The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly influenced the lives of most people on the planet. It has changed daily activities; something as simple as a walk in the park is perceived very differently now. The same is true for businesses. Many businesses have shut down or changed to accommodate social distancing. New patterns of consumer and worker behavior and expectations have emerged during the first weeks of the crisis.
COVID-19 represents a tremendous economic shock and burden. In recent weeks, the focus has begun to shift towards ways to address its health and safety risks while also accommodating an appropriate level of economic activity. Businesses have historically overcome this type of challenge through the introduction of risk-mitigating technologies, which in this pandemic include technologies, business practices, and strategies that improve customer and employee safety by mitigating the risk of contagion. Other examples of this in the past have been less extreme, but include, for example, medical device advancement developed in response to a rise in consumer awareness of radiation risk.
We recently explored this example, which shares an underlying business response with the pandemic. An increase in risk perception makes consumers more willing to pay for safety features, which, in turn, provides producers greater incentives to develop and commercialize technologies that address consumers' demands for safety.
In this process, firms have an opportunity to reassess their options. They can invest in new as well as shelved technologies and product designs that are particularly effective in mitigating risk and improving safety—even when they are initially inferior in terms of costs, user-friendliness, or other quality dimensions.
Already during the pandemic, companies have been creative in identifying "low-hanging fruit" that could be quickly implemented in their operations. Grocery stores install plexiglass shields at their checkouts, restaurants and groceries have expanded to takeout and deliveries, and face-to-face meetings have been replaced by video conferences across many sectors of the economy.
In China, which is ahead of the curve both in terms of the outbreak and the subsequent restart of its economy, various essential and nonessential on-premises businesses have implemented pre-booking to control customer flow. They use temperature-detection technologies, wearables, and apps to identify customers in near real-time who are at high risk of carrying the virus.
Experiments using risk-mitigation technologies
At the same time, we are also witnessing firms developing and experimenting with much more radical risk-mitigating technologies. These include developing new products and processes that mitigate contagion risk. For example, in China, robots have been designed to deliver medicines, meals, and to collect bed sheets and rubbish in hospitals. The e-commerce giant JD developed a drone program to drop parcels and to spray disinfectant. Smart helmets can identify anyone with fever within a five-meter radius.
For other businesses, especially those where digital and automation technologies are not commonly used, the crisis led to drastic changes in their interactions with consumers. In education, teachers from elementary schools to universities transformed content and delivered it online or through phones. Retailers started to license Amazon's Just Walk Out technology that combines computer vision and AI to bill customers directly as they walk out of the store, with no checkout required. Many cultural industries—museums and galleries, cinemas, concert halls, independent musicians and artists—found means to create, perform, and connect with their audience through online platforms, which brings much appreciated comfort to people confined in their homes across the world.
A key question many managers face now is how much and in what form to invest in risk-mitigating technologies and corresponding changes in products and services. This, to a great extent, depends on how long the crisis will last and what form the risk (and the fear) of contagion will persist once the peak is behind us. All these factors will also likely vary greatly across businesses, markets, and locations.
[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]