WELCOME TO THE future—not 2021, as you might have been expecting, but 2025, or even 2030, depending on whom you ask. The adoption of new technological behaviours in response to the pandemic, from video-conferencing to online shopping, means usage has already reached levels that were not expected for many more years.

“Recent data show that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks,” declared McKinsey, a consultancy, in May 2020. And for online shopping in America, progress was even more rapid: “ten years’ growth in three months”. Netcomm, an Italian retail consortium, says shopping in that country, a laggard in e-commerce, has witnessed a “ten-year evolutionary leap” towards digital. In banking, experts canvassed by The Economist reckon that the share of cashless transactions worldwide has jumped to levels they had expected to see in two to five years’ time. In medicine, a British doctor told the New York Times that the National Health Service had undergone a decade of change within a week, as doctors switched to remote consultations.

Call it tech-celeration. In all these cases, and in many others, the pandemic has accelerated existing trends of technological adoption. Shopping was steadily moving online; payments were slowly going digital; online learning was slowly becoming more prevalent; more people were working from home, at least some of the time. Now people in many countries have been abruptly propelled into a future where all of these behaviours are far more widespread.

This sudden shift has been painful. Many bricks-and-mortar retailers, already in difficulty, have been forced into bankruptcy, including household names such as J.C. Penney and Nieman Marcus. With bank branches closed, elderly people unfamiliar with online banking have been targeted by scammers. The switch to online learning highlighted inequality in broadband access and computer ownership among students.

But the transition has also sparked rapid transformation in fields, notably health and education, that are historically resistant to change. The enforced experiment of mass lockdowns has also destigmatised online learning and remote working, by demonstrating that with the right equipment and support, they really can work at scale. That is good news.

The big question for 2021 is: how much will things snap back? Clearly the world is not going to return to its pre-pandemic state. Many department stores have closed. Italian grannies have discovered the joys of online shopping. Home-workers are in no rush to return to commuting five days a week. But nor will all the lockdown behaviours of 2020 persist. Students and teachers are keen to return to in-person tuition. Workers miss the camaraderie of the office. So some new behaviours will stick, but not all, and the result will be somewhere in the middle. Exactly where will have enormous implications: for transport patterns, property prices and the layout of cities, among other things.

McKinsey reports that, by 2022, 15% of executives who took part in an international poll expect to allow a tenth of their employees to work remotely for two or more days a week, and 7% were willing to stretch this to three days a week. But those global averages conceal wide variations. In Britain and Germany, 20% of respondents were happy for at least one in ten workers to work remotely two or more days a week; in China, the figure was just 4%. And among technology executives the proportion stood at 34%, up from 22% before the pandemic. Companies in technology and financial services can function more easily without workers on site. But even in industries where fully remote working is possible, the most likely outcome is a hybrid future that mixes remote and in-person working.

The future is now
Some firms—like those that provide services in the cloud, or devices that support remote working—will get stronger. Others, like bricks-and-mortar retailers, will suffer. Many will fail altogether. But once again there is a silver lining, as these changes open up new arenas for innovation. Already companies big and small are devising fresh tools to improve the experience of remote working, collaboration and learning; to support new kinds of contactless and appointment-based retailing; and to provide new sorts of online social experiences, from virtual conferences to virtual tourism. There is no going back to the past that existed before the pandemic. Instead, covid-19 has propelled the world into a very different future.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition of The World in 2021 under the headline “After the tech-celeration”

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