Everybody is in the business of prediction these days. The path of the pandemic, and its impact on health services. The shape of the impending recession, the stock market or the oil price. Unemployment figures or the size of the national debt.
As a venture investor, I can’t predict the future better than anyone else. Instead, I am focused on the long-term trends we can see: how technology is changing our economy, and where the impact of COVID-19 is shifting or accelerating that change.
The UK needs a new wave of transformative tech companies to help drive the recovery. Many of tomorrow’s winners will be built on the back of these trends.
The commute gets spread out
The nose-to-armpit commuting experience many of us are used to just won’t fly in a post-COVID world. More city workers will abandon the ‘9 to 5’, preferring to shift their hours or work from home part-time to avoid that packed 8am train.
Even once things return to normal, employers will struggle to justify why laptop-based workers need to be in the office every day. Working from home and flexible hours, where possible, are here to stay. Tools and services to support this will proliferate.
Along with sparser carriages this will mean a shift in business hours, working habits, city-centre retail and how we get our lunch. Working couples may have an easier time sharing childcare responsibilities, improving gender equality in many career tracks.
We may also see a knock-on effect on property prices, as the outer suburbs start to look more viable for more people.
My device or yours?
We all (used to) touch public technology infrastructure every day: credit card machines in stores, touchscreens for train tickets, keypads on ATMs and release buttons on doors.
Many of those may be phased out. Who will want to mash their fingers on a public touchscreen after a pandemic? I expect to see changes in the retail checkout experience, the way we pay our fares and how we interact with our cities and buildings.
We will see more contactless, less cash, and ‘bring your own device’ – using your phone for payment or access rather than someone else’s kit.
Grandma and grandpa get into ecommerce
The elderly population is proving far more capable of using online services than many younger people had assumed. It turns out they just needed a reason, and a little help from us.
In recent weeks, older people have been amongst the fastest-growing users of everything from grocery delivery services to online dating. Echo Healthcare reported a dramatic increase in over-65s using its online pharmacy service from mid-March. Grandparents have graduated from WhatsApp calls to Zoom groups to Houseparty quizzes.
Older people transacting online like pros will grow markets and open up new ones. Expect a surge in online spending, and new specialist products, services, devices and advertising formats to spring up.
Everything goes cloud, kicking and screaming
Software-as-a-Service is now huge – over $100bn of spend in 2019 – but still represents a minority of the $400bn global enterprise software market.
It’s harder to find statistics on how many companies still run on a server in the cleaner’s cupboard. Those systems can’t cope with more than a few users logged in at once. The finance teams that had to keep commuting in because everything was only on that one desktop computer will be a thing of the past. And let’s not get started on paper files.
Belatedly switching to subscription licences for Office or collaboration tools, or buying thousands of emergency Chromebooks, is just the start. Faster SaaS adoption across every team, tool and process is now inevitable.
Security, connectivity and privacy controls will only become more critical as we see this play out.
‘Digital laggards’ get dragged into the 2020s
Sectors like accounting, law, education, healthcare and government are not known for being early adopters. Since March, organisations in those sectors have had to figure out remote working, cloud services and digital customer experiences like everyone else.
In many cases, five or ten years of progress has happened in eight weeks. There is a sudden and unprecedented permission to change things.
These ‘digital laggards’ might be set for faster transformation and stronger productivity gains over the coming years than more leading-edge companies that have banked those gains. This will create new opportunities for innovators serving those markets.
In companies across the country, rising stars in their 20s and 30s are taking the opportunity to lead this change. A new wave of future leaders will manage, collaborate and use technology in different ways to their predecessors.
Video extends into unexpected places
Tragically, many people have now had to attend funerals from home, through Zoom. That would have been unheard of – even decried as insensitive – a few weeks ago.
What else will be video-linked by default from now on? How about weddings, parents’ evenings, nannies at home, exams, political debates, court proceedings, shareholder meetings, fashion buying trips or audit visits to overseas factories?
In healthcare, recent weeks have seen a major shift in ‘telemedicine’ – doctors communicating with patients, and even monitoring vital signs, over the internet. This is helping to free up hospital beds and spot early warning signs of COVID-19 infection as well as other conditions.
Dozens of new category-specific tech companies will spring up to enable these services – Zoom won’t win everywhere. This will widen access, remove barriers and create transparency in all kinds of ways we really can’t predict.