Heading into year three of this pandemic, COVID-19's next chapter is still uncertain. Some optimistic experts believe that the Omicron variant represented the beginning of the shift from a pandemic to endemic. Other experts still urge caution, reminding the public that if the virus can mutate, it will. How the economy and society move on will be both rational and emotional and certainly not uniform around the world. Add to that, a global crisis with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the global condemnation of it, U.S. inflation, supply chain constraints, civil injustice, and the charged issues that further divide people, from politics to health mandates to conspiracy theories to social issues. What are some of the lessons we can learn to pave the way forward for a more productive, collaborative, and prosperous future?
In Madrid, Spain, Salesforce and Accenture hosted a special roundtable that explored likely scenarios and the roles we can play in driving economic and societal recovery and progress. As someone who works in human-centered innovation, I joined economist Linda Yueh to share our respective outlooks regarding the impact of the global pandemic on the economy, businesses, and human behavior.
Following is a summary of that conversation, including observations that can help leaders drive meaningful change in a post-pandemic economy.
Not just living with the virus, but learning to prosper alongside it
During her presentation, Linda Yueh explored the current economic climate and ways we can learn to live with the virus while also prospering alongside it.
Yueh assured participants that uncertainty is a new normal, but evaluating the situation on a day-to-day basis would help us take the right steps to recover in the short term and uncover opportunities for longer-term growth.
According to Linda Yueh, the speed of development of the vaccine, compared to traditional timeframes, was astonishing. She noted that "even so, we must remember that no vaccine is 100% effective.
As an economist, Yueh acknowledged that, to deliver effective results, the rate of vaccination balanced with infection must be extremely high in order to envision a return to normal from an economic standpoint.
"In 2020, emerging economies around the world experienced a contraction of nearly six percent, which represents the most severe economic downturn in peacetime," according to Yueh.
Yeuh cited estimates from the World Bank suggesting that it will take between two and three years to recover the economic position of 2019. She highlighted one "extremely important" economic factor that would reveal if the current damage will permanently affect economies in the future—unemployment.
"The reason why governments are focusing their expenditure measures on employment and keeping people in the labor market is that, once workers are no longer able to imagine their future, or become discouraged, or forget their skills and stop participating in the workforce, high unemployment leads to what economists call hysteresis," Yeuh revealed. "This is an unemployment situation caused by the malfunction of the labor market, which tends to persist even when the causes thereof have been resolved and which "basically impairs the economy's potential for growth".
Yueh highlighted that, after each recession, unemployment tends to remain slightly higher than before. "Moreover, the current state of the economy is not a normal one, so government policies can make a considerable difference in guaranteeing that people will continue to be productive members of the workforce." She believes that this is one of the major spending areas where governments and businesses can focus to ensure that the damage we've experienced can be reversed and improved.
In light of the "great resignation," another malfunction of the labor market could also be attributed to not understanding why employees are choosing not to return to their previous employers or jobs. Employers must take this opportunity to explore those reasons and seek new opportunities for employee and employer value creation.
Yueh also highlighted two additional areas where leaders can focus fiscal spending to drive growth.
"To the surprise of some, the International Monetary Fund – largely known for their customary discourse on the need to cut spending in response to high debt and deficit levels – is now encouraging governments to benefit from low interest rates and a highly flexible monetary policy," Yeuh observed. "Spending could boost growth and growth is what we need to maintain a healthy economy and create new jobs, especially in the green economy and digital transformation."
For example, she noted two big areas of investment that are contributing to growth. First, digital transformation accelerated during the pandemic and will continue doing so. And with the increased focus on climate change, sustainability investments also represent an indisputable trend. In fact, in its State of the Connected Customer report, Salesforce learned that the top two changes customers wanted to see in business transformation was for companies to become more trustworthy and also improve the role they play in society.
Yueh observed that markets were already moving in this direction. Acceleration can only help organizations, companies, governments and workers become well-positioned for the economy of the 21st century.
"I am resolutely optimistic and, even though this pandemic has been completely devastating, I believe that we can discern some of the methods we could use to make progress toward long-term goals for a cleaner environment, greater productivity, and a better work-life balance," Yueh asserted.
Pandemic disruption opens the door to creative innovation
Most of my work is focused on innovation, digital transformation and exploring the future of markets. Over the last two years, I've dedicated a large part of my time to understanding how digital disruption affected businesses and also individuals, as workers, customers, and human beings, and its impact on consumerism and society.
The sudden shift to a digital-first, work-from-anywhere world did more than accelerate remote and hybrid working. It also reset the relationship consumers have with digital devices, technology, and the role they play in their lives and work. With commutes sidelined for the most part, productivity gains were among the immediate benefits of working from home. Over time, digital and pandemic-related stress spotlighted the need for employers, caregivers, and governments to also prioritize wellness, wellbeing, and health in this interim normal.
Taming digital distractions to cultivate meaningful productivity, creativity, and work
Prior to the onset of COVID-19, technology and healthcare experts were already documenting the negative effects of living an always-on digital lifestyle.
Anyone who has seen the film "The Social Dilemma" on Netflix will know about intentional decisions and actions taken by technology companies to change our behavior in their favor. The goal was to capture as much consumer attention and engagement as possible without proactively considering the effects of devices and applications on our psyche, health, and well-being in the long term.
Through two years of research in the development of my latest book, LifeSCALE, How to Live a More Creative, Productive, and Happy Life, I learned that using devices and social media regularly also carries the risks of suppressing our creativity, originality, and the ability to concentrate or immerse ourselves deeply in a state of flow and performance. As the world changes and as digital skillsets grow in demand, creativity, focus, and resilience will also become paramount. Among the new disciplines needed is the ability to control our relationship with technology in our personal lives.
Research shows that every time we use popular social networks, games, and messaging apps, we are reconfiguring our brain for distraction and limiting its plasticity. And, we're not even aware of it, as it becomes a new normal in our everyday routines.
The distractions represented by every text message, every TikTok, Facebook or Instagram notification, is opening us to distractions, plugging us into an intoxicating, continuous feedback loop. In fact, notifications are designed as rewards, telling us that we are important and that we matter. When we don't get any notifications, we feel like we're not as important, which can affect our self-confidence and self-esteem and lure us to engage more to trigger feedback. What's more, the constant barrage of notifications distract us from a deep and focused flow of thought. It is where we do our deep work, where our creative and analytical minds thrive.
Breaking that flow forces productivity to spin out.
For instance, if you were to break from deep work to indulge a notification, research shows that it would take an average of 23 minutes to return to the previous state of concentration. If we jump to every notification as they happen, we then prevent our ability to engage in deep work, which affects the quality and capacity of our work. Instead, we drift toward multitasking, jumping from activity to activity, which only exacerbates the problem. Science shows that, contrary to the term, we're not really multitasking, we're actually task switching. As we constantly shift our focus, we use up precious mental fuel, which depletes creativity and focus while sacrificing the quality of our output.
Empowering employees to upgrade their future of work
Business, healthcare, technology, and government leaders cannot solely focus on economic recovery, productivity, and pandemic-responses. Equally vital to recovery and prosperity is health and wellness, digital literacy and developing soft-skill sets for the next economy.
Human resources must expand employee engagement and management processes to focus on wellness and creativity, by helping teams develop balance, healthy work routines, and to better understand the effects of digital habits on their work and lives. Training and education programs must also teach employees how to manage technology, time, and presence to master digital- and human-first skills that are now needed in a new world of hybrid work.
In times of digital disruption in business and our individual lives, creativity, purpose, and personal and professional development are vital cornerstones of innovation. And innovation, not just digital transformation, is the key to economic growth. The challenge though, is to recognize the line where digital and human collaboration flourishes.
Consider that during the pandemic, of all the technologies that accelerated digital transformation in companies around the world, automation and AI (artificial intelligence), helped companies achieve unprecedented scale while eliminating redundancies in human capital. In a world where AI and automation are only going to become increasingly pervasive, exploring the potential for human and machine collaboration, not the replacement of the workforce, becomes important and inevitable. A fundamental area of exploration is the intersection of intelligent technologies and human skills to unlock new business opportunities and value.
Already following the great resignation, recent research shows that employees will face a "great digital divide," with 76% of employees reporting that they don't have the skills for the next era of work. This means that employees must also have access to resources and avenues toward career development and growth.
The future isn't what it used to be
While the world was thrown into disorder in 2020 at the same time, how we emerge and what we do moving forward isn't universal or orchestrated. It's ours to define. How digital, business, and operational transformations develop from here on out will shape the next markets and its competitors.
This is a time when disruption can spark not just reactions, but also critical reflection to discover alternate, positive, and inventive responses to change. We now have the opportunity to reimagine how we can use this CTRL-ALT-DEL moment to think creatively, to analyze, and explore novel, unprecedented ways to create new value for our ecosystems of customers, partners, employees, and communities.
Sir Ken Robinson championed human creativity and a revamped education system. He passionately believed that we do not grow into creativity, but instead we grow out of it, or educated out of it. His goal was to prioritize creative learning and expression in schools to better prepare students for an evolving future. "Creativity is now as important as literacy," he attested.
He would agree that this is a time to empower students and employees, to reintroduce creativity and human skills in schools and now in our work.
Creativity is a key pillar of innovation and transformation that we must instill in work and life. The most important skills in a post-COVID-19 world will be human. As AI and automation become part of everyday work processes, it's also imperative that employers close the coming digital skills divide by investing in digital-first skill sets and the development of roles that balance human capabilities and automation.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reimagine the future. This is a time to challenge ourselves to think differently, ask different questions, explore the unknown, take risks, and develop necessary human skills such as creativity, empathy, compassion, critical thinking, and resilience.
Leaders too are not immune.
As Sir Robinson once said, "The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it's to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel they're valued."
This means that for employees to learn new skills and thrive during the pandemic and beyond, they need to feel empowered, safe, motivated, and encouraged to evolve and even challenge business conventions. They need to be encouraged and incentivized to collaborate forward. Leaders must also invest in learning, unlearning, and transforming.
We have a rare opportunity here. Let's not waste it.