Coronavirus: What does the ‘new normal’ mean for how we work?

Examining the long-term impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic on the world of work, security, privacy and networks

The impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic is likely to be with us for far longer than the lockdown – and will bring many changes to our lives. That will start with the way we work. Remote working has been an option for many people for a long time, but has not naturally become the norm or ubiquitous.

However, reports from China suggest that habits formed during its three months of lockdown are already starting to change behaviours as people return to work. So, what impact are we likely to see from Covid-19 on our use of technology in the short, medium and longer term?

In the short term – accelerating our adoption of technology

The initial short-term stress of working from home, and having children home from school, has seen huge pressure on the communications infrastructure across the UK and globally. Overnight, the ability to work effectively has become dependent on having the right IT kit and a decent broadband connection. However, communication with colleagues and clients has been improved through easily downloadable apps such as MS Teams, Skype and Zoom.

We have also seen a, perhaps predictable, rise in cyber crime associated with coronavirus. As everyone moves online and lives remotely, people who are less familiar with technology, and those who work with it every day, are equally likely to be targeted by criminals through phishing and SMShing attacks.

These use the usual levers of an “urgent” message related, in this case, to coronavirus, to get people to click on links that install malware or request data that enables identity theft. Increased vigilance is essential

Technology is also helping, though: to monitor, track and manage the spread of the virus, and analyse data on contagion rates and movement of the infection. 

Apps have been introduced in countries such as China that track people’s temperature, quarantine, movement and contacts. 

Whether this is positive or negative from a personal data point of view, citizens are more likely to sign up for more intrusion into their lives in times of crisis. This may also lead to a re-baselining of the level of privacy we expect in the medium to longer term.

In the medium term – pressing the reset button on working habits

It is likely we will see changes to ways of working in the medium term as people become accustomed to working from home and, over the course of a few months, have set up a functioning “home office” environment.

We will have got used to video-conferencing and have improved connectivity through superfast broadband and 5G – the key to our working future. The future of professional work is unlikely to revert to five days a week in an office, in a particular location. We are more likely to see people working from home two to three days a week, using video and teleconferencing as the norm and face-to-face interaction reserved for a specific purpose.

There will be more explicit meeting etiquette to counter delays over video-conferencing, regular team check-ins to make sure everyone is OK when we don’t see them in person, and social interaction will become almost as “real” virtually as it is physically.

Technology, and the security of our interactions online, will become more important to everyone. This will have some positive impacts on the environment as we travel less and produce less pollution, but will also significantly reshape parts of the economy such as hospitality and retail – if people are away from home less, the likelihood is they won’t need those services in the same way they do now.

In the longer term – a roll-back in globalisation

This brings us to the longer-term impact of today’s changes. We are likely to see a roll-back in globalisation as nations seek to be self-sufficient in strategic goods, such as medicines rather than toilet rolls. But the move to more online shopping and social interaction online is likely to see demand for technology increase.

We may well see a reduction in urban density as people who previously felt they had to be in a city to work at their office, spend more of their time working from homes in suburbia or the countryside.

They will be physically further apart, so virtual connectivity will, again, become more important. This will increase the attack surface for cyber criminals, but could be countered if we become more cyber-savvy as we use technology more and technology providers build secure-by-design systems. 

A potential upside of this, with greater investment in broadband and 5G, is that the “levelling up” that the government is aiming for between the North and South could be expedited as location becomes less important for professionals.

This doesn’t help those who still have to travel to warehouses or factories to work, but online services may start to open up distribution centres in more locations, too.

We will see the behaviours we adopt now shaping the norm of the future. While the true impact of Covid-19 on the global population remains to be seen, the acceleration of our adoption of technology can be predicted now – and we need to respond positively to it.

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