This article was originally published in Forbes on October 7, 2020.
We always knew part of the mobility revolution might involve technologies that would mean consumers need to move less, not more — innovations that let digital devices get things done without the need to travel from one place to another. Today, COVID-19 is responsible for the accelerated adoption of several technologies that are all about staying safe at home. Instead of traveling to work, grocery shop, see a doctor, or go to school, people around the world now rely on solutions that let them complete these tasks using a laptop or phone. And the implications of this reduced mobility could be enormous, especially for industries like transportation and energy.
But do these mobility substitutes represent long-term changes in consumer behavior? Will we still depend on these technologies after a COVID-19 vaccine or simply revert to the way we used to do things?
The stickiness of innovations — whether technologies catch on and persist — depends on whether solutions turn out to be faster, better, and/or cheaper than the previous way of doing things. While not every technology will retain the same heightened penetration post-COVID-19, our research shows that people’s attitudes will allow a few key solutions to move from being simply expedient to part of a lasting lifestyle change.
To test the staying power of technologies that became vital during the coronavirus pandemic, the Oliver Wyman Forum conducted a survey of almost 6,900 consumers in eight countries. Here, based on our data, we show why the pandemic has guaranteed four solutions — video conferencing, grocery-shopping apps, telehealth, and e-learning — mass markets big enough to ensure their commercial growth and permanent integration.
As COVID-19 shuttered businesses and economies around the world for months, an historic number of people were able to do their jobs from home on laptops and using phones. Take the situation in the United States. Pre-pandemic, the Pew Research Center estimated that only about seven percent of civilian workers were allowed to work from home. These were almost always highly paid, white-collar professionals and managers. With the outbreak of COVID-19, that number jumped overnight to almost one-third of employed adults, and there’s mounting evidence that a large portion will continue to work from home even after a vaccine.
While a number of technologies have been deployed over the past decade to make large-scale remote workforces possible, the one playing an elevated role during the coronavirus pandemic is video conferencing. In mid-March, computerworld.com cited a report showing global downloads of video conferencing apps at a record 62 million, 90 percent higher than their pre-COVID-19 weekly download average.
Almost half of respondents told the Forum survey they were relying on this technology more or for the first time. More than six out of 10 said they would likely increase their usage of video conferencing solutions after COVID-19 had subsided.
For Work and Play
One plus for video conferencing is the fact that it can be used for social interactions as well. The fact that workers had to tackle the set-up for their jobs, or their employers did it for them and taught them how to use it, helped to overcome two of the biggest hurdles to technology adoption — the set-up and usability.
But it’s the reasons respondents cite that show why a work-from-home future will persist. Using video conferencing saved people time, and they were able to accomplish as much as they would in-person. Workers’ embrace of the technology also had little to do with safety — the advantage one would expect to be touted if the use of video conferencing were tied inextricably to the pandemic. Safety was the fourth advantage cited, after saving money.
Of course, employers would have to agree if working from home is to become more institutionalized. But it turns out remote working is likely cheaper and easier for companies as well, offering the potential for savings from a reduction in office space, travel expenses, furniture, equipment, and supplies.
Avoiding Grocery Lines
Another COVID-19 tech beneficiary is the online purchase of groceries and food delivery. While e-commerce was well established before the coronavirus, buying groceries online was not. It took the virus to push more widespread acceptance. With increasingly empty shelves and growing lines in stores, shoppers thought they were more likely to find what they needed online. At least they wouldn’t have to risk a trip for nothing.
Like video conferencing, the big hurdle for online grocery shopping was the set-up. But now that people have gone through it, will they go back? According to the Forum survey, most users — 59 percent globally — say they plan to increase their usage.
The main reasons cited, by far, were saving time and being able to accomplish as much online as in person. But unlike video conferencing, almost half cited the element of safety as influential in their decision, making it more likely that some converts might fall off with the advent of a vaccine.
Telehealth and E-learning
The last two — telehealth and e-learning — face more complicated scenarios, yet we expect both to become permanent fixtures in each industry’s model moving forward, based on the accelerated adoption achieved during the pandemic. Unlike video conferencing and grocery and food delivery apps, neither telehealth nor e-learning had really made it out of single digits in terms of market acceptance before COVID-19. Today, both have gone beyond early adopters to break into the mass market: More than one-third of our survey had tried telehealth and almost half had experience with e-learning technology. The majority of both user sets said they wanted more.
For telehealth, one of the biggest boosts in the US came when Medicare and insurance companies agreed to cover virtual visits during the pandemic. Over 37 percent of our American respondents used telehealth more or for the first time during COVID-19; 54 percent say they are likely to increase their use post-COVID-19. Across the eight countries, 22 percent were using telehealth more or for the first time, and 59 percent expect to use it more post-pandemic.
COVID-19 is also expected to give rise to many more at-home medical testing products and digital wearable testing devices. Even before the pandemic, remote monitoring of chronically ill patients had been shown to cut emergency room visits, hospital stays, and costs, allowing medical professionals to intervene before a situation becomes dire.
More than half of total survey respondents believed telehealth let them accomplish as much online as in-person and 66 percent said virtual visits let them save time. For consumers without chronic conditions, particularly younger ones, telehealth is expected to increase regular doctor checkups because of the ease in scheduling and follow-through.
Online, In-Person Hybrids
The final technology that has become very important during the pandemic is e-learning. All education levels switched to online instruction once the pandemic shut down classrooms. But the transition proved rocky initially with both teachers and students unprepared. Most of the set-up problems have now been resolved, making future usage easier.
Our survey respondents were optimistic about the possibilities of e-learning with 56 percent of users saying they expected to rely on it more often, even after the pandemic. While most students will be returning to classrooms post-pandemic, our expectation is for digital solutions to continue to play a key role and support an evolution in the physical learning environment.
Ultimately, COVID-19 is allowing these mobility substitutes to develop mass markets with unprecedented speed. Sure, people will want to become more mobile again post-pandemic, but our research suggests these technologies will push work, food shopping, health, and education to become online and in-person hybrids moving forward.
For more content like this, visit the Oliver Wyman Forum.