Post-Pandemic Crystal Ball Sees Covid’s Changes Continuing

Ford’s futurist says CEOs might have seen pandemic coming, and will see changes such as remote work persist.

Covid changed a lot of things, but Sheryl Connelly believes it didn’t have to be as traumatic as it was. Ford’s futurist says that CEOs failed their companies and the U.S. economy by not reading tea leaves that were laid out pretty clearly long before the pandemic of 2020 forced them to reshuffle just about everything.

“CEOs should have anticipated something like Covid,” Connelly told Chief Executive in a distillation of insights gained from Ford’s latest annual trends report, which analyzes results of surveys of consumers across 14 countries. “No one can predict the future, but that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for it. [The World Health Organization] has been warning about a global pandemic for decades. Previous [epidemics such as SARS, in 2003] were all signals.”

Now that it’s a fait accompli, CEOs must recognize how transformative the pandemic has been for citizens around the globe and how it has influenced their views of the future. After the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, for instance, “wearing masks and adopting certain protocols became the norm” in China.

“So after we have closed the chapter on Covid, it still will not be uncommon to see people continue to don” personal protective equipment, Connelly said. “Everyone’s situation is different. One thing Covid has shown us is how broad is the spectrum of risk tolerance.”

Globally, 69 percent of respondents to the Ford survey reported feeling overwhelmed by changes. Yet 47 percent said adapting to the pandemic has been easier than they imagined it would be.

In general, Connelly said, “Worldwide, people in our survey said it would take us one to two years to return to normal. Eight percent said things never would return to normal. Areas where change will be very lasting are work, and retailing. To a lesser degree, how we move is going to change for the long term too,” with a potential reduction in mass-transit usage long term.

The massive shift by companies to remote work “is not a new conversation for U.S. CEOs,” she said. “And the upside of remote working is the availability of more talent” as geographic markets expand into virtual talent markets. Barbados, for example, has launched a 12-month “remote visa” that has brought 3,000 people into the country, Connelly said.

“They didn’t want people to come into” Barbados “who would take a job from a national,” Connelly said. “But now, that’s not an issue. ‘Yes, you can work here. You can pay rent and promote the economy and not take a job away from anyone.’ Hawaii is doing something similar.”

In synthesizing the results of Ford’s survey and providing her own insights, Connelly came up with seven major trends for 2021. Below is how Ford described them in its press release about the report:

Pressure Points: Worldwide, anxiety is high — fueled by fears of contracting Covid-19 and concerns about the pandemic’s impact on communities, employment, education and more. 63 percent of adults globally say they feel more stressed than they did a year ago, and 4 in 5 say they should take better care of their emotional well-being. Acutely aware of the implications of the pandemic on mental health, people are finding innovative ways to cope and connect.

Time to Escape: “What day is it?” has become a common refrain as the demarcations between work and life disappear. To beat back the monotony of the pandemic and the confines of home, consumers are looking for new ways to escape – and many are seeking refuge in their vehicles. More than 1 in 4 adults globally who own a vehicle say they use their vehicle to relax. Close to 1 in 5 say they use their vehicle to find privacy. And 17% say they use it as a place to work.

The Company You Keep: The pandemic has put a spotlight on consumer’s need for companionship and reshaped their sense of family. Loneliness is pervasive across the globe—one in two people say they feel lonely on a regular basis. Younger generations feel this most acutely: Gen Zers are nearly 2x as likely to say they feel lonely on a regular basis as Boomers (64 percent vs 34 percent). As a result, many are reconsidering where they live, moving closer to family, and finding companionship in new ways – online and off.

Minding the Gap: Worldwide, gaps in inequality and inequity loom large – particularly as the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on low-income communities, ethnic minorities and women. As consumers become more aware of the divide, brands are stepping up as activists and entrepreneurs. 76 percent of adults globally say they expect brands to take a stand on social issues – and 75 percent say they think brands today are trying to do the right thing.

Good Buy: Amid the pandemic, how we buy – and what we seek to buy – has transformed. Companies big and small are adapting at blazing speed – and many consumers are embracing and enjoying the new normal. 75 percent of adults globally say they appreciate the ways in which companies have improved the shopping experience since the pandemic began – and 41 percent say they don’t want to go back to the way they shopped before the pandemic.

Traffic Detour: The pandemic may have you feeling stuck, but we are not at a standstill – personal transportation is flourishing. Bike sales have soared and cities have shut down streets to make space for cyclists. Car sales have boomed as people seek security in knowing they can control their environment. And smart city planning is accelerating the way for fully implemented autonomous driving. 67 percent of adults globally say they are “hopeful about the future of autonomous vehicles,” and 68 percent of parents say they’d rather see their children ride in a self-driving car than with a stranger.

Sustaining Sustainability: In the early days of the pandemic, air quality emerged as a possible silver lining to the worldwide lockdown, but that optimism quickly diminished as the world retreated to plastics and other disposables – making it clear that being sustainable and staying sustainable are not always in lockstep. Younger generations are particularly concerned: 46 percent of Gen-Z-ers globally say the pandemic has made us more wasteful – and 47 percent say that long-term, the pandemic will have a negative impact on the environment.