After The Virus
This Center for the Future of Work Special Report considers what the world will look like in 2023, in a post-COVID world.
AFTER THE VIRUS
A Special Report Looking Back on the
Next Five Years
Very little will remain unchanged by COVID-19: Politics, socioeconomics, business, work and, quite simply, life as we know it.
AFTER THE VIRUS
After the coronavirus global pandemic, the world will be quite different. Whether the current lockdown lasts weeks or months (heaven help us, years?), very little will remain unchanged by COVID-19.
Geopolitics will change. Will European solidarity withstand the pressure for Germans to prioritize Germans, Italians their fellow countrymen and women, etc.? Will China be ostracized by the global community? Or further embraced?
National politics will change. Will populism surge, or will deep states reassert themselves at a time when only governments have the scale to deal with existential threats?
Socioeconomics will change. The overnight nationalization of economies in avowedly capitalist countries will supercharge simmering debates about wealth inequality. Will faith in capitalism be weakened or strengthened by the stress test faced by economies around the world?
Business will change. Will global supply chains withstand breakdowns in what has become business-as-usual over the last generation or two? Will reshoring and localization require a complete about-turn for how multinationals operate? Will Mr. Justin Time survive?
Work will change. Will everyone work from home? Virtually? Will robots and AI be more popular or less so? (Their bugs seem sort of tame in comparison …) Will the gig economy be wiped away or the only port in a global storm?
Life will change. Will we ever shake hands again? Will we ever again sit next to a total stranger on a 15-hour flight? Will we pull up the drawbridges around our homes?
These, and a whole host of other facets of life and business as we know it, will all be changed by the pleomorphic spherical particles with bulbous surface projections that roam among us.
In this special report, the team from Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work considers what the world will look like in 2023 – a time that’s far enough away for the implications of the virus to have materially changed things but not so far away that pure idle speculation reigns supreme.
We write from a future perspective – as if we are chronicling events in the year 2025 and are looking back on the changes that occurred in the days, months and years following the great crisis of 2020.
The report examines how education, health, shopping and entertainment became more virtual. How online interactive dinner parties, concerts and political rallies became common and “real” versions withered. How houses were retrofitted with dedicated home office spaces (routers in the right place, soundproofed, separate entrances, pre-built Gorilla Glass wall screens) as working from home became the norm, not the exception. It records that travel became a last, not first, resort, and those who did leave the house were subject to “OK2GO” scans on entering other buildings.
It finds that the environmental agenda gathered momentum (once the immediate crunch abated) as we realized the virus was a scream for help from a planet that had added six billion people in under 100 years, and as we further realized just how dirty (metaphorically and literally) the Earth had become.
The virus forced a reckoning of how we treat aging and how we regard privacy – the health monitoring that sprang up in China, Singapore and Israel spread around the world before we knew it. Of course, it sounded sensible, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
By propelling ourselves forward five years and looking back at all the changes precipitated by the virus, we chart a path forward and provide lead indicators of what is to come. And suggest that there is a future of work.
Online's "Big Bang"
After COVID-19, everything that could move online, did move online… and became cheaper, faster and higher quality in the process.
COVID-19 digitized the world at light speed. Seventy years into the information technology revolution, it became clear in early 2020 that although we thought tech was big, IT had only really scratched the surface of life. The virus ended all that.
Before the pandemic, many digital alternatives – whether to traditional healthcare, education, finance, you name it – were there; we just weren’t trying them, bemoaning “they’re too expensive” or “we’ve always done it this way.” But when the pandemic took hold, necessity dictated: “Get over it, get going, get used to it.” The COVID-19 big bang vaporized work-from-home canards about “tele-shirking” or that certain work could never be done online or virtually at all.
The lasting lesson of the bug? Everything that could move online, did move online.
The early going was a tad bumpy. After months of fumbling with Zoom Rooms and goofy online cocktail parties with fellow employees, workstreams emerged that were cheaper, faster and higher-quality. Interminable conference-call-bingo buzzwords (“Who just joined?” “Sorry … you cut out”) were replaced with flawless, frictionless UX.
Huge infrastructure investments that could scale elastically to handle millions of remote employees and/or customers reliably paid off. Legacy kludges of technical-debt-riddled patchworks of systems were deemed poison. Collaboration platforms judged to be time-sucks (no names …) were swapped for new names like Betterworks for frictionless, distraction-free remote team collaboration, Krisp (bye, background noise!), Muzzle (bye, embarrassing screen pop-ups!), and Trello (way better virtual team huddles!), in addition to the clear winners of the summer of 2020: the aforementioned Zoom and Bluescape.
The use of mixed reality got a huge boost, too. With sci-fi inspirations like Star Trek’s holodeck as a lodestar, the ashes of “Second Life” were rekindled into real virtual reality (as “Sansar”). The Wild allowed workers to design virtual workspaces, and Hub Culture’s Emerald City took off.
Whether it was “be-there” livestreaming of concerts, events or remote fitness, COVID-19 accelerated remote, augmented-reality-based, “see-what-I-see,” in-the-moment troubleshooting for everything from grocery supply chains undertaking massive restocking efforts, to remote caregivers interacting with seniors or a client with a disability. Companies like Strivr, initially designed for football quarterbacks to get virtual reps, trained tens of thousands of retail workers to keep supplies running smoothly.
At schools and universities, teachers scaled experiments with online media. Rote classroom activities gave way to a fusion of lesson plans with videogame-like distance learning, all galvanized by instructors with captivating online personalities that fostered far better student engagement than physical classrooms ever did. Conferences and conventions learned similar lessons.
Everything that could move online, did move online.
At hospitals, constraints of geography and brick-and-mortar physical visits diminished. The vast benefit of having “a Fitbit for your physiology” became undeniable. Diagnostics, intelligent routing to specialists and triaging – at home – became commonplace, relieving beleaguered doctors and nurses in the wake of the virus. Everything from AR-driven virtual phlebotomy from AccuVein, Shazam-like identification of heart murmurs, virtual physical therapy and digital blood-and-urine tests rivaling the ease of an at-home diabetic testing kit became ubiquitous (while phrases like “fax me the patient’s documents” became as rare as using leeches for bloodletting).
Of course, there have been downsides. Some have been seduced by virtual worlds they never want to leave. The Japanese subculture of hikikomori (“pulling inward”) became a worrying trend. Like whiskey, too much of a good thing sometimes became a bad thing, and society increasingly prioritized digital detox to give addled brains a break.
Online everything rippling out of the COVID-19 big bang was just that – big. The crisis was scary, but its exigencies welded together imagination and creativity out of necessity. An electric universe of online connections pushed possibilities far beyond what had been imaginable up until the virus spread. The long-term impact of the coronavirus was the creation of a world that accepted its manifest destiny was in cyberspace – for the future of its work, play and everything in between.
Everyone's Home is Their Castle
Houses are now built with dedicated office spaces – soundproofing, connectivity, 3D printers... the works.
Everyone's Home is Their Castle
The Future of Work@Home
Think back 5 years. It's 9:00 AM. You’re working from home. You're not one of the lucky ones with a home office space, so you're in the dining room. Your better half is also working, but they lost the rock-scissors-paper fight for the table, so they’re perched on the sofa with their laptop. Office documents and notes are spread all over your respective working areas. Your children – whose school is shut until further notice – are doing everything they can to distract you. (If you have toddlers at home, may the force be with you.) You’re busy trying to stop their fights and put out fires at work. What joy. Your partner and you have divided things up – work, cooking, children and household chores. You glance up at the clock. 9:07 AM. It’s going to be a long day …
Not too long ago, working from home was a privilege for few, but when COVID-19 hit, it suddenly became a necessity for everyone. As with anything in life, #WFH worked for some, and for others, fuggedaboutit. The sudden shift caught many of us by surprise. Trying to work productively became more than just having an office laptop and internet connectivity. It represented more than carving out a place in the kitchen, living room or bedroom. It became a fight for survival – for the future of your work.
Home is where the work is
In the aftermath of the pandemic, the builder trade boomed. Homes were built – or retrofitted – with dedicated home office spaces: routers in the right place, soundproofing, separate voice-driven entrances, Gorilla Glass wall screens. Homes became castles in which podcast booths and 3-D printers replaced stone walls and moats. Home became the place where we’re empowered with networks and platforms to connect, create and accomplish – become smarter and work smarter. It’s a place where we can self-isolate (and concentrate) and still stay connected with the entire world.
The shift toward the home office accelerated the wirearchy movement (a term coined by consultant and author Jon Husband): a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology. The key to home-office success became the ability to build and nurture deep, trust-based connections with peers, clients, partners and anyone in the connected world to get the work done. On LinkedIn, those in-the-know promoted themselves as “home office wirearchists.”
Soon, realtor advertisements began carrying descriptions like "3BHK apartment with separate state-of-the-art home office." At the high end of the market, customers preferred work to flow smoothly into their non-work lives. Architects, builders, interior designers and tech companies who could help people seamlessly blend their home with work became the new rockstars.
Offices did not die out completely. But the notion of spending 40, 50, 70 hours there a week did. The office was a product of the Third Industrial Revolution. The fourth one, floundering in its infancy pre-COVID-19, really took off as the virus bit – and the office was another casualty.
With #WFH now firmly established, it would be foolhardy to assume we’ll ever go back to the old ways of working. Changes made and opportunities taken have forever changed how we behave, in both our professional and personal lives. But if we’ve done nothing else as a result of the dark days of the pandemic, we’ve redefined the forever truth: there really is no place like home.
Business Travel Loses its Cool
In the blink of an eye, business travel went from a high-status activity to an embarrassment.
Business Travel Loses its Cool
"Mom, Dad, do you really need to fly?" Following the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden's climate-driven flight-shaming movement “flygskam” went global, with many self-identifying flygskammers ready to pressure their parents, colleagues and even their leaders into staying put. Humanity had never flown so much in the years leading up to 2020, but the planet's climate couldn’t cope. The fixes touted by the airline industry – sustainable aviation fuel (yeh, right) and electric planes (would you fly in one?) – as a response to climate change never took off.
The inconvenient truth was that dumping tons of carbon into the sky wasn’t something that could go on forever. The virus delivered a cosmic message that our travel behavior needed to change, and in the seeming blink of an eye, business travel went from a high-status activity (“You went to Sydney for a conference? Oh, how wonderful”) to an embarrassment (“You went to Sydney for a conference? How could you?”).
Where do you think you’re going?
Flying for an annual family holiday wasn’t really the problem; it was the frequent business fliers that accounted for the bulk of the damage. The 12% of Americans who made over six round trips a year accounted for two-thirds of global air travel (and each emitted, on average, three tons of carbon a year). Chinese and European fliers weren’t far behind. The post-virus hiatus forced us all to re-examine our flying habits – was it essential to fly halfway across the earth for that two-day meeting? We all dug the face-to-face contact, but Slack, Zoom or Trello broke the corporate hold that the talismanic in-person experience once held.
In the spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste, governments nudged things along by progressively taxing flights, ratcheting up the cost for each subsequent flight taken by a person throughout the year. Businesses launched innovative workforce policies with extra time off for those who chose to travel sustainably to their meetings or vacations. The slow boat to China came back into fashion. “Work @board” became chic as the four-day trip from Southampton to New York became de rigueur. Companies provided an additional three days’ extra leave a year so employees could travel more slowly – and given ubiquitous WiFi, tablets and noise-canceling headphones, the ability to work on a train and get up and walk to the restaurant car was so much more appealing than the hectic scramble to get to the airport and cram onto a plane. 2023 saw the beginning of a new golden era for train travel, with many European train lines reintroducing sleeper services.
In 2020, when air travel represented one of the largest industries in the world, no government (not even China) had ever forced people to completely stop traveling by plane. But the virus did. Overnight, millions of people stopped flying, marking a profound reduction in carbon emissions, which have declined drastically since their peak in 2019. As horrific an experience as it was, the coronavirus taught us that, yes, we could do something to reverse the damage we’d inflicted on our planet, and it spurred us to take the first steps on the long journey to protect what we have.
As we watched the unthinkable unfold before our eyes, the idea that we couldn’t do hard things evaporated. Business travel, it turned out, was not the engine of commerce we’d thought it was. And those who still hop on a plane to get to a business conference find they’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. Frequent fliers, it turns out, are no longer cool.
Ubiquitous Health Screening. Welcome the HSA
Entering any building, space or country now requires a full health screen to prove you’re not carrying any infectious disease.
Ubiquitous Health Screening. Welcome the HSA
Those old enough to have flown before Sept.10, 2001, will recall moseying up to the check-in counter 30 minutes before takeoff, the cursory look in your carry-on by a half-asleep security guard and the casual “howdy” with the pilot as you were welcomed aboard.
All of that changed the next day.
Soon after, little old ladies were forced to stand up from their wheelchairs and be patted down, children’s stuffed animals were put through X-ray scanners, and pilots were locked away behind impregnable steel doors.
In short order, following the terrible events of 9/11, a security infrastructure was built to ensure such terrorist attacks never happened again. Within weeks, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) was established in the U.S. (and variations of such around the world), and overnight, the flying experience was utterly changed. Now, each and every one of us is regarded as a threat. Now, each and every one of us is treated the same – saint and sinner alike. Now, each and every one of us is safe – few terrorist attacks have happened since – but we have all suffered from what little joy there was in flying eroding further away.
By 2023, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Health Security Agency (HSA) had ramped up, with a budget that made the TSA’s $7.7 billion look like chicken feed.
To enter any building or space (not just a plane) or country, people were required by law to have a Star Trek-like “tricorder” scan and be turned away if they fail. The “OK2GO” clearance system was initially deployed in high-traffic areas but eventually spread into every county of every state in the country. At first, HSA staff administered the scan, but in another couple of years, the entire process was automated – the scanning equipment became ubiquitous in the air-lock lobby of every building. Including domestic buildings.
As with TSA-Pre, a pre-approval system was instituted for those who enroll in the home-based telemedicine “OK2GO+.” This allowed people to take the scan at home up to four hours before their travel time, certifying they’re not carrying any infectious disease.
The creation of the HSA in the U.S. was a huge money spinner. Contracts to develop and produce the tricorder ran into the tens of billions of dollars. The diagnostic capability and its ongoing maintenance (updating the tests for new and emerging viruses) was a generational goldmine. Hundreds of thousands of staff were hired. The HSA model was mirrored in most other countries in the world.
A fact of life
As with flying, the inconveniences of this new situation are significant but unavoidable. If you’ve got a boss who’s a stickler for you being at your desk by 8:00 AM, you have to plan on arriving at your office building’s air-lock by 7:30. If you’re feeling a little under the weather and aren’t enrolled in OK2GO+, there’s the risk of being turned away.
In the evenings and on weekends, if you go to a show or football game, the lines are long and slow-moving – social distancing means a 1,000-person-line covering a quarter of a mile. Many grumble; some push and shove. But, knowing what we know in the wake of COVID-19, there’s little sympathy for those who think the HSA (and its sister agencies in other countries) is “overkill.”
The HSA infrastructure is a vital element of stopping the coronavirus panic of 2020 from ever happening again. The world cannot live hostage to communicable disease, known and unknown. If we could go back to the easy days of August 2001 and treat flying like taking a bus, of course we would. But we know we can’t. In summer and fall of 2020, the HSA’s “iron curtain” descended – we may not see it lift in our lifetime.
Gaia and Greta – From the Fringe to the Mainstream
COVID-19 gave us the chance to step back, take a deep breath, and consider the impact of our way of life on our planet.
Gaia and Greta – From the Fringe to the Mainstream
If the outbreak and spread of the virus taught us anything, it was how inextricably interconnected and interdependent we truly are – biologically, economically and environmentally. China sneezed, and the whole world got a new Depression – and there was nothing Great about it.
Even now, all these years later, we still can’t measure the size of the socioeconomic fallout from the pandemic. The trillions (and trillions) of dollars are easy to count, but what about the intangibles? A young person’s hampered career opportunities? Treating psychological angst? The populist leaders who rose to prominence, whose legacy can be counted not in the deficits of our treasuries or our balance sheets but in the deficit of our democracies?
Will your green habits improve thanks to COVID?
Silver linings did emerge amid the storm clouds; perhaps the most important historically speaking was how the prolonged economic slowdown of 2020-2022 stopped the clock of our frenetic business-as-usual and allowed us a chance to step back, take a deep breath and start recalibrating how we live on our blue planet. Very blue indeed in the wake of the crisis. In that moment of pause, it became obvious to all but the most myopic that the virus was a scream for help from an ecosystem groaning under the weight of expanding from 1.8 to 7.7 billion people in under 100 years.
And then the earth breathed
2020 brought home to us that Gaia theory was not fringe quackery and that Greta was onto something. In short order, a window opened itself to the world to see how much damage we were doing. Many clambered through it.
Satellite imagery taken shortly after the initial stages of the lockdown offered a persuasive “what-if” perspective. An overhead view of Italy revealed a significant decline in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a key element in greenhouse gas emissions. In Venice, fish began to appear again in the canals – something that amazed the gente vecchia. Similar seeming miracles occurred around the world. Before and after photos showed how quickly the ear