May 12, 2020

Covid-19 innovations, inventions and behaviour changes that are likely to stay

History has shown us that global shocks usually trigger changes that tend to become an integral part of the post-shock world.

Editorial Team
Covid-19 innovations, inventions and behaviour changes that are likely to stay

A few decades from now, our grandchildren might ask us to tell them how the 2020 pandemic affected us, how it changed our lives.

Then, we will most certainly recall the deep sense of sadness we felt at hearing that thousands of people across the globe had died without their loved ones near them, the apprehension that we might contract the virus next, the sense of isolation we felt as we waited in the confinement of our homes till it was safe to come out, the dismay at mounting job losses, the travel bans, the struggle of migrant workers and tourists to get home, and the infuriatingly chaotic and insensitive response of several world leaders.

But that’s not only what we will tell our grandchildren about. We will also tell them how several ordinary people – including health workers, entrepreneurs, activists, artists, scientists, programmers and developers, students and teachers, musicians, retirees, airline crew and owners of small and large businesses – collaborated in their own small ways to lighten the burdens of those affected by Covid-19, as well as to find long-term solutions to problems the pandemic had presented us with.

We might tell them that the things they take for granted in 2050, such as the foot handle they use to open doors in public bathrooms started being widely used only during the great pandemic; that earlier in most western countries it was normal for people to shake hands each time they met and said goodbye; that grandma bought the antique hook keychain she still uses to open drawers and some door handles back in 2020.

The 2050 outlook is hypothetical, of course, but the fact is that global shocks usually trigger inventions, innovations and behaviour changes – which tend to become an integral part of the post-shock world. This happened after the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 as well as World War II, and there is no reason to believe the post-Covid world will be any different.

Covid has indeed triggered innovation and invention at a break-neck speed across the world.

“There’s no question that inventors will be coming up with hundreds, if not thousands, of new ideas,” Reuters quoted Kane Kramer, inventor and co-founder of the British Inventors Society as saying. “Everyone’s downed tools and are only picking them up to fight the virus. It’s a global war.”

In this blog, we explore Covid-inspired inventions, innovations and behaviour changes – in six major fields – that are likely to stay in a post-Coronavirus world.

1. PUBLIC HEALTH AND HYGIENE

Even before the pandemic struck, we had sensor technology for high-usage zones – think automatic doors at building entrances and the fixtures equipped with sensors at public toilets.

As it became clear that we had to stop touching our faces and surfaces in public spaces to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, innovators quickly designed nifty tools to help people safely navigate public spaces. Some of these innovations are really basic such as the hook keychain we talked about earlier or a lever attachment for supermarket refrigerator handles that is being tested in Finland right now, but others are more advanced.

In many cases, these advanced solutions have been around for some time, but didn’t really catch on. Take the GermFalcon, a UV light-emitting robot designed to swiftly disinfect aircrafts; UV light, particularly UV-C, rapidly kills bacteria and viruses by disrupting their DNA. The GermFalcon has been in the market since 2014, but has seen increased demand only during the ongoing pandemic.

In Japan, reports say, the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating an existing touchless sensor technology trend. The rest of the world is surely going to catch up soon.

2. TELEMEDICINE

Just as working from home did not really pick up in a pre-Covid world largely because organisations weren’t convinced that their employees could be productive in an unsupervised environment, telemedicine – the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology – had not found many takers. This, despite the fact that telemedicine is viewed as an effective way for people to access medical professionals from their homes.

A 2017 survey of 403 customers in the US showed that 82% of them did not use telehealth services for various reasons.

But the ongoing pandemic has led to the green shoots of change being spotted here too. Just as several organisations have had no choice but to permit employees to work from home – finding along the way that it doesn’t really hurt productivity – telemedicine is also picking up as governments attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19 by encouraging people to consult doctors online.

Over the next few years, there is likely to be an increase in the number of people using telemedicine. But for it to really become part of our daily lives, governments will need to lift regulatory roadblocks that restrict the mass use of telemedicine, say experts.

3. WORKPLACE

It’s difficult to go on social media these days without seeing at least one screenshot of a Zoom meeting. Conversations about remote workplace tech tools also tend to focus mainly on videoconferencing and collaboration tools such as Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet.

While these tools certainly fulfil a need – which is why Zoom’s users jumped to 300 million on April 21 from a pre-pandemic figure of 10 million – post-Covid workplace trends will be more than just about video conferencing tools.

Innovations that give organisations access to a wide variety of skills whenever they need them as well as remote training, hiring, performance management, reskilling and skills management software will be in demand in a post-Covid world, say experts.

In a fascinating podcast about the future of work post-Covid, Chantal Free of London-based Capita People Solutions said it was becoming obvious to organisations that that the old model of getting work done through just the people they own – their employees – was not sustainable because they were never going to be able to employ all the skills and capabilities they needed for the imminent digital future.

A model that makes organizations a bit more permeable than it is today – where skills can come in and out when they're needed – is likely to be the future of operations, said Free, adding that this model is being fast-tracked in a lot of cases during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think organizations are starting to think about almost an ecosystem that they can dip into and have access to those skills as and when they need them,” said Free. “Within that ecosystem, whenever they have a need for a skill, they'll have to look at the different options – whether they can borrow that skill temporarily from where it exists. And we know that a lot of talent, platforms are being put in place to allow just that.”

One of these platforms is MuchSkills, a strengths visualisation tool for everyone. Besides other things, MuchSkills can help team leaders and organisations to search across a beautifully visualised skills database of their internal employees, freelancers and consultants to find the exact skill sets they need.

Other existing tools such as online performance review tool Appraisd and digital credentialing company Credly are also likely to be useful in a post-Covid workplace.

Also part of workplace trends, is distance learning that is related to reskilling.

Eighty-one percent of the global workforce of 3.3 billion people have had their workplace fully or partly closed because of Covid-19, reported the BBC. At some point children will go back to school (we hope), but with the Covid-19 impact estimated to cause 195 million job losses globally, and with people likely to prefer automation to face-to-face contact for the foreseeable future, a large number of people and organisations will be looking to reskill or upskill themselves and their employees.

Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, government and private organisations had stressed on the need to reskill and upskill employees because of the risk posed by automation. Here are some of the statistics they cited. The ongoing pandemic is likely to accelerate these changes.

Skilling and training are indispensable for organisations wanting to survive the crisis, according to Free.

Organisations that have survived past crises such as the 2003 SARS outbreak, said Free, were those that were more discriminating – who were clear about the skills and capabilities they needed, and who maintained a certain level of skills and training despite downsizing.

“[They] emerged out of the crisis a lot stronger,” she said.

Free added that several clients had been talking about how they wanted to convert some of their offline learning courses to e-learning modules. “The availability of a lot of free learning online, or low-cost learning, does allow organizations with a bit of thought [to] keep [themselves] going through the crisis so that when they come out of it, they actually have a motivated, skilled workforce,” she said.

4. ONLINE SHOPPING AND DRONE DELIVERY

The restrictions imposed in China due to the 2003 SARS outbreak are widely credited as having sparked a surge in online shopping in that country over the next few years.

“Covid-19 is having a similar effect, even in economies where e-commerce is already common,” said the Economist.

Social distancing restrictions have led to an increase in online shopping – a trend likely to stay – but this has also sparked a domino-effect of other trends.

Some retailers have been forced to make changes to their sales strategies. Japanese retailer Muji, which previously only sold its products online in Japan using its own platform, recently launched a store on Amazon to reach a larger number of customers. It’s unlikely to shut down that sales channel in a post-Covid world.

The requirement for deliveries sans human contact has also led to an increase in drone delivery orders in certain areas.

Google’s parent company Alphabet has been testing Project Wing, a drone delivery service in the US, Australia and Finland. Though the noise pollution caused by these drones had initially led to complaints in Australia, the service has seen a “significant” increase in demand across all testing locations during the Covid-19 pandemic according to reports.

A trend likely to stay? Most certainly.

5. WELLNESS AND WELLBEING

All previous global shocks have led to a rise in depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to our population, not only for its risk to human life and ensuing economic distress, but also for its invisible emotional strain,” said a McKinsey report published in April.

Experts believe that tech can help people tackle this strain.

People are already using technology to overcome the movement restrictions imposed on them because of the Coronavirus crisis. Some have taken to live-streaming yoga, taichi and 30-minute cardio workouts because watching YouTube videos is just not the same thing.

Organisations are also exploring ways to ensure employee wellbeing.  

In the US, while existing mental health apps, chatbots and online therapist platforms have seen an uptick in use, some have specifically been created as a response to the pandemic. In March, for instance, activists and organisations launched a platform to address mental health challenges related to Covid-19. The Pandemic Crisis Services Coalition gives people access to free support from top US mental health providers in one place. It has a searchable database of crisis services for anyone who needs help.

Given the fact that Covid is a global crisis, there is space for similar websites or apps across the globe.

6. ONLINE ENTERTAINMENT

The future looks good for video streaming services such as Netflix and Prime Video. These entertainment giants have registered such a significant increase in use during the pandemic that they’ve had to reduce streaming quality so that internet networks were not overwhelmed.

Having said that, online entertainment is more than online streaming – there’s e-sports, gaming, online streaming, virtual reality and virtual tours.

All forms of online entertainment have seen increased use, according to reports. Netflix added almost 16 million global subscribers in the first quarter; US video game usage during peak hours has gone up 75% since the quarantine first went into effect in March; e-sports or competitive video gaming has seen a jump in users as countries locked down one by one, with Twitch, a popular e-sports streaming site, announcing its viewership was up by 31% in March alone.

These trends are likely to last well after Covid-19 is but a memory.

Similarly, virtual travel experiences (perhaps like this virtual tour of an ancient tomb in Egypt) that were used to attract visitors in the pre-Covid world are seeing a “surge in popularity”, reported the National Geographic. “The impact of COVID-19 may allow [virtual reality] to shake off its image of being a gimmick,” the report quoted tourism analyst Ralph Hollister as saying.

But the jury is out whether a virtual tour can replace a long vacation in your dream destination in the post-Covid world.

CONCLUSION

The big question is whether these trends will stay after a Covid-19 vaccine is developed. After all, humans are social beings who will want to get back to their gym, park and office watercooler social routines. There are also limitations with remote working as evident in the responses Product Hunt’s Ryan Hoover received to a Twitter survey on the subject. The topmost concerns include loneliness and a sense of a disconnect from colleagues and teams. Tech, after all, cannot solve everything.

While there is skepticism over the survival of some Covid-generated trends such as remote fitness and even virtual travel, experts are unanimous that the workplace and hygiene related trends prompted by the need to socially distance are here to stay.

As this piece published in March in the MIT Technology Review says: “We all want things to go back to normal quickly. But what most of us have probably not yet realized – yet will soon – is that things won’t go back to normal after a few weeks, or even a few months. Some things never will.”

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