EXCLUSIVE: Remote Proximity – a new mindset and digital skill set


Authored by Chris Nurko, Global Chief Innovation Officer at Interbrand

We know that temporary confinement can drive the conditions that foster creative and innovative market solutions.

Back in 2003, when the SARS coronavirus hit China, the social conditions enabled the expansion of digital services. The outbreak was a key driver for the adoption of social media and e-commerce platforms across the region.

Looking back 17 years, JD.com, the Chinese e-commerce giant was little more than a chain of small bricks and mortar retail shops – with 12 stores in Beijing. Richard Liu’s sales plummeted, as customers were confined to their homes. By the end of the SARS outbreak, Liu had been forced to close all but one of his stores.  He resorted to selling his goods through digital platforms; mostly college groups and forums. A year later, Lui had officially launched 360buy – with roughly 100 products; he shifted his focus from traditional retail to building his online business. The rest is history. Today, JD.com is worth $56bn.

Of course, the e-commerce landscape has changed significantly in the past two decades. Global e-commerce sales reached almost $3.46 trillion in 2019. In 2020, it’s unlikely Alibaba’s business can grow by 50% (as it did in 2003). That said, we know that global health events drive changes in behaviour, which in turn create new norms.

So, what will change in 2020?

Today, the world is connected. Physical proximity is no longer a prerequisite for productivity – people don’t need to be in the same spaces, to connect in meaningful and commercially relevant ways.

In place of ‘in person’ and ‘face to face’ meetings, our advances in technology enable us to work in ways that only a few years ago were not even imagined. The concept of remote working is nothing new but the outbreak of Covid-19 creates the unique conditions that we think will force new behaviours, at unprecedented scale.

In 2018, the global video conferencing market was worth $3bn USD. It was projected to reach $6.7bn by 2025. These projections now seem conservative. The likes of branded products and services like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Beam and Webex are in demand as companies seek ways to mitigate disruption to workflow due to the virus being spread so easily within offices.

Is the world ready for remote working?

For indicative signs of where work communications might be heading, we can look at what consumers are doing in their personal lives. As a result of restricted movement, we’re seeing a significant expansion and rapid growth in health tech services – including 121 patient doctor consultations.

Xin Lijun, CEO of the JD Health division, says that monthly online consultations have increased tenfold since the outbreak of Covid-19. Ping An Insurance Group, China’s largest insurer, have seen share prices rise 34% this year. The company’s online healthcare businesses have experienced similar hikes in traffic and adoption to JD Health; a ten-fold increase, accounting for 1.11bn accumulative visits in January alone. This week the Group outlined plans to invest $1.7bn (USD) in technology that will bring their insurance and healthcare businesses closer together.

It’s anticipated that the value of the Chinese online health care market will near ¥200bn ($29bn) in 2020 – up from a pre-outbreak estimation of ¥158n – and more than double market value fifteen months ago. Without the outbreak, it’s estimated that this shift in customer behaviour and expectation would have taken up to five years to achieve.

If we’re willing to engage our doctor, to seek a diagnosis, over a conference call, during a global pandemic – well, then catching up with Dave in accounts over Skype, probably won’t seem like such a leap.

A key question right now: Does the infrastructure exist for the vision to scale?

With the advent of 5G, the promise of immersive and rapid data transmission the transformation to fully digital working will be appreciated. However, until that time most offices and workers will operate on a 4G LTE mobile network or an internet access network.

On February 3rd, as many Chinese workers returned to a different kind of work (work at home), the ‘all in one mobile workplace’ service DingTalk, a part of Alibaba, announced that it had experienced its highest ever traffic – and had allocated an additional 12,000 servers to increase capacity and meet data demands of 10m corporate customers (after experiencing a short outage at 09:00am, as customers rushed to connect).

On the same day, American video conferencing service Zoom saw share prices increase by 15% – the company’s biggest rise in eight months (share prices have risen from $70.44 USD at end Jan, to $117.47 USD one month later). Google and Microsoft have both announced that they are giving away their enterprise conferencing services for free, for a limited time – as companies around the world adapt to business in unusual circumstances.

As adoption increases, the need for mobile hot spots and upgrades for speed and capacity will be critical, especially for workers not located in high urban density centres. Knowing the bandwidth necessary for a fully functioning remote worker is crucial. Web enabled teleconferences with voice/video will require higher bandwidth capacity and speeds.

What’s next?

This shift of emphasis from ‘work’ being defined as a physical space to ‘work’ being defined as an outcome that can be achieved through either physical or digital channels is fundamentally reshaping how management and brand engagement will be delivered.

The coronavirus situation should enable companies to experiment and pilot new ways of working; upgrades to their technology and digital-first approach to knowledge sharing and collaboration; and importantly to define what and how ‘work’ should be managed and completed in their firm. (Measuring output and impact not hours and presence). The time for innovative use of digital tools, protocols and processes has arrived and companies should embrace the opportunity and view it as a game-changer for their own efficiency and effectiveness. The ability to use technology to connect remote workers or customers while maintaining the feeling of proximity and care will be crucial for companies as organisations search for ways to support individuals, teams and engagement during a time of health concerns in the physical environment due to the coronavirus.


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