Gerry Chng
Published in
14 min readJun 3, 2020


Source: Unsplash — Moritz Kindler

Are we ready for a post-COVID future?

The future is uncertain — but different groups have been taking a guess at what the future holds. While there is talk of a digital future, is it all that it promises? Are there pitfalls we need to watch out for?


We have been inundated by daily news of the rapid progress of the COVID-19 pandemic. First reported in late December 2019, it has spread rapidly to become a worldwide challenge to societies. As of 24 May 2020, the virus has reached the other side of the globe with Brazil registering the second highest number of infections just after the United States.

The pandemic has left a trail of devastation to the economy and social norms as we knew it. In a world that was already struggling with geopolitical tensions and nationalism sentiments, this has exacerbated the situation and exposed both the beautiful and ugly sides of humanity.

Some industries — particularly those in the aviation, tourism, and manufacturing industries — have been the first to suffer when border restrictions were implemented. Few industries were spared as the effect quickly cascaded to the other sectors when further social restrictions were implemented. Empty establishments became a common sight in most places, severely impacting businesses relying on customer footfall.

The decision on how and when to restart the economy is definitely a tough call, with the need to balance safety and the livelihood of families. The economic outlook for 2020 and beyond is dependent on a successful restart. World trade is expected to fall by between 13% and 32% in 2020 in a range defined by an optimistic and pessimistic outlook.

As we reemerge, we can assume that we will not return to the world as we knew before. For one, no one is able to forecast how long this downturn will last. Many employees will be forced to acquire new skills or employment as businesses that have failed to reinvent themselves exit the market.

Companies that survive this crisis will emerge to be quite different. Companies knew they needed to change even before the pandemic, and this crisis accelerated the process as companies found themselves with limited alternatives. It has now come down to natural selection especially for those without pockets deep enough to hold it out, if holding out is even an option that guarantees survival.

Stuart Wilde, a British writer, had once said “In a time of crisis we all have the potential to morph up to a new level and do things we never thought possible.” Perhaps, this crisis would be an opportunity for us to emerge stronger and better.


Strong leaders will emerge

Indeed, this crisis presents an opportunity for true leadership to emerge. In the past, weak “leaders” might have gotten away with it when there was steady growth and stability. Of particular importance now is the ability of leaders to rally the team to navigate the difficult times. It is not just about protecting the business, but also doing what is right for the workforce.

Both on the national front, and also in business, the abilities of leaders have been accentuated based on how they have dealt with the issue and treatment of people. This will have a lasting effect in the years to come as it had clearly highlighted the attitudes of these leaders towards society and people, and we will likely see policies and economies reshape itself after this global shakeup.

Reinvention of the existing business model

Businesses have planned for transformation for years. The urgency given to such change, however, has often been put on the back-burner for other immediate needs. This pandemic has forced businesses push this agenda right up as most activities shifted to a predominantly online environment.

Many businesses, especially those with direct physical interactions with consumers, are facing tremendous restrictions due to physical distancing and lockdowns. Even as economies start reopening, most countries are expected to do so in a cautious manner, with only essential services in the first wave of businesses to reopen. Businesses that are able to operate remotely are encouraged to continue so, and most social activities outside of these essential activities are still limited. This will have a continued impact to customer-facing businesses.

The positive angle is that businesses are accelerating their presence to a fully or hybrid online channels. F&B outlets focus on take-outs through online efforts and tie-ups with delivery providers. Coaches, presenters and show hosts are starting to conduct their trainings online. This has been the necessary impetus to move businesses online. While the start of this migration may be bumpy for some (e.g. quality of the initial online products, branding and marketing of new channel, enrolment of new customers), it offers a much wider potential after these teething issues are sorted

More collaboration — not less

People have largely been adjusting to the new teleworking lifestyle. Admittedly, it works well for some more than others — factors impacting the effectiveness include access to high-speed Internet, private working space from other family members, child-care arrangements, accessibility to dedicated computing devices, etc.

Assuming some baselines are met, the current telecommuting work style has allowed for more productive use of time. Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor, told reports during the carmaker’s annual earning calls that the company is benefiting from the new work style that allows teams to spend quality time on discussions and virtual meetings with global peers.

Some of the teams I have interacted with during this period have very similar experiences. We now seem to be able to be more productive and better integrate personal and work commitments. Meetings are also conducted with more laser-sharp focus on the agenda. Naturally, this channel of communications is never as rich as a real face-to-face meeting, but people are generally getting used to video conference facilities as a replacement.

In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, this style of working is also preferred by millennials who have a very different attitude towards getting work done.

Building an eco-sustainable future

Part of the shift to the new home-work arrangements rebalances the infrastructure needs of the society from the physical to digital. Over the last few months, major cities around the world have experienced a sudden shift in their infrastructure needs. Roads and highways have become largely empty or much less congested, and business districts have become ghost towns as business activities have either come to a standstill or conducted remotely where possible. As a positive result, we have seen the air quality over chronically polluted cities improve through the lockdown periods.

We definitely do not want to stay in the current situation forever, for what is the point if all of society comes to a halt. But it does raise an important question when we look at the impact we have made on the environment. Has our growth been on a sustainable path, and are we truly doing what is right to leave a better world for our future generations. Or are we taxing Earth for our own immediate gains?

Companies will likely work through these rebalancing as we recover, with some technology companies leading the way by letting employees continue to work from home for the rest of the year or beyond. Hopefully, the new normal will allow us to create a more eco-sustainable future.

New leadership styles

For some time now, research has pointed that leaders in the digital era need to adopt some new leadership style. Amongst these changes include a more collaborative leadership style especially in specialized areas such as digital innovation and transformation.

As we transform our business models, leaders can benefit by listening to ideas from the team who might offer fresh perspectives on the way forward. Arguably, the digital natives might have better answers than many senior leaders who have not spent much time on technology.

I recently attended a GovTech Demo Day event, virtually via Zoom — another benefit of spending good quality time without the overheads of traveling time. 12 teams presented innovative ideas on how to better manage our path to recovery. Though only 12 teams presented due to time constraints, the Idea Sprint event took in suggestions from more than 70 submissions, and was chaired by senior management and ministerial leadership.

As companies try to reinvent themselves and navigate towards the new normal, they might find themselves being pleasantly surprised by the bright ideas of the young, and match that with the corporate might and experience to quickly prototype and execute the changes.

Accelerated technology adoption

This crisis has brought about an unprecedented spontaneous change in behaviour in a very short period of time. In a recent online interview, Paul Daugherty at Accenture commented that companies are experiencing three years of digital and culture transformation in three months. An article was also written by Steve LeVine in Medium, where he talked about the accelerated shift in the consumer and economic patterns, with positive and negative outcomes for companies in different industries.

This crisis will have different outcomes for many.

Which begs the question — are there pitfalls we need to watch out for?


Not every business will come out of this crisis unscathed. While there are opportunities for successful companies to reinvent themselves, the path ahead is not without uncertainties and challenges.

Cybersecurity threats

As businesses adopt digital capabilities, the Cybersecurity risk exposure will naturally increase along with it. Normally, companies had the luxury of proper planning to identify and rectify these risks. Even then, we often see implementations fraught with security vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers.

Faced with the sudden and swift lockdowns, businesses had to scramble to enable the entire workforce to work remotely. This naturally increased the attack surface area, and despite initial promise of a respite from cyber criminal gangs, the much needed healthcare infrastructure was not spared.

The workforce, students, and families in different households relied on video-conferencing in-lieu of physical interactions. Such activities were not spared from cyber attacks. With inadequate meeting access controls in place, uninvited guests ‘zoombombed’ into meetings — some with indecent exposures to children and young adults. We also witnessed increased occurrences of scam and phishing attacks taking advantage of financial aid or faking contact tracing calls.

Such flaws are not new, and arguably, it will always be the price of innovating and trying new things. The community will adapt, learn from the flaws, and improve its posture. At least until the hackers find more innovative ways of breaking in. This cat-and-mouse game will be part of our digitalization journey and we need to learn how to be resilient in the face of these challenges.

Most companies that have invested in Cybersecurity over the years would have built up a degree of resilience, and will likely weather these threats.

Some of the criminal activities present a much bigger threat to the youths. The BBC recently reported that online child abuse had risen significantly during the lockdown. Under normal circumstances, parents were able to either control or supervise their child’s online activity and interaction. With mandatory home-based learning in many places, coupled with the fact that parents had to take on multiple roles simultaneously, the potential for such child predators shot up.

The protection of our young generation is paramount, and if indeed the way we have been working and learning is a new norm, much more need to be collectively done by the society to address this problem.

In addition, there are some new digital norms that may carry longer term repercussions if we do not acknowledge the problem early, and know where to draw the line.

Privacy concerns

Some studies suggests that countries adopting technology to collect data on the virus’ spread through contact tracing has a correlation to the nation’s ability to flatten the curve sooner. Some of these innovation include the TraceTogether app in Singapore, COVIDSafe app in Australia, the SwissCovid app, and QR codes through the ubiquitous WeChat and Alipay in China, just to name a few.

The use of technology has served the community well during the crisis. It allowed health authorities to quickly identify and isolate those possibly infected as soon as possible. Is this a temporary measure, or will this become a new normal for the society in the future? If the latter is the case, we need to establish clear rules on data collection and its use.

Already, some countries are starting to develop concerns around the use of technology, with for example the color coding QR code within the Alipay app sending the collected personal data to the police. Maintaining transparency and proper privacy governance is crucial to build trust as a foundation for the digital progress of any nation. Without public trust, it will be difficult to successfully launch a data-driven economy and society.

Digital Readiness

Earlier, we saw that the environment was given a chance to heal during the lockdown in many major cities. Many cities experienced better air quality, and congested roads were no longer a common sight as the school-goers, workforce, and community stayed indoors.

While there appears to be environmental benefits, the equilibrium that the world was in took decades to achieve. The sudden jolt to shift our consumption habits created stress points in other areas that were not prepared to handle the load.

Take for example the accessibility to a reliable data bandwidth to accommodate online meetings, online learning, and entertainment within the same household, often simultaneously. Without the right infrastructure readiness or ground rules, it was not uncommon to witness:

  • Inability to enable video during an online meeting due to bandwidth limitations
  • Moving to several locations in just one call to accommodate other family activities
  • Needing to be in uncomfortably restricted parts of the house so everyone can conduct their online activity in relative privacy
  • Family members, sometimes to the awkward response of the team member, joining the video or discussion.

Not only are the bandwidth in some families not prepared for the new demands, some nations are also not prepared for the concentrated load on the mobile and fixed broadband demands.

Ookla measured the impact on global Internet performance as a result of the shutdowns. While the global mean remained consistent (for fixed speed) or improved (mobile speed — likely due to lesser demand on cellular connection), the situation looks different in different countries.

To answer the question on whether developing countries suffer a bigger dip in bandwidth during the lockdowns, further data was obtained from the UN Human Development Index (HDI). While there is no standard definition of development status of a country, the HDI aggregates factors around a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living. Hence, it can be used as a balanced measure of a country’s level of human development.

Matching the data from Ookla and the HDI, we see some patterns as follows (Jupyter Notebook for this analysis shared on Github).

This first scatter plot has the % change in fixed download speed change versus the base week taken as 2 March 2020. From initial glance, there doesn’t seem to be a clear cluster pattern.

The two lines represent the HDI cut-line of 0.8, which is generally used to represent whether a country is considered developed or otherwise. The vertical line of -10% represents what should be a reasonable degradation in speed before bottlenecks may be experienced.

If we use this method, we see that the top right quadrant (Developed Country, Little Degradation) contains 27 out of 103 data points. Conversely, the bottom left quadrant (Not Developed Country, More Degradation) contains 44 out of the 103 data points.

An alternate view plots the absolute median fixed download speed, rather than a percentage change. The pattern here may be more obvious — where it does appear to have a trend where the countries with higher HDI also has higher fixed download speeds during the lockdowns.

The correlation here is not surprising, and it serves as a reminder that the new norm of working from home does not benefit all households equally. To avoid the resulting social stratification, governments need to ensure that there are right policies and infrastructure in place to enable fair education and employment opportunities. This was already a concern prior to COVID-19, and as we accelerate our transformation, we should not leave parts of the society behind.

Cultural Readiness

The lockdown period was especially tougher due to schools and childcare being closed too. With the gradual reopening of the education and childcare services, there may be some respite from working parents at least during normal schooling hours.

Corporate cultures also need to adapt to the new work environment. There must be respect for the fact that family and work is now integrated as part of this new normal. Simple practices taken for granted previously such meeting overruns through meal times do not just impact an individual. Families may end up having schedules disrupted, or developing new habits of not eating together even though everyone is home. This is definitely not a healthy family norm we want to encourage or create.

Similarly, people should not be made to feel awkward when children barge into meetings needing attention from a parent. If we are to truly embrace the benefits of the new normal, we need to also change our past expectations and understand that circumstances will defer from family to family.

Some research suggests that while fathers in general are more involved in their children’s lives now than in the past, parenting is still highly gendered. Without the accompanying cultural shift, we end up risking the widening gender gap, which was already a prominent concern before the accelerated changes we are now experiencing.

Shifting supply chains and its implications

Many professional services firms have discussed the impact to businesses due to the disrupted supply chains. Beyond the immediate challenges to trade flow, there are obviously the questions around the typical “China + 1” strategy to the diversification of the supply chain. As the world realigns itself in the wake of the current crisis, there will be much uncertainty before a new equilibrium is formed. Businesses will have less certainty in its forecasts as new supply chains are formed and matured, economies will find themselves needing to reskill their workforce, and reshape capabilities to support the realigned trade flows.

As this new equilibrium is reached, governments need to take strong leadership to create the right platforms to support the re-skilling of the workforce and reshaping of the capabilities. Over the last few years, the global outlook on peace, stability, and growth had been threatened by tensions between the world’s superpowers. With the pandemic adding historical unemployment in many countries, it will definitely add further stress points to the societal cohesiveness if left unchecked. This global issue concerns everyone — it can never be a “us vs. them” mentality — as the new equilibrium can only be found when all nations cooperate and compete fairly to improve the world.

For now

The situation continues to evolve rapidly. We have a long journey ahead of us, and much remains to be done to heal a society with widening gaps, escalating global tensions, and nationalism agenda.

The solution is not simply more digital and more adapting.

Technology has its place — but as a society, are we ready to embrace its potential, or will we inadvertently leave people behind?


I wrote this for several reasons.

First and foremost, I have rarely written outside of my work requirements. In recent times, I have been intrigued by the rapid evolution of technology. Being a technologist at heart, it has always fascinated me and I have started exploring deeper into some of the emerging technologies around data and AI.

The more I explored, the more I realised that it is not just about technology, but the sociological impact.

I have just been admitted into a part-time Bachelor Arts program in Sociology, where I hope to better understand the issues and implications. As part of this learning journey, I would be expected to read more broadly and also write.

This is just my very first article. It is for me to learn, to improve, and to see the world in a broader way.

Preparing this raised more questions than answers. And I hope to slowly better understand the world through different lenses.



Gerry Chng

Tech Enthusiast | Curious about the future | Student in Sociology and Emerging Tech