Work, business, and progress in a new uncertain world

The vicious fallout of the Corona Virus pandemic has been the most profound in recent history – the most impactful in the last several decades that one can recall. Its outcomes will unfold gradually as we see phased relaxations in the series of lockdowns. The impacts will manifest in the way we conduct our daily lives, and the way businesses and economic activities reorient themselves. As we start preparing for wide ranging, disruptive changes, here’s a look at some possibilities….

‘Life will not be the same anymore’ is a common sentiment expressed by large sections of our population, whether they belong to the corporate world, own small businesses, are working professionals, or workmen. There are several reasons for these outbursts which are now coming forth in the aftermath of the lockdowns put in place in order to prevent the spread of the Corona Virus and the potential health hazards of the virus.

Primarily large sections of the working population especially the migrant workmen who left their villages and towns (and their families) to seek remunerative livelihood options in the cities have been put to severe hardship due to loss of livelihoods, incomes and basic necessities while often living away from their families. This section of the population has been very much in the news. Many of them tried to make it to their distant homes and families on foot given the absence of transportation. Governments including local governments swung into action by discouraging them to travel and to stay put where they were, while providing them shelter and food. Railways soon started large numbers of ‘Shramik Special’ trains especially for these persons to travel home.

Impact on industry

However, having tasted the difficult times being away from their families, worrying about their own well-being and that of their families, many of these migrant labourers expressed the desire to stay back in their home towns and not return to the city even if their livelihood was at risk. This has significant implications for industry in and around our cities. There is likely to be a big vacuum and a shortage of labour for industries such as construction and manufacturing. A recent report has quoted FMCG companies in the processed foods sector stating that they have big demand but need to deploy more workmen and run additional hours and have sought permissions from authorities for the same.

As more industrial units, construction sites, and others open up depending upon the level of relaxation allowed by the authorities, there could be a surge in demand for workmen. Other aspects of life, especially in the cities may have big impacts. Social distancing, wearing of masks and new hygiene protocols are already prevalent and will be a part of our everyday lives in the future. What are the potential impacts for businesses like cinema houses and multiplexes? Will current seating patterns be discarded? Will it be possible now to operate movie shows back-to-back or will there be a minimum time gap between shows to allow for easy exit and entry of viewers. What about stadium events including blockbuster cricket matches? It is almost certain that authorities will put in place regulations with respect to all these to control spread of the virus – the Corona Virus now, and other potential public health dangers of the future.

Several experts and restaurant business owners are concerned about the future of this industry. Will take away food and home delivered meals become the norm?

Transformative work practices

We can expect big changes in the way activity takes place in our workplaces. A large Indian software company recently announced that in the next 4-5 years, it would transform work practices in such a way that at any time, all but 25 percent of its workforce would work from homes. In other words at any time only one of four employees would be working from the office. The experience during the lockdowns has given confidence to such industries for conducting work offsite. While other industries particularly manufacturing may not be able to work with such models to such an extent, here too functions such as HR and Supply Chain can do with limited in-office presence. Not every employee needs come to the office every day.

This trend has big implications for the real estate industry with greatly reduced requirement for office space. How this industry reinvents itself is to be seen.

From these new work practices emanate some ominous signals for other industries too. Aviation for example. Business travel is likely to be extremely muted for a long time. With virtual, online meetings, and webinars in place of conferences, exhibitions, and other large gathering events, the need for travel has fallen greatly. The impact on the hospitality industry is equally worrisome. As salary cuts, and even job losses stare in our faces, leisure travel will dwindle too. Therefore, travel, aviation, hospitality could see difficult times ahead.

Will education be impacted?

Given the large numbers of the student community in any setting in schools and colleges, difficulty in maintaining social distancing practices and so on, one wonders what kind of new methods could be adopted in this sphere. Less students per classroom and other norms will be difficult to implement in our cities. Will distance learning receive a fresh impetus and greater acceptability in the country? One needs to wait and see how the scenario unfolds.

The brighter side

One can make a guess as to which industries could be positively impacted by new practices and lifestyles. As more and more people work from home, there could be need to equip homes with gadgets such as laptops, printers and scanners. Hence likely greater demand for such equipment; a plus for the office automation products industry. And more importantly, there will be greater need for data connectivity with higher reliability and speeds. Telecom service providers are already offering special ‘work from home’ data packages.

Home gadgets like dishwashers are already seeing traction in demand and there could be more innovation leading to newer home convenience products and growth of this industry.

Institutions and businesses involved in healthcare, well-being, and hygiene will surely see an uptick as citizens adopt safer practices and take better care of themselves. Preventive healthcare will receive a big boost including traditional/alternate systems in which a great amount of interest has now been generated.

Beyond the immediate future

Scientists, doctors and policymakers are more or less unanimous in the view that the Corona Virus is here to stay – for some time. At the same time there are, as is to be expected, multiple efforts across the globe to find a vaccine and a proven cure for the disease. Till these research efforts are turned into commercial saleable products, there could be elevated anxiety and extra care among all. Therefore the impacts will stay. Or could it be that just like other viruses like the influenza or the common flu which is still around after several decades, the new one too will be a part of the ecology? And just like the common flu, most get cured and return to normal after a few days of rest and recuperation? Let’s wait and see.

In any case, many people have learnt new lifestyles which involves more ‘staying at home’, less ‘strolling on the streets’, less ‘eating out’, less ‘biking’ or ‘driving around’ and so on. While due to this, it seems that many aspects of business and commerce are being adversely affected, a big gainer in the short and medium term could surely be the environment – less air and noise pollution, cleaner rivers, ponds, and lakes, and so on. It seems that after a long, long time, nature is stretching its legs. Rare species of birds and previously unseen animals are moving on city roads, revisiting their old habitats. With factories shut and reduced vehicles on roads, the skies are so much bluer. Indeed Mother Earth is healing herself!

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