Humanizing Technology—And Companies—For A Post-Pandemic World

Companies must adapt technology to the powerful human values driving new behaviors. Here are five of the most consequential of those values.

Imagine months from now, when things are back to some semblance of normal. We can meet face to face. Travel is possible. Store shelves are plentiful with toilet paper and beef.

But things have changed.

The pandemic has sparked new habits and attitudes likely to persist for people the world over. The technological, business and societal trends these widespread sentiments fuel will affect companies and industries variously—favoring some, threatening others and compelling all to innovate. A common thread in this innovation will be a reshaping of technology around deeply human concerns.

In our Future Systems study of more than 8,300 companies, conducted in late 2019, we found a huge majority of organizations planning to “humanize” their technology, even before the Covid-19 pandemic erupted. More than three-quarters (76%) had plans to modernize IT systems around human interactions, experiences and interfaces like voice, gesture, haptics and “touchless” control of tech over the next three to five years.

The pandemic will sharply accelerate that time frame. Three to five years will likely become three to five months as companies scramble to adapt technology to the powerful human values driving new behaviors in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Here are five of the most consequential of those values and their implications for companies and their technology in the coming months and years.

1. “You can’t trust the future.”

People will factor black swan events into major decisions like home buying, career choices, financial planning and even where to vacation. From mid-March to mid-April, going into the traditionally strong spring home-buying season, sales and listing volumes for single family homes in the 41 states with the most activity fell by an average of 44.4%, compared with the previous five-week period. Some of that decrease no doubt resulted from stay-at-home orders in some states and near-term financial uncertainty.   But many people will likely continue to postpone purchase decisions unless and until they feel that they’ve eliminated as much catastrophic risk as possible. A startup called Augurdisk promises to help them do just that with real estate. It offers a tool that can be used to calculate the potential risks associated with any address in the U.S., including the spread of COVID-19 or damages from climate change, nuclear power radiation, wildfires, coastal flooding, hurricanes, and earthquakes, as well as socioeconomic challenges like income inequality.

In a world where the unthinkable has become thinkable, companies will need to consider the “cost of confidence”—the investment needed to provide customers with reassurance—which rises in proportion to the level of commitment required for a transaction. While paying for a quart of milk requires little commitment, purchasing a family vacation requires a great deal more, and essentially hinges on the customer securing—and trusting—greater reassurances from travel providers.

Marketing-as-usual won’t suffice to build trust. Brands that are only virtue-signaling in their communications will pay a price. Gal Gadot, the star of Wonder Woman, assembled a host of celebrities in quarantine to sing John Lennon’s all-purpose, feel-good anthem “Imagine” in a YouTube video. It was widely ridiculed for being out of touch with the suffering of ordinary Americans during the pandemic. Some airlines in March and April were still offering flight deals for May and June without any reference to the uncertainty everyone faces. Email inboxes remain stuffed with messages affirming the senders’ commitment to the health and safety of their employees and customers—and offering little in the way of concrete actions.

Eroded consumer confidence will make trust more important than ever. This will necessitate “trust multipliers” that rebuild trust quickly and credibly. Trust multipliers will include detailed descriptions of when and how rooms were cleaned, air handling protocols, ubiquitous hand sanitizers, single-use restaurant menus and digital check-in. Fitness chains like Equinox and SoulCycle are going to require members to be scanned by a thermal thermometer to ensure they’re not running a fever; Gold’s Gym corporate-owned locations and 24 Hour Fitness will close at least once during operating hours to disinfect. Meanwhile, a number of other fitness chains will require members to sign waivers of liability specific to Covid-19, a move that may protect the companies legally but is unlikely to engender trust. For consumers, trustworthiness may become the chief differentiator for premium products and services.

2. “If I can do it online, I will.”

Covid-19 has thrust even digital laggards online for a whole host of activities—work, shopping, banking, socializing, learning, psychotherapy, entertainment and routine medical consultations. Demand at Amazon has been so great that the company has had to give priority to the stocking and shipping of essential household staples and medical supplies. By early April, demand at online UK grocery company Ocado was 10 times higher than normal. Microsoft Teams video call usage was up 1000% in March. Streaming service Netflix netted nearly 15.8 million new subscribers during the first quarter of this year, double the number expected prior to the pandemic. A new entertainment convergence milestone saw more than 12 million people watch music artist Travis Scott’s “live” performance in the online game Fortnite, with millions more viewing the replay on YouTube. Music streaming service Spotify reached 130 million paid subscribers, up 31% from a year earlier. Bankers reported a huge upsurge in online banking during the pandemic, with 63% of participants in one survey indicating a greater willingness to try a digital app.

Although those figures may decline once lockdowns are over, many millions of new users, attracted by the convenience and safety of online activity, will stick around. In a survey our firm conducted of more than 3,300 consumers in 15 markets around the globe at the end of March, we found that 49% of people who had previously never worked from home now plan to do so more often in the future. It will be more important than ever to streamline the hurdles of going virtual, as a third of surveyed consumers reported that they struggle with technology. In fact,

Companies in many sectors will adapt and use new virtual tools and models. The real estate website Zillow allows sellers, agents, landlords, and property managers to create 3D home tours. In China, ZTE and China Telecom designed a 5G-powered system enabling remote consultations and diagnoses of COVID-19. Musicians, whose concerts have been canceled, have turned to live-streaming platforms. But if the multi-billion-dollar concert industry is to recover, it may turn to a combination of 5G technology and virtual reality (VR) to allow people to experience concerts as avatars with other concertgoers, creating a realistic experience of the excitement of a live performance. Companies in other industries might adapt 5G and VR technology to catapult new products into public consciousness and unlock new business opportunities. But companies shouldn’t write off the “real,” a thirst for which will build as social restrictions drag on and are eventually lifted. Instead, they should consider how virtual and real experiences might co-exist and complement one another.

Paradoxically, while we’re physically isolated, we are also rediscovering social ties through social media, virtual dinner parties, more calls to family and friends and sharing more personal stories at the beginning of work video conferences. Companies that consider how their virtual experiences might connect individuals with products but also with people can create virtual communities with a real impact likely to endure.

3. “Health is my top priority.”

Some 81% of participants in our March survey placed “health of family and friends” among their top three priorities. That’s hardly surprising in the midst of a pandemic, but that attitude is likely to persist, especially if we see subsequent waves of infection. People will reassess almost every experience, product and service in light of how it either enhances or diminishes their health.

Market researcher Euromonitor International reported in January that consumers were already becoming comfortable with AI-driven devices and robots performing tasks formerly done by humans. In April, they reported that consumers had become even more comfortable with robots, welcoming products that had passed through as few hands as possible.

Consider robotic delivery devices like autonomous vehicles and drones. During the pandemic they’ve been pressed into service to supplement healthcare supply chains in many cities around the world, delivering medical equipment to makeshift hospitals. Just as important, they have been providing “no-contact” delivery of groceries to customers wary of contagion, prompting many jurisdictions to ease regulations regarding robotic delivery and companies to accelerate development. Robotic delivery was already in the offing, but its chief business justification was lower cost of delivery for companies, not peace of mind for customers. Similarly, touchless technologies, like Apple Pay, were gaining ground before the pandemic but will come to be expected by consumers fearing contamination. And AI-enabled appliances and voice-control technology like Amazon’s Alexa will be newly valued for diminishing the need to touch surfaces.

One way or another, every business will, to some extent, need to be a health business (and that includes mental health). This will create opportunities for companies to move into spaces adjacent to their core business to be part of a health ecosystem. Intriguingly, Apple COO Jeff Williams recently hinted that the company’s development of health products isn’t “limited to the wrist”—that is, the Apple Watch. Meanwhile charlatans—companies attempting to cash in on the new health ecosystem without having the trust, credibility or legitimate value-added product or benefits to do so—will be rapidly exposed.

4. “Home is where I feel safest.”

As home remains the epicenter of life and experience, there will be a rise in the proportion of home spending—especially on comfort-, safety-, and health-related technologies and products. For example, there is a push to develop a Rapid Diagnostic Test for the coronavirus that could be self-administered, like an in-home pregnancy test. We are likely to see demand for more at-home tests across a number of maladies.

Much of the innovation in homes will be led by average citizens. Around the world, they have been creatively responding to suddenly finding themselves homebound—working remotely, teaching their children, cooking most of their meals, caring for ill loved ones and paying more attention than ever to their living quarters. Now is the time for companies to observe how households are innovating, especially with technology, and figure out how their products can fit into what might be called the new “mixed-use” domesticity.

Transparency and trust in where products come from and how they are made and handled will take on new urgency as people scrutinize, and demand greater assurances about, the cleanliness of the manufacturing facilities, supply chains and delivery networks and services involved in their purchase journeys. The closer to home products are made, or which feel part of the local fabric, the safer they might seem, potentially spawning a kind of  hyper-local buying behavior that erodes pre-pandemic globalization efforts. Companies should therefore be wary of emphasizing their global operations or manufacturing footprint.

5. “I expect everyone to do the right thing.”

Many companies have been “humanizing” their brands along with their technology. Fortune recently detailed the efforts of 84 Fortune 500 companies to help people get through the pandemic. Alibaba made cloud-based technology applications available to medical personnel around the world. Lenovo gave millions in equipment and IT infrastructure to support hospitals in Wuhan, China. Alphabet’s Google is partnering with its erstwhile bitter rival Apple to develop coronavirus contact-tracing technology. Many companies have repurposed manufacturing facilities to produce ventilators, personal protective equipment, and other essential supplies for healthcare workers. Financial institutions waived late fees, extended loan repayment deadlines, and offered mortgage payment assistance. Many companies increased the pay of frontline workers, extended paid leave, plugged gaps in health insurance coverage, and vowed not to lay off any employees.

The extent to which companies continue to use their resources—people, processes and technology—toward solving problems over selling products will demonstrate to customers and employees what they truly stand for. They will be facing a vastly changed public. Through social distancing, people have experienced the effectiveness of collective, public-spirited sacrifice and cooperation. Some have become more amenable to government regulation for the greater good. Others have realized they can do without many things that are harmful to the environment. The social pressure to act and live responsibly has grown significantly, and in many areas of life people will be reluctant to go back to the old ways.

As a result, the push for stakeholder capitalism will intensify. As Bill Gates recently wrote, “It is impossible to overstate the pain that people are feeling now and will continue to feel for years to come.” People are likely to feel gratitude for those companies that tried to help alleviate that pain during these worst of times. And in better times to come, they are more likely than ever to punish in the marketplace those companies that return to business as usual.

While many uncertainties lie ahead, one thing is clear and certain. The time for businesses to act differently and take proactive, decisive actions around the many things they can control is now. From accelerating digital transformations, reimagining supply chains and adopting virtual tools and models to humanizing brands and fostering trust through greater transparency, it’s time for leadership to remember that in many ways they are still in the driver’s seat. The positive measures taken now will likely reverberate for years to come.