Can you guess my top 5 COVID-influenced trends for 2021?
As a critical thinker, I’m constantly observing what’s around me — and how today will impact tomorrow. Whether it’s through world news, client projects, or a virtual happy hour with friends, I enjoy reflecting on social discourse and imagining what’s next.
In response to what I’ve personally and professionally experienced this year, I’ve shortlisted 5 interesting COVID-influenced trends that I believe people will be talking about in 2021. Some are more obvious (and nebulous) than others. I’d love to hear what you think, so please feel free to comment at the end of this article.
1. The rapid rise of ghost kitchens
When COVID happened, we had to start ordering takeout rather than eating in.
Restaurant owners found themselves asking: why should I pay extortionate rent for a fancy dining room, when all I need is a commercial kitchen that gets my food out the door?
Enter “ghost kitchens” — also known as “dark kitchens” — that replicate dishes from busy restaurants and ship them to someone’s home. I have to thank Mohamed Ali from Ruru Kitchen and San Francisco start-up Ghostly Kitchen for introducing me to this idea. He says that so many people in hospitality (including himself) have been forced to explore new ways to cut costs more than ever before.
Thinking about this concept, it all made sense. After all, we buy things from online stores that don’t have shopfronts, so why can’t your favourite food haunts use the same approach?
An excellent article Our Ghost-kitchen Future by Anna Weiner featured in The New Yorker explains:
“…opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant is high-risk and expensive, whereas ghost kitchens are lower-risk, offering a more affordable way for entrepreneurs to enter the business.”
The article continues:
“For restaurants that have already established themselves in the physical world, ghost kitchens can be a way to adapt to shifting trends.”
I’m excited by this new business model and the options it presents to aspiring restaurateurs. In saying that, I hope there is consistency with quality. Customer expectations could be a big threat. Will the food from a ghost kitchen be as good as what I’d be served in the original restaurant?
2. The normalization of humanoid robots
When COVID happened, we had to start physically distancing from others.
But with the world reopening from various lockdowns, how do we socialize and care for each other without putting people at risk?
I believe humanoid robot technology has the power to address this issue. For example:
- it can conduct health checks for patients without endangering medical staff. We’ve already seen robots become a critical part of telehealth.
- it can monitor and enforce social distancing guidelines with accuracy. We’ve already seen Spot, by Boston Dynamics, scouting around Singapore Park.
- it can support residents physically and emotionally while minimising community germ transmission. We’ve already seen robots in nursing facilities across America.
Industry leader Softbank Robotics states:
“Robots will never replace the human touch of caretakers and medical staff, but they can help reduce workload and make their work easier and efficient.”
This technology is not just limited to social and healthcare settings. We will see more humanoid robots in retail as stores look for ways to scale staff up and down amidst economy uncertainty. What will be interesting is how the technology is applied — will robots be conversing with customers or cleaning up a beverage spill in aisle 5? AI is only as clever as the person that programs it, and I think the expertise required to develop, launch, and optimize human-robot interaction is not yet widely available to most businesses.
3. The diversification of big events
When COVID happened, we had to start networking and learning virtually.
The question now is whether people will flock back to conferences in a post-COVID world. Some may say “yes!”, but secretly we still want to wear tracksuit pants. Furthermore, online events allow organizers to capitalize on ticket sales worldwide and save on travel costs associated with high-profile speakers (see how Salesforce pivoted to host a conference online in February and gained 80,000 live views).
“But there are always shared moments between attendees that you can’t replicate in a virtual world,” says Mike Tuzee, CEO of Australian corporate events company Impact Events. This is why the future will be about hybrid events. We’ll start seeing programs that mix face-to-face with online experiences. Stages with streaming. Real-time talks with pre-recorded content.
According to CMO Magazine:
“…four in five respondents say virtual events can be as good as or better than their physical event counterparts. The most common digital events attended include webinars, internal company meetings, workshops, briefings, external conferences and customer meetings.”
Organizers have realized we’re tired of being “lectured to” and are prioritizing attendee engagement via breakout rooms, polls, and Q&A formats. Thankfully, there have been giant leaps in the development of online tools (see image below) that make hybrid events easier to roll out.
Some organizers now also address drop-out rates and a lack of connection by sending promotional items directly to people’s homes. For example, Live 2 Lead attendees were pleasantly surprised to receive a goodie bag including a notebook, pen and mug prior to the broadcast.
4. An awkward introduction to the Internet of Behavior (IoB)
When COVID happened, we had to start finding ways to enforce COVID-safe practices.
With COVID-19 impacting our lives, employers have been looking to developments in IT that help them adhere to WHO guidelines. As a result, the Internet of Behavior (IoB) has emerged as a top tech trend that can help keep people safe.
IoB uses data to track and influence behavior. Examples include the roll-out of RFID tags on staff to monitor and encourage handwashing, and computer vision to audit the proper use of face masks. At the forefront of security expertise and technology in Australia, national provider Wilson Security has been deploying the latest in thermal detection, occupancy counting, and contactless building access, as well as video analytics, facial recognition, and even vascular detection for ID verification and contact tracing.
Access to such business intelligence has the potential to effect change. Ultimately, IoB allows companies to get back to work more quickly, while doing their part of safeguard people’s health.
But how do individuals feel about being watched? Do we really want identifying data on file at work? During the pandemic, we’ve been told to use contact tracing apps but they haven’t really taken off (plus, some people still don’t understand them). Netflix documentaries like The Social Dilemma have had people freaking out (even more) about their privacy. Seeing how organizations and government ethically navigate this space in 2021 will be interesting.
5. A review of inclusive engagement practices
When COVID happened, a spotlight was shone on social injustice.
Domestic violence increased. Women were pulled away from their careers into caregiving roles. People who couldn’t work remote had to choose between staying at home or losing their jobs. Children reliant on school lunches went hungry (and in some cases dragged into illegal activity in exchange for a hot meal). And, in America, Coronavirus cases amongst people of colour have been drastically higher than those of white people.
However, there are some silver linings amidst the tragedy. Community groups have stepped up more than ever to help others in need. In the US, non-profits such as Boston Area Gleaners are distributing USDA food boxes across the country. In Australia, the Victorian Multicultural Commission is actively funding programs that support women impacted by trauma and isolation. Furthermore, the forced adoption of remote work tools has enabled more people to come together and share their concerns. But this doesn’t solve everything — there’s still more to be done.
Matthew Gordon is the Non-Executive Director of OurSay, an award-winning technology company that connects citizens and leaders throughout Australia. He says:
“The ‘Zoom boom’ has expanded opportunities for government-citizen meetings. However, inequalities are still exacerbated. We need to ensure those who are women, poor, ethnic, young, and old have access to technology to be involved. For example, even if you have downloaded Zoom, do they have a quiet room to sit in?”
With a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, I expect late next year will bring a sense of agency to act on what we learned in 2020. I’m not sure exactly how this will manifest, but there will be an honest rethink of how — from grassroots to government — we advocate for everyone, not just the few.
About the author: Natalie Khoo built her business in Australia off the back of the 2008 recession. Having made all the mistakes since day one, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with other business owners on a similar journey. Natalie’s career highlights include taking a 3-month scuba diving vacation in 2019 and not checking her emails once. She travels between Melbourne, Australia, and Austin, Texas, with her partner James.