embrace collaboration, the transition has been seamless. For others, it has been more challenging. It’s not perfect and certainly not a like-for-like replacement for human interaction. For example, accidentally bumping into someone in the lift can sometimes be very beneficial. There is still room for technology to innovate here.

The current situation places greater pressure on connecting

The sudden shift to remote working and social isolation merely accelerates a trend towards always-on connectivity. However, this was present before the COVID outbreak.

“I think it was on its way before COVID. When the pandemic first came, you were expected to roll out of bed and immediately start communicating with colleagues. That’s worse than before. Now there’s also a respect that people have different commitments. There’s a better understanding that people can do their work well whenever it suits them”.

– Alfonso Ferrandez, Doctorlink

There have been changes in expectations, both good and bad and businesses need to find solutions that will ensure both productivity and staff wellbeing, such as having separate devices for work and personal use, setting personal boundaries about work hours that everyone understands and respects. Some of this will be tech-enabled and some about strong emotional intelligence. In all likelihood, we’ll all come out of this as better employees, employers and colleagues, both when we are working remotely and when we are back in our offices.

COVID is forcing citizens to forego their privacy, but only temporarily

The current COVID-19 outbreak has potentially given governments around the world a remit for ever greater public monitoring. China has been cited as an extreme case (link) but civil libertarians around the world have been worried about the precedent this sets for the future (link) and it is already happening in the UK and the US, law enforcement in the US using facial recognition tech from Clearview AI and X-Mode in the US tracking Spring Breakers flouting the lockdown rules.

“At the moment, COVID trumps our need for privacy and people are ok with that. Longer-term the only way to get citizens ok with increased access is radical transparency.”

– Shane O’Donoghue, Nelson Bostock Unlimited

Data and privacy concerns may be a universal truth but the way they manifest themselves varies hugely from one industry to another. In healthcare, for instance, there is a feeling that we need to prepare to allow urgent medical requirements to trump privacy concerns. The British public seems to back such a view, with recent research from YouGov (link) suggesting relatively high levels of comfort with various monitoring techniques during the current outbreak:

  • 51% comfortable with asking people to report others who breach the rules
  • 50% comfortable with using facial recognition tech to identify those breaching lockdown
  • 50% comfortable with using drone tech to photograph people making unnecessary journeys
  • 43% comfortable with analysis of social media accounts to identify those breaching lockdown

It is crucial to recognise just what an extreme situation we are in. While people might have a greater tolerance for monitoring than usual right now does not mean that they will accept the same once things are back to normal so, in many senses, the usual rules of data engagement will still apply.

Consumers remain willing to share data for tangible benefits

In the commercial world, data is very important. This is because it is capable of optimising and improving systems and services. Data can prepare us for the future. Well-kept data can be of high value. For example, with large numbers of people ordering groceries online more often, or for the first time, data is vital in learning about shopping habits. This data enables retailers to prepare to offer the best possible service.

Lockdown accelerates our reliance on automated solutions

The lockdown places huge pressure on logistics, supply chains, distribution networks and manufacturing capacity. Bearing this in mind, automation is becoming increasingly important. Automation enables staff redeployment. People can move to an area where the human touch is important. It has kept infrastructure moving while there has been illness and absence. Moreover, it can help to keep contamination at a low level.

COVID means businesses have to be responsive to higher demand through automating processes. Automation drives the rapid scaling of solutions, which would otherwise be limited by having humans in the loop. The current situation is going to supercharge automation.

Before COVID, less than 1% of patient consultations with healthcare professionals were virtual. Right now, it is at 70-90%. We expect to see it settle out at around 50% of all consultations through video longer term. This situation has accelerated the adoption of technology because it has simply had to be implemented and then people see the benefits.”

– Alfonso Ferrandez, Doctorlink

Retaining the best of our new behaviours in the post-pandemic New Normal

Some claim that “the world won’t be the same again” after coronavirus. Conversely, others say this is a temporary interruption. While it may be naïve to expect a new reality, it is reasonable to imagine a post-pandemic working world that has changed permanently in some respects.

The panel agreed that attitudes and behaviours had changed. Some of which are worth keeping. For example, people being thriftier, kinder, more considerate and spending greater amounts of time with their family. We’ve adapted to flexible working patterns, telemedicine and ordering groceries online. We can expect the post-COVID demand for these things to be greater than before.

There will be more pressure on technology businesses to deliver more. Given that we will probably experience a global recession, standards of delivery will be hard to maintain. For tech businesses to “walk the walk” they are going to need a variety of factors in place:

  • Rules about data use have been relaxed in certain medically vital use cases. However, they will need to be reintroduced post-COVID to prevent misuse.
  • A significant inward investment will be needed to enable the necessary hardware acquisition to complement software solutions.
  • The sector will need to build greater consumer trust and a solid commercial model to underpin the data sharing needed to drive personalised product and service offerings.

That being said, it is more than likely that the tech sector will emerge from COVID being seen as a strong net contributor to society. It has kept us safe, fed, connected and entertained, though, some will emerge stronger than others:

The businesses who’ll come out of this stronger, under the circumstances, are likely to be the ones who haven’t had to pivot massively in their business models. For example, those who have embraced automation from the outset.”

– Leila Hajaj, Ocado Technology

What next?

Find our next ‘Pivoting in Crisis’ webinar here, where we look at brand reputation during a time of crisis.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group, and originally appeared on the Unlimited Group news page.