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That Was the Year That Was: Covid-19 and what it might mean for the future?

Benedict Surtees, Public Affairs Manager

Benedict manages Atos’s Public Affairs work in the UK, leading our thought leadership development and coordinating our engagement with policy makers. He supports the Atos executive team and the wider business in ensuring that digital transformation remains at the center of policy making in the UK.

Writing more than 150 years ago, the Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard noted that while life “must be understood backwards… it must be lived forwards.” This is especially true in times of major change, such as we have seen over the past year with the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerating the adoption of many new technologies and behaviours. Whether it has been the adoption of remote working technologies, the move towards online retail or the digitisation of public services, changes that were expected to take years have been squeezed into months.

Following the introduction of a third national lockdown in the UK, it can be difficult to imagine life after Covid-19. But with vaccination programmes rolling out across the globe, we can begin to make sense of the changes we have seen over the last year and what this could mean heading into the future.

Understanding backwards

Amidst the turbulence of the last year, the UK technology sector has stepped up to meet urgent needs and provide a robust response to the challenges governments, businesses and individuals have faced. In particular, the IT services sector has been critical in supporting the response to the Covid-19 outbreak, enabling key services to continue to operate during periods of national lockdown and tiered restrictions.

Beyond the technology sector, organisations have had to transform themselves overnight, changing their operating models and the working locations of their people. For many, this has been an acceleration of an existing journey towards a more digital and remote workforce. For other organisations it has been the start of the journey. Either way, it is important that the progress this has ushered in is not upended by reverting to previous ways of working.

As a global leader in digital transformation, Atos has been at the forefront of the response to Covid-19, working with businesses across different sectors to ensure that they are equipped to deal with the challenges recent months have presented. The scope of this work has also meant that we have had a unique insight into how businesses across different sectors have responded to recent events.

At the outset of 2020, the digital strategies being deployed by the businesses Atos works with were focused on productivity, customer experience and cybersecurity. While these remain major focuses, we have seen businesses place an increased emphasis on innovation to enable new products and services. Elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic saw approximately 75% of the businesses we work with, and surveyed, accelerate their digital transformation programmes as they sought to adapt to the ‘new normal’.

Living forwards

Looking ahead to the end of lockdown, the question now is the extent to which our lives and ways of working snap back to where they were before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Speaking to business leaders earlier this month, the Prime Minister expressed optimism that workers will return to offices once the pandemic is over. But, anticipating a reversion to the old ways of working runs counter to what we are seeing from businesses as they prepare for their post-pandemic futures. Research from the IoD has found that more than half of UK directors will cut back office space as staff move more permanently to remote working. Elsewhere, the actions of major financial institutions have shown just how significant a change we should expect, with Barclays Plc, Credit Suisse Group AG and Morgan Stanley all reviewing their office footprints.

Among those that Atos works with, we have seen similar trends play out, as businesses recognise the necessity of not just responding to but embracing the technological acceleration we are witnessing. Furthermore, among these businesses we have seen the events of recent months present opportunities to deliver on long term ambitions which had previously seemed daunting. Approximately two thirds of our clients have described the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown which followed as having enabled them to more quickly achieve their sustainability goals and reduce their carbon footprints. At the same time, a third (33%) of those Atos clients we surveyed found that recent events have demonstrated the need to accelerate the development of digital skills, allowing many to take major strides towards equipping their workforces with the future-proof skills they need to keep pace with digital transformation.

The past year has been one which saw a dramatic acceleration in technological change, but it will be some time before we can understand the full implications of this. What we do know from our work with businesses across a whole range of sectors, in the UK and globally, is that a return to the old ways of doing things is not likely. When surveyed, two thirds of the businesses Atos works with said that they expected Covid-19 to result in a substantial proportion of their workforces making a permanent change to full or part time remote working. At the same time, 85% of those businesses we asked reported that building on the sustainability gains made possible by the Covid-19 outbreak would be a priority for them going forward.

Businesses large and small are adapting to new ways of working, and with the further proliferation of online commerce and greater use of remote networking tools, the rhythms of our own lives will continue to change. There will be some firms that face acute challenges, while others will seize on the new arenas for innovation that the acceleration of recent months has opened up. The most pressing challenge we will now face is how to effectively transition to this new world; what steps do we need to take to ensure that transition happens smoothly? And what aspects from the world before the pandemic do we want to see preserved? In the UK, as in much of the world, we can expect lockdown restrictions to continue into the early months of 2021. Nevertheless, now is the time to assess what we have learnt from a tumultuous year and how we embrace new innovations as we build back in the months and years ahead.

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Benedict Surtees

Public Affairs Manager

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