The COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for many businesses and industries. Not to mention its devastating human costs. In Singapore, it has been predicted that the economy may shrink by up to 7% as a result of the crisis with a forecast that states 200,000 people could lose their jobs by the end of 2020. As of today, around 60,000 foreigners have already been laid off in Singapore.

Industries that rely on bringing people together have been particularly hard-hit by the critical need for social distancing. For instance, hotels, bars and restaurants; travel and airlines; conventions and events; live concerts and cinemas. It has become impossible for these industries to operate in their normal manner especially with travel restrictions, hygiene regulations and “circuit breaker” lockdowns.

My own company—a networking platform for senior business leaders, leading entrepreneurs and top executives faces similar challenges. However, in adjusting to the shifting boundaries over the past few months, we have discovered that opportunities are arising for those willing to explore new ways of fostering human connection. In fact, our membership numbers have never been better!

Since so many of us are working from home today, we find it more convenient to conduct interactions without the inconvenience of having to travel—whether across town or across the world. People are getting used to learning, conversing and meeting online.

Tyson Dowd, Microsoft’s director, Modern Workplace Customer Success, Asia, said that the company has been able to increase its audience and impact by taking events into the online space. “We’ve changed our own customer’s and partner’s physical events to digital-only, and in many cases 24/7 worldwide—which lets us reach more people,” he said. The tech giant recognises that countless companies are starting to offer employees the option to work from home either regularly or permanently. “The myth that working remotely is not productive or secure is now busted,” said Mr Dowd. “We’ve even renamed our ‘Modern Workplace’ division as ‘Modern Work’ because increasingly now you can choose the place of work,” he pointed out.

Initially, at EGN, we were sceptical whether the sort of clientele our company caters to would be agreeable to an online model, but they have thoroughly embraced it. We managed to reduce friction and overheads by delivering our networking events online. We have also been able to pass the resulting savings along to our existing members and to secure myriad new members with attractive pricing and more flexible terms.

In order to seize new opportunities created from our changing professional and social landscape, businesses and organisations need to be flexible, realistic and they need to play fair. Pricing and conditions must be altered in recognition of the fact that events, networking and training are not necessarily taking place in a real-world setting anymore, thus eliminating many associated costs, logistics and restrictions.

For the time being, the education industry is struggling to adjust. A prominent example would be Princeton University in the United States who had just announced a 10% discount on tuition for 2020-2021 to undergraduates who will be spending much of the year studying remotely as they are largely prevented from fully utilising the many facilities and resources provided by the college campus. This sort of gesture will strike many as insufficient.

Students from Universities, Colleges and Private Schools around the world are lobbying, and in some cases, taking legal action against educational institutions whose offerings have been diminished as a result of the COVID-19 crisis in order to extract fee discounts and refunds. Meanwhile, Britain’s National Union of Students said that students at UK universities should be given the choice to repeat the year at no cost or to be reimbursed for tuition and other expenses.

Substandard Service

Studies by a British parliamentary committee found that a mere 7% of UK university students were satisfied with the quality of education they had received this year. Some of the complaints received from students were the reduced teaching hours, lack of access to facilities and networking, charges for unoccupied housing and professors recycling old recorded lectures. The committee then concluded that students have a right to seek a refund or to repeat part of their course if the service provided by their university is substandard.

Nevertheless, education is a sector where fast-tracked changes such as the ones that are occurring right now may have numerous positive outcomes. Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff suggested that the COVID-19 crisis may well trigger a long-overdue technological disruption of higher education in an article published by the World Economic Forum recently. According to him, schools may find solutions that can allow them to deliver a better education for more people at a lower cost by forcing universities to adopt distance learning as soon as possible—as long as the schools decide to continue to harness technology even after the pandemic ends. In this case, most businesses can learn a lesson here.

While there are organisations that will fully migrate online, many will adopt a hybrid approach—integrating traditional in-person services in tandem with digital-based services that were innovated during this crisis. For instance, the Ultimate Performance gyms have taken the hybrid approach. Chris Richards, the company’s managing director, APAC and Middle East, explained: “During the lockdown period, where our brick-and-mortar business had to close, we continued supporting our clients through virtual training.”

“While our core business will remain and require physical locations, we will continue to offer virtual training services. We expect clients will have a desire to continue, especially once travel resumes”, he continued. Richards believes that by offering virtual training, the company can work with a wider range of clients, overcoming the geographical barriers presented by physical locations.

In a way, the way in which we interact—socially and professionally—will always be altered by the changes our current predicament has forced upon us. While we will always crave and appreciate face-to-face interactions, we are now acknowledging that technology-based solutions can be more convenient, efficient, sustainable and cost-effective. In order to foster smooth internal and external communication, successful companies of the future shall need to marry the best of the Old World with the New Normal.

The writer is managing director of EGN Singapore