The New Normal Isn't So Bad

  • Millions of jobs once tethered to the desk now liberated from confines of the office
  • Any new normal will eventually shed the 'new' & find itself in a future with progress

Until a vaccine is developed, and widely available, we can kiss goodbye to such shoulder to shoulder meetings. It is now the era of WFH (Work From Home), for those jobs that can be done remotely.

The New Normal Isn't So BadAs with any global event, certain buzzwords become part of the everyday lexicon. In the time of the COVID-19, the phrase 'the new normal' has come to succinctly describe one of the clearest truisms of an uncertain future, that our lives will be forever changed and we will need to adapt. For many, this forced adjustment to the way we live, work and play has been disconcerting and ridden with anxiety.

Understanding what this new normal might look like will go a long way towards reducing that anxiety. The most prevalent aspect of the future we may face is the increased need for physical distancing. Aside from a drop in the number of handshakes, conferences, large events, expos, seminars, trade shows, awards shows, and networking sessions will be drastically reduced in the months to come.

Business travel will no doubt be on an essential basis and many regional and global meetings may take place virtually instead. Airlines and airports will have to invest significantly on the strictest decontamination procedures to reassure travellers that the risk of contagion is mitigated. International leisure travel may also take a hit as more people opt to 'cuti-cuti Malaysia' or 'staycationing'. Hotels will be doubly hit here from the reduction in tourist arrivals to compound the loss of revenue of business events. Furthermore, leisure events such as large weddings and society balls may no longer be in vogue as enough people both observe physical distancing as a norm and also tighten their belts amidst the economic impact of what might be the worst recession in decades.

In what has been the largest live experiment ever conducted on remote working, one thing is becoming clearer - many jobs don't require us to be sitting in an office every day of the week. Millions of jobs that were once tethered to the desk will now be liberated from the confines of the office. Instead, they can be conducted from homes where some estimate that many in the industrialised world will have spent between 1 to 3 months getting used to using communication tools like Zoom, Slack, Teams, Hangouts, and Skype to name a few. Collaboration tools like Google Docs, Trello and Asana have already seen a spike in their usage. This shift to more work-from-home setups will accelerate many business functions to the cloud.

As companies accelerate their digital adoption, the need for new skills will increase. Traditional jobs and attendant skills may be displaced. This will also be a business imperative as large companies, SMEs, and startups struggle to stay solvent amidst a disruption to both supply and demand that will have an effect on P&Ls and balance sheets for up to the next 24 months by many estimates.

However, there is always a silver lining. The recession of 2008 saw the rise of companies like Whatsapp, Groupon, Instagram, Uber, Pinterest, Slack, Dropbox and Airbnb to name a few. New startups tend to sprout up during times of increased unemployment and weaker economic conditions. Famed investor Bill Gross attributes up to 40% of the success of a new startup to the right timing. Economic downturns offer no shortage of problems that need solving, changes in consumer behaviour, and talent being freed up from the shackles of corporate to the freedoms of entrepreneurship. This trend isn't limited to 2008; Microsoft launched after the 1973 oil crisis, FedEx launched after the recession of 1969-70, and HP launched in 1939 at the height of a recession. Even Disney launched in the Great Depression of the 20s when the Disney brothers decided America needed a smile.

Existing SMEs and startups that will be more heavily hit by the realities of the new norm will have to pivot aggressively and automate their business via digital as quickly as they can to gain the survival edge by being financially leaner. As consumer behaviour changes, businesses in traditional sectors of the economy will have to invest in obtaining data-driven and customer-focused insights to understand the evolving needs and psychology of consumers.

The truth is, evolutionary change has been a constant in the history of the world. At every juncture, there was great concern that people wouldn't be able to adapt and that economies wouldn't recover. But time and again, our ability to adapt, human ingenuity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and great leadership, has shown us that any new normal will eventually shed the 'new', and find itself in a future with progress and growth.



Surina Shukri is the CEO of Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation, the agency under the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia (KKMM) mandated to drive digital adoption in Malaysia.

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