Since it first emerged back in early 2020, coronavirus has turned the world on its head. Temperature checks, obligatory mask-wearing, social distancing, isolating and full lockdowns have made the world a very different place and nowhere have these changes been felt more than in business and commerce.
The risks posed by the virus have made populations around the world fearful of leaving home, scared of either contracting or spreading the virus. With the majority of COVID-19 cases being asymptomatic, it’s almost impossible to know if you – or someone nearby – is infected. For many people, this has made the idea of social situations and going outside intolerable.
The global outlook
Meanwhile, with economies struggling and people staying home, businesses have attempted to fight on and adapt to this ‘New Normal’. Forecasts look particularly gloomy and 2020 has already seen massive drops in GDPs in countries around the world during the biggest recession in decades. Indeed, it’s estimated global GDP will have dropped 5.2% by the time the year is out, with some individual countries hit even harder.
With the world bracing itself for new waves of the pandemic, businesses too are being battered for a second time. Just as optimism was starting to increase and people were slowly returning to work, cases have started to increase again.
The dilemma: protect economies or people
Of course, there is the argument that coronavirus was never going to go away purely by insisting people stay at home and that lockdowns simply delay the inevitable. The term, “Kicking the can down the road,” has become widespread over the last few months, describing how lockdowns can only offer a temporary fix.
Moreover, many eminent scientists have pointed out that, as testing increases, so the likelihood of discovering new cases would also increase. Nonetheless, governments around the world seem to mostly be following the same mantra and are moving again to impose restrictions on movement and gatherings.
There is little doubt that world leaders are in an unenviable position, attempting to perform an impossible balancing act between keeping economies open and keeping populations safe. On the one hand, lockdowns slow the spread – on the other, they suffocate global output and production. The problem for the government is finding an acceptable sweet spot between the two.
The position now for business
As one might expect through a time of such major change, the businesses that have fared best through this year have been those that were quickest to adapt. Being nimble has been the order of the day and companies that were able to quickly move their operations online have been best positioned to weather the economic storm of 2020.
Home-working has become widespread throughout this year – whether imposed or through choice – and businesses that already had robust IT infrastructure were able to make the transition relatively easily. Networks have been expanded out of offices and into the wider world allowing employees to continue working remotely on secure systems.
In retail and manufacturing, we have seen a massive increase in online sales with consumers moving in their droves to e-commerce for everything from their weekly shop to clothes, electronics and even higher-price items like cars.
Experts have been predicting the death of traditional retail and the high street for many years but 2020 could well prove to be the final nail in the coffin as countless conventional businesses have been forced to close their doors for the last time.
In truth, offline businesses have been struggling for many years to compete against their online counterparts. The higher rates, rental, staff and utility bills of brick-and-mortar stores made it almost impossible for traditional shops to compete against leaner, more efficient web-based retailers. It could be argued the writing has been on the wall for many years for conventional retail – but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow for those companies now closing.
The on-going impact of coronavirus
Industry experts and scientists are in unison that the changes we have seen through 2020 are likely to be with us for some time. Past pandemics have proven that they have the power to change the world. Even small things like coughing into our elbows, washing our hands regularly and avoiding close contact have become so ingrained in the social psyche that they’ll likely be here long after the virus has passed.
Changes to retail and office environments
In terms of retail, populations moved so readily to e-commerce that it’s questionable if they’ll simply shift back to traditional shopping just because COVID-19 has gone (or because we have a vaccine). People have become used to going online to do their shopping and these trends and habits will be hard to break.
The most successful retailers will be those with a clear online strategy – a structured plan covering everything from their e-commerce-enabled website to their supply and distribution channels, including the crucial final deliveries to clients. Indeed, the so-called last mile of delivery is the most expensive and important part of the entire distribution process so retailers will need to adapt to find new and efficient solutions – both from a money and time perspective.
Meanwhile, scientists and sociologists believe we may well have seen the end to the traditional 9-5 office environment so favored through the last century. While it took some time to adapt, many workers report enjoying the improved work/life balance afforded by home-working and most studies show that productivity levels were maintained – and in some cases, improved – through remote working.
Businesses too have reaped the benefits of remote-working with lower operating costs, reduced rent and rates and significantly lower utility bills afforded by not having to accommodate staff in costly premises.
Most would agree, these trends will be hard to abandon. It could well be that, in years to come, we look back on the notion of the rush-hour commute and being crammed into office space as ridiculous and unnecessary pursuits. Home-working offers considerable benefits to employers and employees alike.
What comes next?
While everyone hopes we will see an end to the virus soon, even the most optimistic of predictions suggest coronavirus (or at least its effects) will be with us for a good while yet. Even if a vaccine is found within the next six months, it will take time to be distributed globally and there is the ever-present threat that the virus will simply mutate.
Unfortunately, most experts agree we’re likely to be living with coronavirus a lot longer. Indeed, there is a growing movement within the scientific community that COVID-19 will be with us forever – that we’ll simply need to accept it as part of everyday life, the way we do flu and malaria.
Moving forward, the key for businesses of all types, of all sizes, in all sectors will be to remain nimble and adapt. The next few months – and possibly years –will most definitely be a case of survival of the fittest.