If there is one thing that became abundantly clear during the pandemic, it is that the world is truly digital. It’s not so much that it happened as a result of the pandemic or that it happened overnight. To be sure, much of the world was already in the digital era and that allowed them to transition seamlessly when Covid struck. In our case, it was the inadequacy of our digital infrastructure and our continued reliance on manual systems and ways of doing business that were bared for us to see, experience and lament.
But all is not lost. If anything, quarantine has provided us with lots of insight and learning about the opportunities that await us as part of the better, post-Covid normal.
The most telling revelation of the Community Quarantine is that work-from-home (WFH), well, works. Literally overnight, companies had to shut their doors and employees were ordered to stay-in-place. In order to keep business running, WFH arrangements were activated or, in the case of many, conceived. Remote access to servers had to be enhanced quickly and security protocols escalated. At home, employees had to upsize their wi-fi connections to handle the surge in usage.
It took getting used to. Sure, people had to carve out their work space somewhere in their household and set it up so they could have a modicum of privacy and quiet. They also had to manage ambient sounds – the rooster crowing in the background or the dogs barking at passersby – and the unavoidable family traffic around the house, especially kids and grandkids. But eventually a daily rhythm was born and what used to be awkward and embarrassing became part of daily work life.
But, WFH is not really a new thing. As if anticipating the Covid pandemic, the Philippine Congress enacted legislation recognizing telecommuting or “working from an alternative workplace” — or Republic Act No. 11165, otherwise known as the Telecommuting Act. President Duterte signed it into law in December 2018. It encouraged employers to offer “telecommuting” to employees, allowing them to work from home with the use of telecommunication and/or computer technologies.
At the time, the obvious benefit of the new law was to alleviate the growing traffic and commuting problems, especially in the National Capital Region (NCR). I do not know the exact numbers of companies that took up the offer of telecommuting. Based on a peer check, though, it did not seem that a whole lot did. Perhaps, more attention should have been paid by employers.
There are very effective and productive alternatives to real world solutions. For example, online conferencing solutions like Zoom, Google Meets and Microsoft Teams became default solutions for keeping in touch with colleagues, as well as family and friends. There was a rush to download the mobile app or desktop version. In time, many were asking why companies did not practice this sooner and they hailed the effectiveness of the online meetings. The usual excuse of being late to meetings because of traffic ceased to exist. Distance was no longer a challenge – albeit a costly one – in gathering people from different locations to a conference.
Digital and online banking solutions as an alternative to real world banking also surfaced. The over dependence of the banking system on manual procedures and hard copies of documents remains deeply rooted. In Singapore, I recall being able to open a bank account without ever handling a piece of paper. All it took was five minutes of an electronic application and an initial deposit over the ATM.
During quarantine, banks and companies accepted digital copies of documents. This saved a lot of time and effort in shuttling hard copies to and from banks, not to mention the reduction in processing of transactions – at both the companies and banks. Clearly, securing the integrity of bank transactions is paramount. However, maybe it is time that a real effort be made to move to digital solutions.
The surge in e-commerce during quarantine also underlined the effectiveness of digital banking. It is contactless, efficient and timely. Checks should be made a last recourse, thus reducing banking costs.
In the auto industry, the pandemic has super-charged the transition to digital solutions, too. Online car launches are all the rage, virtual showrooms are rising unabated, product demonstrations and sales calls have shifted online and customer support is now mobile. There was a lot of discussions about all these pre-Covid but there was no compelling reason to pull the trigger. The pandemic has surely accelerated the transformation and I, for one, believe that this is one of the best unintended outcomes of the health crisis we are going through.
We hope our digital infrastructure grows in line with the new demands of a digital economy. At an affordable cost, of course.