As we begin working from home en masse, moving our education systems onto online platforms and doing even more shopping online, technology is one of the crucial sectors that continues to empower economies and society worldwide during this pandemic. How technology organisations are responding varies across the board depending on the maturity of their existing business models to deal with this surge in demand and the capability of their own virtual workforces, to continue to service customers.
According to Keith Weed, WPP Board Director during the last week in May and first week in April, the next 15 years of people set to come online; have come online in just 15 days. As the lockdown continues, we continue to experience the role of technology at every juncture. What was useful is becoming absolutely essential.
Many of us are stuck at home and even if we do dare to venture out, many shops have closed their doors. Because of this, ecommerce websites are doing a booming business with Amazon reportedly hiring 100,000 new employees in the US to cope with demand for deliveries. Similarly, while cinemas, pubs, clubs, concert venues (and basically everything offering some kind of entertainment) are closed stocks are rising for Netflix as we collectively settle in for an enforced TV binge!
With our kitchens, couches and even beds becoming our new home-offices, technology companies are responding to the needs of businesses working remotely. The messaging platform Slack is offering free upgrades to teams dealing with the crisis, while video-conferencing software Zoom is providing advice and webinars on how they can use Zoom to facilitate remote working and education.
This is a key theme as other major companies highlight how their products can provide the tools companies need to stay functional and productive. For instance, professional services firm Accenture has prepared a report for customers looking to rapidly transition to what they call ‘an Elastic Digital Workplace’.
However, while many tech companies might be well placed to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, that largely depends on what part of the sector you’re operating in; systems hardware/ software, cloud computing etc. Apple, for instance, has had to close all its stores around the world outside of China while retaining its hourly workers on full pay. Now depending on e-commerce and apps to keep the business afloat, they have also had to respond creatively to other business challenges such as taking their Worldwide Developers Conference (due to take place in June) entirely online.
Supply chain is also an issue with 75% of companies experiencing supply chain disruption. Even software companies such as Oracle concede that there will be longer lead times on certain parts and products. In contrast, cloud-based companies such as Adobe and Zendesk face less disruption when it comes to providing their services. Colleen Berube, CIO at Zendesk says: “As we look at the effect of COVID-19 at a global scale and how businesses are responding to the situation we’re reminded of how service, cloud functionalities and remote support are foundational.”
Open Source Information
The biggest tech giants have also been quick in responding to the crisis. Google has highlighted the danger of misinformation and dedicated itself to removing factually incorrect information from search results, providing webinars and YouTube learning videos and keeping local information as up-to-date as possible. It has also pledged to remove ads that capitalise on the pandemic, for example, ads selling face-masks.
Facebook has taken a similar approach to stopping misinformation and blocking ads capitalising on the crisis, as well as directing users to the WHO for information and giving free ads to the organisation. Less well-received was the fact that they reportedly have given researchers access to their anonymised data in order to help them understand and contain the outbreak. Facebook owned WhatsApp has also partnered with the WHO and UNICEF to provide an information hub for users.
Other companies such as Microsoft and Salesforce have employed data visualisation tools to showcase the spread of the virus on interactive maps, while also highlighting how their tools can help users navigate the crisis.
While many applaud the actions of these companies in fighting misinformation, some also make the shrewd point that with their actions now (and with their multi-million dollar donations to the cause), technology firms have a chance to improve their reputations with consumers. After all, how companies act now will influence how they are seen moving forward, whether that refers to how they take care of their employees or how they use their capabilities for good causes.
The biggest takeaway is that technology is truly being put to the test. We are seeing very clearly how reliant we are on technology to keep our economy and home lives functioning; and it will be interesting to evaluate the long-term impact of the pandemic on behaviours and society more broadly. We might predict a wider move to remote working. Companies certainly will be pushed into building in more flexible, technology-assisted cloud-based working practices.
It is also a test of how we assess, distribute and respond to different channels of information online. Will we become more savvy at recognising fake news? Will tech giants and governments have a renewed incentive to tackle misinformation? It could be an opportunity for many businesses to engage new customers while performing a public service.
Lastly we may wonder how this present moment changes our relationship to technology. One thing is certain, it is clear we are seeing the value technology can bring to different areas of our lives, whether it’s how we develop new products, how we learn, how we work, or how we live.