How will we | Work | Shop | Eat | Travel | Care | after the pandemic?
The world is slowly coming out from under the thumb of COVID-19. Each country is at different stages, depending on their access to vaccines, the efficiency of their roll-out, the prevalence of Variants of Concern and the effective application of public health measures. Depending on where you are seated at this moment, re-opening may be just around the corner or a ways down the road yet but the end is in sight thanks to vaccines that are effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19.
When the pandemic hit North America and lockdowns were first introduced, I began hosting a podcast on the 2020 Network. Its intended goal was to try to make sense of the enormous changes happening quickly all around us. In the Spring of 2020, our episodes focused on how our everyday activities could be impacted by COVID-19 in the short and long terms. We spoke with thought leaders in each of the fields of food, work, travel, retail and health care. Now, a year later, with many more lockdowns and perhaps a first dose of a vaccine having occurred in the meantime, I think it is fun and useful to return to these predictions as we anticipate a return to a normal way of life potentially quite different than our pre-pandemic one.
Are we working from home or sleeping at the office? I still don’t know. Of course, not everyone has had the privilege of working from home. For those who have, some have enjoyed the flexibility while others are tired of their cramped living / working situations. Whether you love it or hate it, are a line manager or a member of the Board of Directors, there are many questions about what form the return to work will take after COVID-19 restrictions end. I spoke with Brittany Forsyth in June 2020 who was at the time the Chief Talent Officer at Shopify. Shopify had just declared its intention to move to “digital by default”, meaning the freedom to work from anywhere. In our conversation about this strategic direction, Brittany pointed out that whether an employer was considering a total return to the office, a hybrid model or fully leaning into remote work, there were pros and cons to each model. The chosen work environment model needs to align with the goals of the business, the shape of its culture and its competition for talent. It’s not about one option being right and the others wrong. It’s about finding the model that best fits the business’ broader strategic goals, investing in that model and collecting data to monitor how it is impacting stakeholders. Not every company will follow Shopify’s lead but every company is going to have to make a choice about where employees perform their work. See you in the office tower elevator or maybe as a tile on a screen?
Open. Close. Buy Online Pickup In Store. Curbside. Omnichannel. Integrated channels. Over the last year, retail has grown new muscle to dance around COVID-19 and related public health restrictions. Will customers come roaring back to in-store experiences once the COVID-19 barriers fade? I spoke with Willy Kruh, retired Global Chair, Consumer and Retail at KPMG and now the CEO of PlantEXT in April 2020 to gain his insights. Willy pointed out that stores were closing before the pandemic. As a country, Canada was over-stored. Willy believed that the pandemic was going to hasten the inevitable death of “boring retail”. By contrast, he predicted retail leaders will use technology to woo customers back to the store. More than just e-commerce, the leaders of retail will use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance the customer experience, as well as augmented and virtual reality. In Willy’s view, bricks and mortar will definitely not disappear but only the most innovative and customer engaged businesses will survive. See you soon at the mall?
Grocery stores had been evolving into places of entertainment and delight. Cooking classes. Mariachi bands. The groceraunt was thriving. Uber was focused on taxiing; food delivery was more of a side hustle. Then COVID hit. In April 2020, I spoke with the Senior Director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, Sylvain Charlebois. Sylvain predicted that our relationship to food, the restaurant experience and the grocery store would change fundamentally. Grocery stores are not seen as places of amusement any longer but as an essential service. The home kitchen and the grocery stores that supply the ingredients remain the main competitor to food service. The pandemic has been particularly challenging for the food service industry. Takeout has increased due to closed dining rooms, as evidenced by the substantial increase in the use of food delivery apps during the pandemic. Sylvain reminded me that the success of e-commerce behemoth, Alibaba, was accelerated by SARS. Could this infectious disease outbreak similarly spur a sustainable ramp up of food and grocery delivery apps usage? Most interestingly to me, Sylvain thought that the disruptions caused by COVID-19 could encourage the rise of “ghost kitchens.” Ghost kitchens are restaurants without dining rooms or counters, located in lower rent areas, built for food delivery apps as the sole method of customer access. Will the pandemic result in a significant reduction in dining rooms? Yesterday, we were eating prepared food in grocery stores. Today, we are ordering in and cooking at home more. Tomorrow, will we be ordering in from ghost kitchens?
One of the only industries to be hit as hard as restaurants has be the tourism sector. Closed borders and mandatory quarantine periods grounded us all. Former Destination Canada CEO and tourism and economic development consultant, Michele McKenzie, and I spoke in May 2020 about how the pandemic may have permanently changed travel. Business flights, like those trips to the office, may never return to pre-pandemic levels. Michele also predicted the increased use of touchless technologies on airplanes and the increased use of personal devices to connect with entertainment systems on the plane. Travel for pleasure has changed too. We may see a continued increase in rubber tire travel, as we did following the tragic events of 9/11. How we experience popular tourist destinations may also undergo a more permanent reset. Controls introduced to manage physical distancing may be maintained to address crowds and the damage that they can cause in heavily trafficked areas. For example, we may see reservation systems for particularly popular parks and other places that were not previously gated. Michele wasn’t sure how people will respond to home sharing platforms: will people prefer the consistency of hotel cleaning standards or return with similar levels of enthusiasm to home sharing platforms? Whatever you choose, online travel agencies sure hope you include them in your planning.
Health care is a sector notoriously slow at adopting change. The pandemic upended that. While a book could be written about all the impacts to health care delivery caused by COVID-19, big and small, good and bad, when I sat down with Dr Sacha Bhatia in May 2020, we spent a fair amount of our time discussing the rapid adoption of virtual health care. Prior to the pandemic, there were barriers to adoption, like patient privacy standards, no billing codes, and reluctance on the part of physicians and patients to try it. As a big proponent of virtual health care, Sacha was thrilled to see how quickly virtual care delivery became a mainstay during the pandemic. One of the key factors that allowed this to happen was the liberalization of the billing codes for virtual visits, making compensation for a virtual visit on par with fees for in-person visits. Before the pandemic, physicians and other clinicians had no means available to be compensated for virtual visits. The swift shift to virtual and the removal of barriers in its way were accomplished in order to meet the urgent demands of patient care in a crisis. What happens once the crisis is over? As we anticipate the end of the pandemic, there is work to be done to optimize virtual care for the long term. Care practices and pathways need to be established so that the right patient and the right provider are using the right tech for the circumstances, whether it be telephone, email, video or an in-person attendance. Privacy and security standards also need to be established. And those changes to the billing codes were mostly instituted on a temporary basis across the provinces so they need to be normalized too. After the crisis has subsided, will provincial governments support virtual care?
It is often said that crises like the pandemic accelerate changes already underway rather than creating new trends. This would suggest that many of the changes to our everyday activities caused by the pandemic will become permanent. But not all of the changes that have been adopted were the outcomes of pre-existing trends. Not to mention, the pull of pre-pandemic norms will be strong. It will be fun to watch and learn together in what ways COVID-19 has permanently changed our lives or just been a temporarily influencer of our behaviour. I hope this exercise in predicting the near future has been a fun and informative exercise for you wherever you sit relative to the end of the pandemic. I know I can’t wait to take my ring side seat to watch the restrictions ease!