Last week, we held our 9th “Data Leaders of the North” event, but this time our roundtable was a virtual one, of course.

Given the situation we all find ourselves in, the topics unsurprisingly surrounded the COVID-19 landscape. We discussed the implications of the current climate which included a lot of the usual struggles we are all experiencing at the moment; managing remotely, tools for doing so, how to keep people motivated and engaged, mental well-being, employee welfare and, obviously, how this current situation is going to impact society, talent and data in the future.

For me personally, the event was somewhat of a sanity check, the realization that I’m not alone in worrying about these things and for the most part, thankfully, have seemingly been doing the “right things” in the situation.

When looking to the future, there were some really eye-opening points raised about how the world may look when this is over – a topic which admittedly I’d not given much thought.

 

Digitisation:

The consensus from the group was that while the majority may be pining for things to get back to normal, the only thing we can be certain of is that things will never be exactly as they were before.

This pandemic has sped up the digitization process for most organisations. Even the ones that were at the forefront of digital transformation, I suspect very few had ever required the entire workforce to work remotely or had to sell its service or product solely online. And for the ones that did sell purely online, as purchasing behaviour has changed, they have also had to look for ways to adapt.

From a positive standpoint, what this situation has done for us is assure many that their business can survive in an exclusively, digital world. While most will be wanting a full return to normal, for others, the conversations have already begun around whether needing physical premises is even required at all. Meanwhile others have started to discuss redesigning office space to offer more spacious environments and prevent human congestion, meaning having larger proportions of its workforce working remotely some of the time.

Social Impact:

The likelihood of many organisations going fully remote, in my opinion, is slim. But, the few that do, coupled with the many that will likely opt for a more flexible, part-remote workforce, means less commuters and therefore less human foot-traffic.

With all the distractions that have been going on, I hadn’t really thought too much about what that would mean for the world we live in, but having reflected, my mind started to wander.

Naturally, the obvious observation is what happens to the world of commercial real estate and the costs associated with leasing office space. Will the more innovative organizations like WeWork prosper if organizations don’t necessarily need a 100+ person office which is fully occupied 5 days per week?

Then, if there are less commuters, what will that do to car sales and public transport?

Will car prices fall as the demand declines and therefore, will the premium most currently pay in parking costs be slashed as the demand falls?

How badly will companies like Starbucks or Pret A Manger be affected?  I suspect a large percentage of inner-city coffee shops / grab and go food retailers revenue comes from human foot traffic walking to and from the office.  Do they then have to change their business model to compensate, and would they ever be able to make that the new norm? I know personally, I have very rarely (outside of a work event) ordered coffee/breakfast online.

What happens to the hundreds of bars and restaurants in our cities? Sure, they will generate most of their revenue on a weekend, but I suspect the amount is not insignificant from those who go for a few drinks or a bite to eat after work during the week with colleagues.

I am sure there a thousand more examples, but these are just a few that I could clearly see when visualizing my walk to the office… and it concerns me.

Data: 

As you would expect from a ‘Data Leaders of the North’  roundtable discussion, every organization that is part of the community is using data and analytics to drive better business decision making, whether that be to increase revenue, decrease costs and/or improve operational efficiency.

The way that most organisations do that year-on-year is by using the previous year’s data to gain insights to predict trends in customer behaviour and activity.

With that in mind, what should businesses do with this year’s data? Once this pandemic is over, there is very little chance that in the same period next year that purchasing behaviours will be the same. For example, supermarket revenues will likely return to what is considered “normal” as opposed to the spike they’ve experienced during this crisis. Therefore, is this year’s data unreliable and unusable? Should we just throw it away or put it in the top drawer for the next major crisis? 

Should they use data from 2019 to forecast more accurately? How will consumer behaviour change when we come out of the other side of this?

There is nothing to say that 2019 will be any more reliable than 2020’s as people’s spending habits may change dramatically, as discussed above, there may be more of a shift to online as consumers have become more comfortable with that, and therefore the impulse purchases don’t happen. The potential decrease in the typical foot-traffic from commuters will negatively impact the supermarkets “local” stores etc.

Talent:

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, our experience tells us that when it comes to Data, Analytics and AI talent, there is more demand than there is supply and hiring the right talent is competitive, time-consuming and expensive.

One very good point which was raised during our recent event was that if the amount of organisations which are now going to throw themselves into a major digitialisation overhaul, then that means there will be even more organizations looking for the same talent, without any additional hike in the local talent pool.  

The caveat to that of course is, as we move into this new way of working, I suspect that many organisations will now be more open to the idea of hiring remotely.

That doesn’t even necessarily have to be on a national basis, it could be across the continent where you’re located (taking into consideration time-zones).

While the above would certainly be a great way of finding and attracting talent to the business which wouldn’t have normally been considered, the practicality of engaging and attracting that talent won’t be any easier to do so than it is now.

Granted, the candidate pool is now infinitely larger than it was when you had local restrictions, but don’t forget the competition becomes even greater as you’re no longer just competing with the organsations located within the commutable distance to yours, but now the entire world!

My Thoughts

Closing the discussions during ‘Data Leaders of the North’ most of us were in agreement that the world will never be the same again, but, some of the more cynical of us believe that despite best intentions, it will merely be a matter of time before the traditional ways of working are back in place when “normality” resumes.

Personally, I am undecided.

I can certainly see the benefits of changing the landscape as we know it from a business perspective. But will all that get brushed under the carpet once normality resumes because it’s easier to do what we know than change things forever? 

I and the ‘Data Leaders of the North’ would love to hear your thoughts so we can boast who was right or wrong over the next couple of round-table events. What do you think?

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