Build the future, don’t try to resurrect the past 

TechnologySeptember 15th, 2020

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CEO Nick Rappolt writes how in years to come, long after we’ve found ways to constrain the virus that has led us all to spend more time at home, we’ll reflect on 2020 as also heralding the Great Technological Leap. A time of digital acceleration where more changed in six months than had over the previous six years. A time when everyone, from children to the elderly, grew to expect services to be available online.

The majority of people in the UK - 54 per cent - believe their lifestyle and the way they access technology has changed forever. It’s a belief that is shared by the most forward-thinking companies. 

Almost three quarters of people, 74 per cent, have used technology more since March, we found in our research into people’s attitudes towards shopping, working from home, connecting to loved ones and learning and training, working with research company Savanta. This number rises to 86 per cent of 18-24-year-olds and 83 per cent of 35-44-year-olds, according to the poll of 2,006 people. But it’s in no way restricted to the younger generations: of those over 55-years-old, 67 per cent have used technology more, while for the over 65s, more than half - 58 per cent - have increased their tech use.

Technology is seen as a positive in people’s lives: 58 per cent of people have found it useful, rising to 71 per cent of +65s, showing that this is in no way limited to young people. Just eight per cent of people have found technology irritating during these turbulent times. 

This digital acceleration has huge implications for all businesses, and areas of our lives. Anabel Hoult, CEO of Which? told me that the wider shift to digital had influenced the company mindset. “With grandparents now on video calls and social media platforms, this has meant we are now able to reach our older subscribers in a way we couldn't previously. We are moving to a more digital mindset: shifting from magazine-led commissioning to an audience-led approach.” We’ll start to see this digital mindset across all businesses.

My biggest advice to businesses is to use this time for experimentation, to see what works. The most innovative companies keep a constant stream of experiments going, and the technological leap makes trialling new ideas easier. If the ideas don’t work, it’s also easier to let them go and move on to the next. 

We’re also seeing companies evolve at great speed.  At TikTok, Trevor Johnson, Head of Marketing, Global Business Solutions, Europe, explains: "TikTok was created to bring joy and inspiration to our community. At the height of lockdown that was something people were craving. COVID-19 gave us a new perspective, and we have been committed to playing our part in the global outpouring of mutual support and giving. We have focused on supporting our community by providing access to accurate information. We recently donated £5m to the Royal College of Nursing Foundation's COVID-19 Healthcare Support Appeal. We've also supported brands, such as Dettol in India, who we worked with to get more people to wash their hands and help mitigate the spread of the virus.” Almost a third of people, 30 per cent, have increased their use of social media this year.

All businesses need to be nimble during this time of huge change and ready to deliver services remotely at a moment’s notice. Euan Blair, co-founder and chief executive of apprenticeship-focused tech firm WhiteHat told me: “Society needs to be prepared to adapt quickly and repeatedly. I’ve been surprised at the pace with which the shift to fully remote happened and how normal it felt after the first couple of weeks of adjustment.” His company made the shift to remote delivery without missing any learning sessions for apprentices, and is now working to preserve the benefits, such as being able to create instant breakout rooms online or work through coding problems with shared screens.

Online learning has seen huge growth during this period; we found that 30 per cent of people had taken part in remote training since March, rising to 41 per cent of 18-24-year olds and 40 per cent of 25-34-year-olds. Almost one in ten 65+ year olds - 9 per cent - are training online.

This virus has afforded people who previously worked in offices a flexibility with location, which they are unlikely to relinquish. We have a mix of opinions at Beyond: some long to see their friends at the office while others appreciate the new balance it has brought to their lives. We hope to offer the best of all worlds, but are adamant that choice is important. Across the UK, 60 per cent of people say they would like to work from home long term, while 66 per cent would like to work flexibly long term. Seven out of ten workers say they have better relationships with colleagues when working remotely.

 Technology expert Judy Gibbons is Chair of Which? and sits on the board of Michael Kors and Beyond. She explains: “There’s no reason why people should be working five days a week in an office. Enlightened organisations will offer their people much more flexibility as to how and where they work. We need to re-architect what we do and work out what things are best done virtually and which we will do face-to-face.”

She sees technology as an enabler for communication that makes people more equal. “In the physical space we see people who are tentative often don’t know where to sit and will choose a spot away from the Board during the meeting,” she says. “When we’re all in it remotely together, hierarchy is levelled.” 

None of us knows what the future holds, but I am certain that trying to rebuild the past is futile. And if we did try to return to our pre-2020 lives, then all that we lost through the pandemic would be for nothing. We have a responsibility to try out new ideas, whether that’s enabling people to order their lunchtime sandwich to be delivered to their home, try on clothes virtually or see their loved ones safely. Those who continue to innovate through this time of great change will be those that are part of shaping our ‘new normal’.