The COVID-19 pandemic, one year later

By Rebecca Guenard

In This Section

March 2021

  • Throughout the year, both industry and academia found ways to operate as normally as possible despite much of the workforce being sent home.
  • Virtual interactions kept us safe during the pandemic. Going forward, they will remain a fixture in our lives.
  • After decades of preparation, certain areas of health care and manufacturing finally became digitized during the pandemic. As long as networks can be kept secure, digitization provides industries with foresight and agility.

When shutdowns began in the spring of 2020, we thought we might have to work from home for a couple of weeks to let the spread of the novel corona virus subside. Avoiding the daily commute was a nice change of pace at first, but then weeks turned into months. As the year dragged on, we realized the myriad things we took for granted in our pre-COVID lives: health, human contact, childcare, collaboration…the list goes on.

As challenging as life has been over the past year, living through the COVID-19 crisis has led the world to consider new operational modes. Basic necessities dwindled in the early days of the pandemic, causing the general public to be aware of supply chains like never before. We grew conscious of the resources the world shared and of their often singular origin. Technology forever altered our relationship with the workplace as we reliably began conducting meetings with co-workers over the internet. We found out that, although they are preferred, face-to-face interactions are not a requirement for achieving our work objectives. We learned that the opposite is true for school. Technology cannot replace in-person education and the social benefit students gain from being together in the classroom.

“I look forward to having the students on campus in a regular way,” says Gianfranco Mazzanti, associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. “Seeing each other online is not the same. The human contact is so important.”

During lockdowns, Mazzanti and his colleagues acted as their students’ avatars in the laboratory so students could complete their assignments virtually. Computer programs put decision-making in the students’ hands, even if the laboratory equipment was controlled by an avatar. Given the circumstances, it was a way to provide continuity in his students’ education. But nothing beats the in-person educational experience, Mazzanti says.

As vaccines are being administered around the world, life will eventually get back to normal. What will normal look like after all we have experienced this past year? Which of the changes we have adopted to get through the pandemic will stick permanently? No one knows for certain, but business experts have a few predictions. Based on current trends, here are some COVID-prompted changes you can expect to continue.

Work from home will continue

According to a survey of key executives across a range of industries in the fall of 2020, there will be an 87% increase over pre-pandemic rates for remote working in the next five years (https://tinyurl.com/2021WFHsurvey). When the pandemic forced workers into isolation, employers discovered that home offices were not the productivity stiflers they were once assumed to be. The survey shows that working from home is now viewed more favorably than before the pandemic. Companies report that with commutes and non-essential meetings eliminated they have actually seen an increase in productivity. In addition, employees are capitalizing on the more flexible schedule work from home provides. The CEOs, small business owners, and human resource (HR) managers who participated in the survey responded that nearly a quarter of their staff will continue working from home through 2025 (Table 1).

Table 1. A look at remote working, now and in the future. Over a quarter of the workers at the 1,000 businesses surveyed will continue to work remotely in 2021. Source: Upwork’s Future of Workforce Pulse Report: https://www.upwork.com/research/december-2020-future-workforce-pulse-report
What percentage of your team/department was, is, or will be working remotely at the following points?
Before COVID-19 April 2020 Today 12 months from now Five years from now
Fully remote 12.3% 47.7% 41.8% 23.7% 22.9%
Partially remote 8.9% 12.2% 15% 15.2% 14.6%
Not remote 78.8% 40.1% 43.3% 58.2% 62.5%

The work-from-home option has been made possible in the United States, because technology took a leap into the future during the pandemic. Broadband services expanded across the rural United States through an emergency order initiated by its Federal Communications Commission (https://tinyurl.com/COVIDbroadband). Lawmakers in some rural states have been pushing for the expansion for a long time, but with homebound students and employees needing reliable internet connections the Commission granted providers the authority to expand.

Areas of India and some countries in Asia, however, have reported that internet speeds decreased during the pandemic. With such high demand on high-speed internet, worldwide investment in a network infrastructure of broadband fiber has become a necessity—especially since remote plant access increased during the pandemic, a trend that is likely to continue with a return to normalcy.

Manufacturing operations will be digitized

The pandemic accelerated industry toward its digital future. Avoiding a deadly virus meant avoiding other humans. To maintain commercial production and, in some cases the general function of society, robots were called into action. They cleaned and disinfected common use areas in major cities around the world and whipped up salads in employee cafeterias (https://www.chowbotics.com). Replacing workers with automated systems has historically been challenged by labor unions, who fight to retain jobs for humans. In a pandemic, the unions could not argue against the increased safety automation provides by limiting the number of humans in a work area (https://tinyurl.com/covidspedautomation).

Just as it made us more accepting of robots, COVID-19 removed any hesitancy companies have had to digitize production. When manufacturing plants shut down and sent their workers home to stop the spread of the virus, they were given an opportunity to start back up in a digital realm they had been contemplating for a decade (Digitizing manufacturing: how companies are using data to improve production, Inform, November/December 2019). The healthcare sector, especially, embraced the new way of manufacturing to ensure supplies of critical items, like cotton swabs. Remote plant access became a key technology in 2020, along with the implementation of digital twins and virtual and augmented reality (Fig. 1; https://tinyurl.com/remoteplantaccess).

Two scientists using augemented reality to investigate a product
Fig. 1. An image of augmented reality being used for training purposes. During the pandemic, companies like Honeywell implemented this technology as part of their remote plant operations. A remote team can troubleshoot onsite issues using a wearable device that allows them to see the plant in real time. Source: https://www.honeywell.com/us/en/news/2020/03/3-tips-to-run-operations-remotely

The Ontario, Canada water authority, for example, operated remotely last year through employee workstations maintained from home, significantly reducing the number of workers needed on site. System control software inside the plant, provided by GE Digital, provided managers and operators access to real-time data. Employees monitored and controlled plant operations from home using a laptop or mobile device over a secure internet connection (https://tinyurl.com/automationsoftwareGE).

According to the American Chemistry Council, the industry lost 14,000 jobs in 2020 (https://tinyurl.com/chemistryjoblosses). Those cuts were due to a slowdown in production by automakers and airplane manufacturers who stopped buying chemicals used to outfit their machines. Food and personal care industries also shrank, reducing demand on specialty chemicals. These industries are expected to rebound, but how humans will integrate with the computers that performed their jobs during the pandemic remains an unanswered question.

Another question arose at the end of 2020: How secure are manufacturing operations that are controlled through cloud networks? As of press time, the United States government discovered 30 government agencies, companies, and think tanks, along with organizations in Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, that have been compromised by Russian hackers (https://tinyurl.com/russianhackdiscovered). The implications of this infiltration have not yet come to light, but they are likely to give pause to companies considering digitized manufacturing.

Nevertheless, now that these technologies have been installed, few experts believe they will be abandoned. Digitization is here to stay, and in the next year expect oils and fats companies to address questions of workforce integration and network security. As they do, they can look for examples from the aviation, finance, and tech industries that have already addressed such issues.

Supply-chain issues will be more predictable

A year after COVID invaded our lives, we are all still dealing with uncertainty. When will we get the vaccine? When will we go back to working onsite? When will we feel comfortable in a crowd of people again? For supply-chain managers, these feelings are particularly acute. However, the frustration they felt in 2020 has led to the adoption of new technology that will help them reduce uncertainty in 2021.

The pandemic originated in the industrial province of Wuhan, China, shutting down factories before the end of February 2020. By March, when the rest of the world realized the majority of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and personal protective equipment (PPE) came from this region, the factory closings had already crippled the supply chain (A global supply chain: What could go wrong? Inform, June 2020). While some industries struggled, chemical suppliers were able to shift from the production of less necessary polymers and resins to alcohol and disinfectants that were in high demand (https://tinyurl.com/chemicalindustryroundup).

Forecasting supply-chain stressors has always been a challenge, but the pandemic forced mangers to prioritize centralizing data for all stakeholders (Fig. 2) involved in the logistics of producing and moving products (https://tinyurl.com/COVIDsupplychainchanges). Companies are now compiling supply-chain data and populating dashboards to increase supply chain visibility moving forward. For example, demand for skincare and cosmetics dropped during the pandemic; when sales pick-up again, mangers will have end-to-end data telling them where adjustments are needed to revive production.

Six stages of the supply chain in the chemical industry: raw materials, supplies, manufacturing, distribution, retail location, and customer
Fig. 2. Since COVID-19, companies are rethinking their global supply chain.

This, of course, means more digitalization and connections across networks. Companies can build their own software or purchase from a supplier, like infor (https://www.infor.com), that incorporates the particular needs of the chemical industry. Managers previously understood the agility and forecast capabilities a digital supply chain provides, but COVID-19 propelled health-care, personal care, and chemical industries closer to the reality of functioning in that space.

In addition to digitization, industries are rebalancing their supply chain to include more domestic production. The European Commission outlined plans to reduce its dependance on raw materials produced outside the European Union (https://tinyurl.com/EUCrawmaterialsoutline). A similar executive order was signed by the President of the United States. These legal measures are directed toward raw materials for the technology sector, but since COVID, all industries are looking to relocate at least part of their value chain to the Western hemisphere to maintain their agility should a future crisis arise.

Conferences will have a new format

Now that many of us have spent the past year interacting virtually with colleagues, we recognize that there is a different atmosphere at an in-person gathering than a virtual one. We hear one another better and read social cues better when we stand side-by-side instead of looking at a head and torso through a screen. Experts predict that this irreplaceable quality of in-person interactions means that we will travel to conferences again in the future, but meeting organizers are eager to retain to the benefits of virtual platforms by designing hybrid events that allow those who cannot travel to participate.

Four speakers on stage at a hybrid event with users on a livestream on a screen behind the stage
Fig. 3. An image of what conferences will look like in the future. Conference organizers will offer a mix of live and virtual attendance and take advantage of the benefit of being online by capturing the conference content digitally.

A hybrid conference involves more than a livestream from the conference hall. The next time you attend an in-person conference you might once again see the Zoom tiles we all grew accustomed to when working from home. Blending live and virtual audiences will help offsite participants feel they are truly be part of the meeting by allowing them to ask live questions and interact with onsite participants (Fig. 3).

Of course, the greatest benefit of a hybrid meeting is capturing and storing the digital content for later reference. Technical discussions no longer must be limited to the time allotted for a specific session. In the digital space, subject matter experts can find their community, trade virtual business cards, and build a resource center. A hybrid model expands the capabilities of in-person only conferences, allowing them to live in a digital space long after the conference space has been dismantled. As COVID vaccinations are administered sporadically around the world, business experts predict this new conference format will become popular in 2021, and continue for years to come.

Health care will be virtual

Health and medicine experienced the greatest changes due to COVID. New vaccines were researched and developed in record time. Although this was an impressive feat, other health-care advancements are likely to have a bigger impact on our day-to-day lives.

Telemedicine proved its value during the pandemic. In the future, workdays will not be interrupted by a trip to the doctor’s office (https://tinyurl.com/telemedheretostay). In March 2020, the United Kingdom’s National Health Services experienced nearly a 100% increase over the previous year in downloads of its telehealth app and online prescription requests (https://tinyurl.com/UKoutlookontelehealth). While it was initially seen as a means of reducing potential contact with the virus, it also became an asset for expanding access to health care in the United States. Telemedicine was so successful during the pandemic (especially for mental health care) that major insurance companies like United Health and Anthem have adapted their coverage to include the technology.

Before COVID, telemedicine was seen as little more than an online conversation, but the pandemic has led (once again) to the incorporation of more technology. At-home devices, such as oximeters and blood pressure cuffs, allow physicians to access certain diagnostics and provide the same level of care as an in-person visit. As it grows in popularity, our mobile devices will assist in making it better. Valuable pools of data are created daily as these devices measure and store our steps, heart rate, and oxygen levels. All that information can be stored in the cloud and monitored for irregularities.

Connecting artificial intelligence with telemedicine could help health-care practitioners predict the onset of an ailment or disease. This type of connected care is already being implemented by The US Veterans Administration, which reports that the financial and human success of the program so far ensures future investment. Likewise, digital health companies across the EU are racing to get more diagnostic telehealth devices to market (https://tinyurl.com/futureofmobilehealth).

The primary lesson of COVID-19 is that the digital world we embraced during the crisis will remain central to our lives in the future. Implementing more technology allowed us to carry on with life as usual throughout 2020. In the next five years, that technology will help us work smarter as we access information that was out of reach before digitization compiled it all in one place. With the addition of artificial intelligence, that information will be used to make future predictions that save time and spare budgets by avoiding pitfalls.

We may have felt like our lives were going nowhere over the past year. In reality, we took a huge leap forward.

Rebecca Guenard is the associate editor of INFORM at AOCS. She can be contacted at rebecca.guenard@aocs.org.

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