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The Next Normal: Five Changes to Watch for in the Post-COVID-19 World

Jitin Agarwal

VP, Enterprise Products, EPAM
Blog
  • Remote By Design

COVID-19 has punctuated everyone’s equilibrium. As people try to cope with the pandemic’s many deflations, some imagine our recent remoteness as a temporary state. They imagine we’ll simply step back into the old normal and regain our balance, just as soon as the world economy slips the disorienting bonds of lockdown.

But a return to the old ways seems highly unlikely. 

As EPAM has long been Remote By Design™, we’re in a good place to appreciate, in realistic terms, how some of elements of our COVID-19-influenced culture will linger and alter essential parts of our business lives. Some, myself included, have begun to call this future state the next normal, and I want to help you prepare for it. Continue reading to learn five of the ways our remote present may very well change the day-to-day culture in which we work and live.

  1. Workforce dispersion. After months of life in lockdown, some workers, especially knowledge workers who are equally, and potentially even more productive at home, may not be eager to return to the office. Employees may find that working remotely enables them to avoid the long commute, the toil of getting ready for the office and the numerous daily on-site rituals. This can be especially true in some of the most crowded geographies and metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle or Atlanta. In these regions, remote work might be the preference of many employees—and it may also become the norm for organizations. Consider how difficult and costly it is to create centralized workspaces for employees. In these areas, companies have gone to extreme lengths to develop, build and maintain facilities for their people, such as Apple’s Apple Park UFO in California, Amazon’s Day 1 Spheres in Seattle and Hearst Tower in Manhattan. Standing up buildings within incredibly expensive and crowded real-estate markets requires a substantial investment in dollars, resources and management focus. Now imagine a smaller organization, or even a startup—how would they ever compete with these Fortune 50 fortresses to build and attract key talent and professionals? Perhaps, in the next normal, they’ll offer their current and future talent the opportunity to stay and work from home, only coming into the office when necessary. In the next normal, expect a continued state of dispersion of resources and talent, driven by both employees and employers.

  2. UX reimagined. Many things the pre-COVID-19 world took for granted will need to be reimagined, and among those things will be user experiences. Consider all of the ways that we interact with touchscreen devices in the retail, POS and food service industries. I vividly recall, in the last year, using the latest touchscreen kiosks at McDonald’s in California, Paris and Hong Kong. These were the latest state-of-the-art devices, and they greatly facilitated and expedited the food-ordering process. However, in the next normal, customers are more than likely to eschew these devices in favor of mobile apps. Why? Well, one’s mobile phone is safe, trusted, familiar and seems COVID-19-free—but that kiosk in the store, which may be used by many people in an hour and more over the course of the day, is definitely not. But it’s not just touchscreens: ATMs, shopping carts, credit card pay terminals, gas station kiosks and even cash will be frowned upon. In the next normal, these ubiquitous user experiences will need to be redesigned—single-use wipes, for instance, might be made available with them as will touchless pay (e.g. Apple Pay) or mobile apps/interfaces—in order to make us comfortable with them again.

  3. Travel and movement restrictions. One of the biggest factors of global growth in the last 70 years has been the near-total free flow of people and goods across our geographic boundaries. In no other time, going all the way back to the Ancient Romans, has the world population and trade known such fluid movement. In the next normal, however, we could see this principle turned on its head. Global mobility may well become a thing of the past. We will likely see impediments, such as “immunity passports,” which stem movement across geographies and countries. These restrictions may not only be governmentally motivated; individuals may be unwilling or unable to travel due to personal preferences or other factors.

    Remember, we’re not just talking about people—goods, which may also have a persistent COVID-19 presence, may be subject to further investigation, inspection, testing or waiting periods to reduce the risk associated with handling goods. Imagine if all the ports in the world, where billions of dollars of goods are processed daily, suddenly implemented a 14-day waiting period to process goods for increased safety for those working in those facilities. That would cause massive trauma to our worldwide supply chains.

    When considering the next normal, take care to think through the ramifications of the impact travel and movement restrictions may bring to your business, and where possible, take appropriate actions to mitigate against these factors.

  4. Environment redefinition. Consider the need, in the next normal, to redefine our environments. By ‘environment,’ I mean each location, facility, ‘place’ or space in which people or businesses operate. Examples of this include, but are not limited to, offices, buses, manufacturing plants, mass transportation, retail shops, malls, theatres and other entertainment venues. Each one may need redefining and redesigning. The concept of personal space—the necessary 6’ distance between people—will surely factor into these environments for the foreseeable future.

    Today’s environments have been optimized to accommodate the maximum number of people in the smallest, most efficient and comfortable manner possible. This may no longer be acceptable, realistic or even profitable in the next normal. How, for instance, are restaurants going to navigate the next normal and reopen their businesses if no one comes to their facilities because of the possibility of becoming infected with COVID-19? Their reopening may be quite short lived if this is the case. Similarly, consider the meat-packing plants across the US (at the writing of this post, at least 30 have been shuttered because the close working conditions caused the spread of COVID-19). These plants, due to the nature of their work, are among our most carefully cleaned, inspected and managed facilities, with thousands of employees and hundreds of inspectors. If they’re not able to maintain a “safe” environment, then what does that mean for smaller organizations? 

    For the next normal, we’ll have to redefine the environments we all work and live in on a daily basis.

  5. Industry interconnections. Take a quick look at the GICS classification of industries. A vast number of industries that are directly affected by COVID-19—transportation, consumer discretionary, consumer staples and healthcare—will need a massive rethink as we create the next normal. If we add industries that are indirectly affected, the list grows to include capital goods, energy, real estate, media and entertainment, banks and more. At the end of the day, not a single industry will remain unaffected by COVID-19.

    As the next normal is identified, examined and planned for, we’ll have to do so on an industry-by-industry basis, as it’s simply impossible to examine all these businesses and industries on a macro level, without first peering into each one deeply. Watch this space for future peering!

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