Digital technology has been vital for keeping businesses and communities functioning safely during the Covid-19 pandemic. Video chat, document sharing and messaging services have kept workers productive, schoolchildren learning, and socially distanced families in touch. They have been used to train healthcare workers and consult patients.
Although these technologies were in use before the pandemic, they became indispensable during economic lockdowns. A WSJ Intelligence 2020 survey for global technology solutions firm NTT found that 49 percent of businesses say Covid-19 has had a “massive” impact on their corporate strategy.
The company has been helping its customers adapt worldwide while also maintaining its own operations—and parts of it saw a 600-700 percent workload increase at the same time as its people were adjusting to home working. Now, its leaders say that 2020 will forever change how we live, learn and work.
“We saw the impact of the virus early from our operations in Asia,” says Alex Bennett, VP of Intelligent Workplace for NTT. “We began moving to home working worldwide, in anticipation.” The customers soon followed, he says.
Cloud technology and communications services helped workers stay productive while safely distanced from their colleagues. Businesses that had been lagging on digital transformation had to move quickly to adopt the necessary tools.
As the world learns to live with the virus, companies are adjusting to a hybrid of remote and office-based working. Many businesses plan to cut office space in anticipation of this shift, but NTT’s research shows that a quarter of companies actually expect to expand. Firms planning to take up more office space are typically well advanced in their digital transformation, using offices primarily as collaboration zones. These firms realize that in a pandemic, collaboration will require more social distancing and therefore more space.
“It has talent retention benefits, too,” says Mr. Bennett. “Why come into an office just to sit at a desk?”
While businesses were adjusting, healthcare systems risked collapse. As call centers struggled to cope with contact from worried patients, artificial intelligence (AI) was used to route urgent calls to a human and automate the other callers’ response. Many retailers and other public-facing companies adopted similar technology for customer service during the pandemic.
As with any other workplace, collaboration tools were vital to enable healthcare services to continue without disruption. To protect medical staff from the risk of contagion, video conferencing allowed doctors to handle patient consultations remotely.
“A decade ago, you wouldn’t have seen a hospital hire someone from a big tech company to be CEO, but that’s happening now.”
Online video consultations hadn’t really taken off before the pandemic because patients and healthcare workers preferred in-person appointments. The pandemic suddenly made remote consultations essential. “Telehealth expanded enormously during Covid-19 and that will persist,” says Mary Edwards, President of NTT Data Services Healthcare Provider division. In future, remote consultations might help expand healthcare to rural areas or even allow spare capacity in one part of the country to be used in another.
“What’s most exciting is seeing the healthcare system open up to learning from other sectors,” she adds. “A decade ago, you wouldn’t have seen a hospital hire someone from a big tech company to be CEO, but that’s happening now—and that change has been accelerated by the pandemic.”
Technology is central to contact-tracing processes, like the use of mobile apps and Bluetooth technology to warn people who have been near someone with the virus by sending an automated message or allowing a specialist to contact them. But technology helped train contact tracers and other healthcare workers, too.
“We organized briefings for workers at Covid-19 test centers,” says Mark Alexander, CEO of Cloud Communications at NTT. “The largest had 50,000 people on the call. Obviously, that’s a big technological challenge. The video and audio quality both have to be excellent.”
The company has done the same with other events, including virtual conferences, with keynotes and breakout meetings, trade shows and webinars. “These are safer, not only because they reduce the number of people in one place, but also because they cut down on travel,” he adds. “We might be relying on technology to deliver events for some time to come.”
Asked what other lasting effects we might expect from the Covid-19 response, Mr. Bennett says, “We’ve seen a lot of collaboration and I think that will continue. More major companies want to co-operate—and bring in third parties—to solve meaningful problems. They’re asking how we can work together, and how can we effect sustainable change. That’s really positive.”
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