COVID-19 has made our world more virtual. Here are three reasons why this is a good thing

Lise, a student at the International Bilingual School (EIB), attends her online lessons in her bedroom in Paris as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread in France, March 20, 2020. Picture taken on March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes - RC2SPF94HJ35
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that virtual education can be used successfully to accelerate learning and training efforts.
Image: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
  • The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies at a faster speed than we could have imagined.
  • As business undergoes change, companies are realizing the power of technology to unify dispersed, global talent.
  • Virtual learning and telehealth are also becoming more advanced and could deliver benefits throughout the world.

If the global coronavirus pandemic has exposed humanity’s vulnerability, it has also highlighted its resilience. Forced to adapt to a world in which most physical interaction is impossible or largely limited, much of society has been pushed to rely on virtual engagement. In many places, people have had to work remotely, visit the doctor remotely and even repair appliances remotely. Call it the shift to ‘tele-everything’.

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies at a faster speed than we could have imagined. Transformations that might have taken years have happened in months. As futurist Ben Pring, co-founder of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, said recently, “COVID-19 is quickly making the future the present.’’

The transition to a digital future has not always gone smoothly. There have been challenges in adjusting to virtual formats, and there are some problems that still need to be addressed. For instance, there are legitimate concerns that those who lack skills, education, and access to technology will be left behind, widening an already too-wide gap between haves and have-nots.

There are, however, reasons to be optimistic that a more virtual world will be a better one, delivering benefits around the globe. I will touch on three areas where the potential for change looks particularly promising based on the evolution seen to date.

Engaging employees globally

It will take time to get an accurate read on how companies fared during the sudden shift to remote work, but it is clear that the long-term implications are top of mind. A July survey by KPMG observed that 64% of its respondents “want the flexibility to work remotely at least part of the time,” whereas 59% of respondents also indicated “the desire to be in the office or onsite most of the time.”

While perspectives on returning to the office are mixed, the pandemic has driven companies to revisit longstanding norms and adopt a more virtual, global mindset. This period has demonstrated the power of technology to unify dispersed talent bases around the world. Technology itself has made it easier for people to work together better — both remotely and in person — using video-conferencing, messaging and a variety of collaboration tools. As companies have had to adapt to such practices, they have also been able to tap into a broader talent pool and retain employees in locations around the world — which levels the playing field for those in regions where promising job opportunities may not be available.

Delivering virtual higher education

In his 2011 book The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Harvard University's Clayton Christensen predicted that half of America’s universities would fail in the next 10 to 15 years as online education disrupted their business models.

Christensen’s timing may not have been based on impacts of a pandemic, but his forecast of disruption could turn out to be prescient. We’ve seen that virtual education can be used successfully to accelerate learning and training efforts. At the high school level, students who took advanced placement courses at Michigan Virtual, an online learning academy, recorded higher scores than their in-class peers over the past three years.

As many colleges delay reopening and continue remote learning, they are being forced to further adapt to a tele-everything mindset. It seems likely that there will be more digital alternatives and hybrid models available. This should help people in the workforce who want to upgrade their skills as well as corporations looking to retrain employees.

Providing telehealth

Before the pandemic, telehealth in the US was a $3 billion a year business, according to McKinsey & Co. Given the rapid adoption of telehealth since March, as much as $250 billion of current US healthcare spending could be virtualized, the consulting firm wrote in a May report. McKinsey estimates that telemedicine could eliminate about 20% of all emergency room visits.

The list of services doctors can provide remotely is certain to grow with experience and the development of more at-home diagnostic tools. The potential benefits are considerable. For example, the elderly and chronically ill could avoid trips to the doctor or hospital, where they are at increased risk of infection. In the developing world, where the supply of healthcare professionals is limited, virtual medicine offers an opportunity for greater access to care, particularly specialists.

To reach the potential of a tele-everything world, business, government and other organizations will need to find ways to bridge the current gaps in access and skills. This will not come easily, but achieving this over time could have exponential benefits for populations around the world.

At some point, we expect there will be a COVID-19 vaccine and certain aspects of life — including the way we work, learn and get our healthcare — will not go back to normal. The advantages of the digital approach in efficiency, reach and convenience will be too great and obvious to ignore. Technology has the potential to make life better. That was true before the pandemic. It will be even more true after it.

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