Before the onslaught of coronavirus, most developed economies were moving along a secular trend with an increasing share of virtual transactions and economic relationships. The share of consumer purchases made online through e-commerce has been growing steadily. The contract between employees and their firms was also evolving toward greater flexibility with remote or home-based work. Lending, mortgage origination, and even home buying were experimenting with web-based platforms.
Now, suddenly, these sorts of changes are being thrust upon populations that heretofore may have been reluctant to adopt them. Firms are being asked to allow all kinds of employees to try working from home in order to support population sequestering. In the end, many jobs, tasks and transactions which were not yet “ready” or “suitable” for conversion to a virtual format are being forced to convert – at least on a temporary basis.
So, what will all this mean for the longer-term trend in “virtualization”? It’s impossible to know for sure, but educated speculation is certainly possible. I see two possibilities:
1). Those activities or individuals forced to convert by the coronavirus in fact turn out to be not appropriate or not yet ready for this evolution. In this case, once the virus is tamed and conquered – which it will be – society will return to the spot it was in prior to the virus. We will all be delighted to reconnect with colleagues, places, stores, activities – in person.
2). The alternative is that as activities and people are forced to convert, they will innovate in order to maintain themselves. Through this “experiment” they will learn and discover new virtual techniques, strategies or preferences that were overlooked or not tried before. In this situation, the long-term growth curve of web-based activity will experience a sudden positive jump which may turn out to be permanent. Possibly even its time-based trend will increase as well.
Taking these two together suggests that the long run movement toward a more virtual society is likely only to increase as a result of the coronavirus “shock”. Necessity has often been the mother of invention and evolution.