Rumour and misinformation around COVID-19 have spread faster than the virus itself. This has led to various levels of government, business and individual responding in widely divergent ways, from extreme measures to ridicule. The World Health Organisation called for a ‘Whole of Society’ approach, which includes social distancing, as expressed in quarantine measures and the cancellation of events in affected areas. Countries are debating lockdown, as in the case with Italy.
China placed several cities in lockdown and where there are isolated cases, such in South Africa and the USA, individuals are in self-quarantine. Internationally stock markets have taken a knock, certain essential products are flying off the shelves and supply lines are disrupted. Historic events, gaming simulations like Superstruct and recent cases have shown that people are not comfortable with social distancing and will leave isolation or quarantine for religious worship, social events, and professional networking events. Many companies have embraced telecommuting and event organisers are cancelling conferences, even including health conferences.
Technology provides us with the means to communicate, collaborate, network, socialise, work and shop in the digital and virtual realms. Often, when the Fourth Industrial Revolution is discussed, it paints a picture of a world where people work from wherever they want, with products delivered to them and their mobile devices as a gateway to this lifestyle. The technologies that enable this reality already exist and are used by businesses and individuals all over the world. In reaction to COVID-19 many companies and education facilities have moved their day-to-day operations onto technology platforms.
This has led to companies leading in the remote-work field, such as Zoom, Slack, Adobe, Broadcom and Oracle, seeing their share price rising, amidst market uncertainties. These technologies enable workers and students to communicate “face-to-face”, collaborate on digital whiteboards and with digital sticky notes and cut down on meetings with scheduled and focused discussions on collaborative platforms. Many of the conferences canceled their physical on-site programmes and then moved the presentations and discussions to digital platforms.
The barrier to adoption of these technologies is largely due to personal and interpersonal considerations as managers want to maintain oversight of their workers. Additionally, agreed upon productivity metrics for teleconferencing are still developing and a general fear of change prevails. People want to socialize with co-workers and do not trust their ability to stay focused while working remotely.
Already China has reported a marked decline in air pollutants due to a lessening in production activities and fewer people driving. Telecommuting will also lead to a decrease in other communicable disease deaths as exposure is limited. This highlights the importance for companies to maintain flexibility in the face of unexpected challenges, which can even include infrastructure limitations, such as load shedding. Disasters and reactions to these should not only prompt resilience, but individuals and organisations should embrace anti-fragility, become more innovative, create better systems for themselves and the environment and leverage technology accordingly.
Dr Lize Barclay is a Senior Lecturer in Futures Studies and Systems Thinking based at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.