Dodging around the many and various disadvantages of the pandemic and, yes, I must admit, even among the lockdowns of one sort or another, much to my own surprise I have begun to realise that there have been distinct benefits arising out of the covid19 pandemic. Benefits so distinct that never will there be a return to “life as usual,” if you are referring to business life. Not ever.
There is appearing a kind of forced evolution. As with all evolving traits, it has been uneven and still developing, but it cannot be questioned.
First was the use of technology. When e-mail was introduced years ago, it changed the speed and urgency with which we had to respond to business requests. Where previously a query could be received, pondered upon for a few days while it rested in its appointed place at the bottom of the pile and responded to within a week, with e-mail, the new standard of efficiency, clients and customers wanted an answer within 24 hours at most. It improved customer service standards markedly.
This time it has been communications technology. Senior executives who have never done it before have now learned how to Zoom, or at least to join a Zoom meeting. New jobs have been created for admin assistants who can Zoom-master a meeting…every office needs at least one.
We are told that for every new skill we learn our brain capacity expands. What the dreaded shutdown of schools has done is to push another generation still in primary school beyond the two previous generations by requiring skills that will or have already outshone those of their parents and grandparents. A consultation with a seven-year-old has revealed that she now uses not only Zoom but Google Classroom, Google Meeting and something called SeeSaw – not the outdoors one that is featured in the comic pages in the press. The computer one. She is seven years old, for goodness' sake!
Her mother, in addition to Excel and all the other computer programmes that are taken for granted, uses Zoom, of course, and Skype for Business, which I am fond of, but which seems to be going out of favour, and Microsoft Teams which is very useful as well. The Gotomeetings App is being used less often now, although it is still popular with some companies.
The larger, more sophisticated firms have invested vast sums in developing their own apps which vary in quality, but are growing, changing, evolving, becoming outdated and being re-visited.
For those of us who miss the social contact, which has been the downside that everybody complains of, there is a new app called STACK that I am told makes up for that combining social contact, phone calls, sharing files, team work, moving from virtual room to virtual room (like Zoom does) and building in coffee breaks.
Architects and building contractors use 3D apps, legal professionals use apps like JURIS and ROSS that comb through massive data banks to get facts about cases that happened ten years ago in other jurisdictions. Industrial relations professionals use similar data-based apps that do the same thing when it comes to referencing tribunal and court awards throughout the Commonwealth.
Such technology costs money but performance quality and successful outcomes have leapt ahead by centuries as a result.
The technology is also changing other things. For one thing, because it is evolving so fast (who uses MP3s anymore? Kodak film? Floppy discs? Videos on disc?) it is forcing us to keep learning, exercising brain synapses and opening up intellectual capacities we never knew were possible. The neurologists now tell us that can go on well into your 80s. In some professions, that will not be optional but compulsory. Not everyone wants or needs to retire.
But more importantly, have you noticed that we are learning to listen? Thank you, professor Zoom!
Because Zoom forces us to press the mute button when we are not speaking, or the Zoom master does it for us, we now cannot talk over other people and interruptions are not simply impolite, and very unprofessional, they are rare. If you want to be heard on Zoom, you have to also listen to what others are saying, pause to let it sink in and unmute. As a result, people have learned the habit, not just the skill, of what Harvard professor Dr Howard Gardner called “listening intelligence,” one of the multiple intelligences he focuses on.
It is actually carrying over to telephone conversations. Developing that skill by actual measurement improves your work performance by 40 per cent.
A necessary new skillset is learning when to know someone else in a Zoom meeting is actually listening, as opposed to merely keeping the audio on while multi-tasking on other things. This uses yet another hitherto seldom-used part of the brain.
The switch to professionals and administrators working from home has led to a different concept of office space. Files that once filled up cabinets are now kept on the cloud. Banks of law books attractively lining the walls of attorneys’ chambers are now viewed as decoration, because access to laws from Afghanistan to Anguilla are on the cloud as well. Financial and insurance files that by law are to be kept for seven years will, someday, be reassessed...whole buildings let out at highly expensive rents may have to find other tenants.
This is what normal will continue to look like. Public-service bureaucracy on a digital dial may actually come to pass. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said back in pre-Socratic times, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Today’s business reality will not be tomorrow’s.