The sun shines, the shop shelves are full – albeit the shoppers themselves are socially distanced and strangely silent – and yet we collectively stand on the brink of the unknown. It is not so much the changes that we can already see as the consequence of the first truly global event in human history that occupy our thoughts; it is the changes yet to come that pose the real questions. Great events are occurring, the chess pieces are moving, the world will not go back to the way it was. Yet we are in the early stages, the phoney war that is the vanguard of something much more significant.
Years of behavioural changes, condensed into weeks
As a technology business, we at Tellimer were perhaps ahead of the tech adoption curve; we used Zoom, Slack, and Notion before the Covid-19 pandemic. All our own platforms and tools are built to be mobile-first, cloud-based, web-delivered, so for us and our clients the shift to working remotely was seamless. However, even among our team we have seen an acceleration in tech adoption. We now speak in terms of presenting to clients in Figma not PowerPoint, we make calls and share screens not just on Zoom but also Slack, which, after some persuasion, I have succeeded in making several of my analyst colleagues start using (its IB, like Bloomberg, I told them – much cheaper I may have added sotto voce). My working days are filled with buzzes, pings and beeps emanating from the range of apps and devices I have arrayed as part of my improvised stand-up home office. And so light is the equipment that keeps me so well connected that I can remove myself to any room in the house while still on a call.
More than 20 years ago, I had the great good fortune to be part of the founding management team of dotcom innovator BrokerTec – which is now a muscular component of the world’s largest financial and commodities exchange, the CME Group. One of the lessons we learned then is that it is all very well to build useful, well-designed and revolutionary technology, it is quite another thing to get clients to change their habits (sometimes of a lifetime) and actually use it. What the global lockdown has done in a matter of weeks is change habits and accelerate technology adoption amongst both the “retail” population and the business world in a time frame that could reasonably have been expected to take years. As Jack Ma predicted to the audience at one of the fringe events around the United Nations meetings in 2018 – at which I was lucky enough to be – this is the era of “democratisation” of technology.
Every business is now a tech-enabled business
Tech is no longer the exclusive preserve of financial services, it no longer depends on gateways in your comms room, acres of desk-top memory, painfully expensive storage capacity, and it doesn’t need a special university degree and several years of experience to operate it. Retail and business tech now resides in our pockets, is an app on our tablet, does not need months of implementation or a tech team to be employed by the user to keep it operational. It's light, flexible and can be delivered to nearly anywhere.
For a long time we have written about tech and its rapid adoption in Africa, the world’s fastest-growing region in terms of human population. In light of the acceleration of tech usage forced by Covid-19, we could now well say that many of the same principles can be applied to the world in general; if you can tech-enable your business, do so; if you can work remotely, do so, if you can reduce your operational friction and costs, do so. There is now a much more familiar and attentive global audience for that sort of change than there was two months ago.
The new normal for business
More specifically, I and the team have already concluded a few things for our own firm, however from my conversations with other CEOs I suspect this is what many are already thinking and doing:
- Working from home will remain the norm for many: Clearly not all business can be done from home, but it can for many and/or for more and more time. Particularly for people like me who grew up and lived as an adult in the 20th century, the negative view of working from home is gone: it is easier to work longer and more flexibly, see more clients, be more deliberate about communicating with colleagues, as well as avoiding the overcrowded anguish and time-wasted on the commute, not to mention reducing the surprisingly high costs of transport and overpriced coffees. I was already a convert, but this experience should have convinced even the toughest operators.
- We don’t need as much office space: Office space is expensive and always involves a compromise. We just don’t need that much of it anymore. If we need to see clients we will take them somewhere nice for breakfast or a coffee; it may involve a bit of a premium but is multiples cheaper over the year than paying for a drab office meeting room.
- We don’t need to fly as much for business: In other parts of my career I regularly flew 15 or so times a year, to see clients, colleagues and other businesses. I have no desire to spend that sort of money, or indeed time, and increasingly our clients find a shorter meeting over Zoom is a much better use of their time. Yes, something is lost in terms of building human relationships, and direct meetings and flying will still be necessary, but not nearly so much.
Humanity can’t sit still, and opportunities will arise from this
We at Tellimer have rarely worked harder, as we perch on kitchen tables, and ping, buzz, see each other, support our clients, collaborate and build. Despite – in fact because – of the current crisis, I suspect this will be the experience of a surprising number of people around the world, striving as humanity does so consistently. Pascal’s ironic observation that all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit still in a room, is all too true, but the corollary is that all the amazing achievements of humanity also stem from that restlessness. Pascal was writing in the 17th century, in a Europe shaken by repeated waves of plague and decades of chaos and civil wars; the same century as the Enlightenment revolutionised philosophy, science and society.
It is easy to focus on the obvious negatives of a situation that has already brought financial ruin and personal tragedy to many, and will likely result in a multi-year global recession or depression; the world still has some serious challenges. However, we humans have a strange blend of the desire to make things easier for ourselves and a restless energy and intrigue about what might be possible, even if the road is hard. The global economy is going to be reshaped, which will be uncomfortable. Let’s hope from this crisis will ultimately come yet another great step forward.