Senior executives are currently engaged in a guessing game: what will business look like when we emerge from lockdown and the world gets back on its axis? It is difficult to speculate, but it is necessary, and so many unknown and intangible factors remain. One possible way forward is to look to other historic crises and disruptive events to help us make plans and attempt to deal with the new situation successfully.
Some things we know for (practically) certain: more workers in Asia Pacific (APAC) are going to be staying in one place than before. Social distancing is likely to remain in place for some time, while “workplace distancing” through working from home will become an accepted practice, not a temporary emergency trend. Remote working will need to be powered and supported by sufficient infrastructure. Business travel will reduce, as countries continue to protect their citizens by closing borders and imposing entry limits. The impact on supply chains alone will be colossal and require new ways of thinking.
New trends are certain to emerge
COVID-19 has reminded me of my university days studying Stephen Jay Gould’s evolutionary biology theory of “punctuated equilibrium.” This refers to long periods of stability in nature that are upset and disrupted by short periods of rapid change. For example, a species of sea animal exists for thousands of years, then suddenly sea levels change and it is forced to adapt. Its body develops to accommodate this environmental change, and from that point on, it is evolutionarily different from its ancestors. Its world has forced a change in behavior by default, and that becomes the new normal.
Punctuated equilibrium has parallels in the technology world: throughout history computer systems have often demonstrated extended periods of stasis followed by disruptive change. We have moved from transistors to vacuum tubes to massive mainframe computers to minicomputers to PCs and laptops. Today, we have incredibly powerful computers in our pockets that we refer to as phones. In the technology world‚ we often cite Moore’s Law as an example of constantly increasing change, but that isn’t strictly correct: new chips come along every couple of years, but the big, industry-transforming events have tended to appear more like every decade.
So, considering the theory of punctuated equilibrium, COVID-19 is our next huge disruption that we have to manage. Among the various possible scenarios, one thing is certain: new trends will emerge. Enterprises will need to focus more than ever on building new customer relationships through effective digital experiences, since physical interaction with them will be far less. With so many end users and customers quarantined in their homes, these digital experiences will matter more than ever. Companies are going to need to be robust, and those that will thrive will be those able to retain customer trust during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequently lead those customers out of it.
There is a high likelihood that APAC will morph into being what will effectively be a contact-free economy. Online shopping was already proving increasingly popular with APAC consumers before COVID-19, but lockdown has sent it through the roof. China has seen consumers begin to shop online in much bigger numbers, while 13% of Europeans said in April that they were planning to investigate e-tailers for the first time. Italy, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world during COVID-19, reported an 81% increase in e-commerce transactions since the end of February.
I expect APAC consumers to follow suit. According to the eMarketer 2019 Global Ecommerce Forecast, e-commerce in APAC was forecast to be worth $3.5 trillion by 2021. While the emergence of the contact-free economy is likely to see this number revised upwards, APAC e-commerce platforms like Lazada, Shopee, ShopBack and Zalora are helping brands and consumers during COVID-19. According to research by Ipsos, Vietnam has seen 57% of shoppers shifting their purchasing online, with India at 57% and China not far behind at 50%.
On top of e-commerce, we can expect e-health to see big increases in use in the post COVID-19 world. Digital solutions like telemedicine and online crowd-sourced health monitoring are moving from an initially slow adoption path to a record uptake pace. Solutions like the new Bluetooth-powered app for contact tracing launched by the Singapore government, TraceTogether, show great potential. And data will be central to all the advances we make in e-health and e-commerce, as companies use customer experience and feedback to build insights that help make offerings better and relationships with end users stronger.
Technology will power the new normal
Other digital technologies will play vital roles in our new future in APAC and beyond. It is a lesser known fact that an AI epidemiologist raised the first red-flag on the incoming COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019. Automation and AI adoption have continued to play a critical role for early detection and timely response to the pandemic. Autonomous vehicles are being used in the U.S. to deliver COVID-19 tests to laboratories, while in China, delivery app Meituan Dianping is using autonomous vehicles to deliver grocery and food orders to customers as part of a “contactless delivery” initiative. In general, autonomous vehicles could help ease the strain on existing delivery services and supply chains, while reducing the risk of exposure for citizens.
Companies that want to thrive during and after the pandemic will need robust infrastructure. Cloud connectivity on demand will ensure remote workers have sufficient bandwidth, split tunneling will optimize networks, and remote gateways will help companies add numbers to remote working teams quickly without losing performance. In terms of autonomous vehicles and drones, Internet of Things (IoT) spending in APAC has typically been smaller than other world regions; expect that to change as distancing drives decisions and the contact-free economy becomes more common.
GlobalData has stated that, “The pandemic will only accelerate the demand for digital transformation, and IT vendors in APAC will do well to prepare for the impending explosion in opportunities around digital transformation.” Kitty Fok, Managing Director, IDC China, agrees: “Digital-first will be at the core of business transformation as the digital economy progresses, and companies will face new, more daunting challenges from huge changes taking place in the global macro environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies can deliver more value by adopting digital-first business models that enable “ultra-fast speed, ultra-high scale and ultra-wide connections.”
The post-COVID-19 future will need companies to be resilient and sustainable, and that will mean innovation powered by digital technologies and data.
To read more about how Orange can help your organization remain resilient and mitigate the risks of disruption during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, read our ebook: Be resilient at all times – 5 strategies forward.
Nick Lambert is Senior Vice President and Head of Asia Pacific at Orange Business. As head of the region, he is responsible for setting the strategic direction of the business and spearheading growth across all market segments, including the key markets of China, India, Australasia, Japan, Hong Kong, ASEAN and Korea. Nick has a passion for cars, jazz and contemporary music, and in his spare time, he enjoys cooking and learning Greek.