The emergence of COVID-19 and the global response to it caused a massive amount of societal upheaval, changing the nature of business as much as day-to-day life. National shutdowns increased everyone’s dependence on tech companies as self-isolation led to a need for alternative approaches to even quite basic needs like eating and communicating.
While the situation created plenty of challenges, as much for tech companies as everyone else, it also created opportunities. Some companies responded effectively while others were slow to act. Some of those with faster reactions attracted criticism for their approach while others were praised for theirs.
Studying how companies adapted to a situation as extreme as COVID-19 can give us an insight into good business practises as well as potentially preparing more companies for the future, perhaps helping them weather the storm more successfully. That being the case, let’s have a look at a few examples.
Tech in the healthcare industry
As you might expect, the global pandemic naturally put a huge amount of added pressure on the healthcare systems of virtually every country. In particular, social distancing and self-isolation regulations created a troublesome dilemma: patients still needed their minor ailments attended to in order to prevent them from becoming major ones, but were instructed to avoid going into hospital wherever possible.
In some cases, national governments looked first and foremost to the tech industry for solutions. In the UK, the response was so enthusiastic that it was referred to as a “digital Dunkirk”. Tech-based companies like Uber and Airbnb said they would offer their services for free to medical workers, which would certainly be a bonus, but does not solve the really pressing problems.
It was accuRx that made the biggest difference. In the space of just a weekend, they developed a video consultation system for the UK’s National Health Service, which they released for all frontline staff. This might seem like nothing special since video conferencing systems have existed since the 1990s. However, not everyone in the UK has the required hardware or tech savvy to set up a video call, particularly older citizens who would be at far greater risk from COVID-19 and who make up the majority of patients in need of consultation even when there isn’t a global pandemic. That’s why accuRx’s service stands out - it doesn’t require the patient to know anything about technology and doesn’t require them to download anything. Within a couple of weeks, they had facilitated 100,000 consultations with general medical practitioners and 10,000 with hospital staff.
What made accuRx’s response to COVID-19 unique is that they responded to the world as it is, not an ideal world where every potential customer has complete confidence with technology and top-of-the-range hardware. They created a system that is not just simple for most people to use, but possible for everyone to use - an important distinction, albeit one that creates additional challenges and limitations. Perhaps it’s a system they can refine, improve and iterate and, once the immediate crisis blows over, even market. However, another important part of their response was that they were also humane and philanthropic, which created a huge PR victory.
It’s worth noting that tech firms making moves in the healthcare industry has not been entirely for PR wins, though. All over the world, private companies have stepped into the gaps left by inadequate public healthcare systems in order to generate impressive profits while also providing essential care for those most in need. Tech-wise, this has largely been in the form of remote consultancy systems like accuRx’s.
Banking from home
The financial impact of COVID-19 has been huge, with the overwhelming majority of businesses closed for the duration, huge numbers of redundancies and those lucky enough to be able to keep their jobs often sent home on unpaid leave. However, the business of finance must go on and fintech has been called upon to keep it going.
First and foremost, many a commercial bank has found that their apps and online services have now got significantly more users. To be precise, fintech apps generally saw a 72per cent increase in use across Europe. Very fortunately, most banks around the world already had digital options in place well before COVID-19 struck, but with relatively low uptake of them. Within a matter of months, the amount of transactions being handled digitally increased by orders of magnitude.
One adaptation that tech companies in the financial sector have had to make is to massively ramp up the availability of phone-based tech support. Bear in mind that , barely a decade ago, some countries were still just getting their first ATMs and needed staff on hand to guide people through the process of using them - especially older clients in rural communities. Naturally, they have also needed guiding through the process of online banking and financial companies have had to move quickly to respond to the spike in demand.
Remittance companies have also had to adapt. With as many as one in nine people globally relying on funds sent from overseas, but offices of companies like Western Union and MoneyGram forced to remain closed, there’s naturally been a spike in business for digital remittance services. In some cases, this has led to some unlikely alliances, with national governments that were previously reluctant to deal with such businesses now more open to cooperation.
Will VR go mainstream?
Household virtual reality technology has been steadily developing since the release of the first Oculus Rift in 2016. In fact, the technology has been developing for decades, but the Rift was the first version that actually worked effectively while still being affordable enough to be publicly accessible, even if it was a bit of an expensive luxury. That development has largely been led by the gaming industry, and even that has been a rocky road, not least because of the high incidence of motion sickness among users.
With its cost is still on the high side, and the risk of losing your lunch even higher, VR has remained a niche tech. However, social distancing and the requirement for all but the most essential employees to work from home has seen a resurgence of interest in the platform. While teleconferencing platforms like BlueJeans and Zoom have seen huge spikes in customers, users have also started to notice their limitations, with employee productivity significantly reducing during the COVID-19 crisis. The fact is that a simple teleconference does not adequately replace the experience of being in a meeting with your peers and colleagues. It also does not provide the sort of services required to recreate a conference or expo.
In response to this, virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology companies are noting significant increases in demand, with some firms saying that interest has more than doubled in just a month. It’s not the gaming industry that’s leading this surge of interest, either, but manufacturing. In particular, the need for virtual classrooms to help train staff or remote fitters needed to fix high-end machinery have created many of the new customers.
Companies like IBM have been quick to respond to the increased demand for effective remote working solutions, upgrading their networks and increasing functionality. Fortunately for them, they were already developing in this direction anyway - COVID-19 just forced them to accelerate that development.
This isn’t the only technology that has seen an accelerated move from niche to mainstream and from leisure to business. While there have been various small-scale experiments in using them for parcel delivery, drones have mostly remained a novelty just for fun and photography. Amazon led the development of delivery drones because, while they are severely limited in their maximum payload weights, 90 per cent of Amazon’s sales are for lightweight products. With the need for social distancing and the associated increase in demand for home delivery, there is now a resurgence in interest in delivery drones and various other transport and logistics solutions, with the UK government investing £90 million into trials of various techs.
Those tech companies that best adapted to the COVID-19 crisis were those that took gambles by acting fast. In response to the sudden surge of interest, they invested in massively increasing their capabilities and rapidly deploying new features they may have previously been planning to gradually roll out. While most of these gambles have paid off, it remains to be seen if they all will in the long run. There are always risks involved with such rapid decision-making, including the chances of the interest plummeting just as quickly as it spiked or some of the new features being incomplete and unstable.
A boost for biometrics
COVID-19 created two considerable and somewhat contradictory concerns at once. Obviously, the need for social distancing increase the need for remote access to secure services like banking - a challenge for which we have previously identified biometrics and eKYC as an effective solution. However, the contradiction is that those professions where working remotely was not possible sometimes found that biometrics was actually the worst possible security solution. The best example of this is the New York Police Department reportedly stopping their staff from using fingerprint scanners inside their main headquarters for fear of spreading the virus.
Among the companies to respond to the need to maintain social distancing as well as security was South African tech company iiDentifii, whose CEO noted that the pandemic has “fast tracked the consideration of remote digital authentication across the globe”.
As any development related to such highly sensitive security issues will inevitably be slowed by the need for government involvement and authorisation, adaptation in this area is more a case of preparing than making any immediate changes. However, those companies prepared to integrate developments in other sectors are likely to adapt well.
Time to get tough
A crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19 creates some very interesting quandaries about the balance between rights and responsibilities, with the trend generally leaning towards a stance of ‘desperate times require desperate measures’. In such desperate times as a global pandemic, tech companies chose to act.
The most extreme example of this is in the use of facial recongnition systems in surveillance as well as security and eKYC. It was reported that Russia used this technology to check for those breaching quarantine, with offenders getting a knock on their door from the police, urging them in no uncertain terms to reduce their wanderings.
Russia is hardly a paragon of civil rights at the best of times, but the US certainly is. However, the tech companies behind the leading social media platforms also chose to incorporate measures to minimise misinformation, even if it meant devoicing those spreading “false claims and conspiracy theories”. Facebook, Twitter, Google and Pinterest all took steps to either promote official sources of information or minimise others.
These are far from the only instances of tech companies choosing to act for the greater good, but they are perhaps the most extreme and are almost certainly the most politically charged. It is a move that is likely to attract as much criticism as praise, but arguably one that was an essential contribution to minimising the impact of COVID-19.
Together we stand
Perhaps the most remarkable adaptation to come out of tech companies during the COVID-19 crisis was a degree of rarely-seen cooperation. While Apple and Google are perhaps not direct competitors, for the most part, seeing them work together to develop tools to help governments and health agencies minimise the spread of the virus was impressive to see.
This is another example of tech companies working towards the greater good, albeit one without an ethical dilemma tacked on. The two tech giants developed a system to use Bluetooth to trace close contact between users - the leading cause of COVID-19’s spread. They insisted that user privacy and security were central to the design of the software, allaying understandable concerns such tracking systems inevitably create.
This is also a prime example of the tech industry doing what it does best - identifying a need and creating an innovative solution to meet it. This has long been what tech companies do best, but the rapid spread of the virus and equally rapid development of the global situation meant that companies needed to think and act fast.
The other side of the coin
It is worth adding that, while most tech companies have adapted quickly and admirably to COVID-19, not all have escaped criticism. In particular, those who depend on human workers have taken flak from their employees and the media for being slow to implement risk-reducing safety measures, arguably putting profits before the health and safety of their staff. The lesson here is to look after your own people as well as your customers.
Other criticism levelled at tech companies included responses to ill-advised tweets and poorly phrased communications. In other words, those firms who have responded well to the crisis are those that have a good PR team.
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