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Why COVID-19 could change how we work

During the coronavirus crisis, technology will help transform the work of professionals in ways that would have seemed unimaginable only a few weeks ago.

AI and the Internet have already led to enormous advances for doctors, lawyers, teachers, auditors, architects, and many others. Technology has not just streamlined traditional ways of working, but also in replaced old-fashioned and out-dated practices. Progress was patchy though.

How long will all this technological change take? Until this year this question was very hard to answer. The pace of travel depended on the accumulated actions of a bewilderingly large number of individuals and institutions, each playing their own part on the economic stage.

The main barrier to transformation was not technological. The main obstacle, in fact, was cultural. Most human beings are resistant to new ways of working, and in the professions, this cultural barrier is particularly high. Professionals derive a very strong sense of identity and meaning both from the problems they solve and from the ways in which they solve them. Many lawyers, for instance, take satisfaction in resolving legal disputes, but also enjoy the traditional trappings, like oak-panelled rooms and horsehair wigs. Doctors feel rewarded when curing patients, yet at the same time find comfort in their medical jargon and in stethoscopes hung jauntily around their necks. Teachers like to teach but prefer to do so in classrooms over which they hold dominion.

But with the coronavirus catastrophe, these preferences look more like indulgences and the cultural barriers to change have largely disappeared. This is not out of choice, but out of necessity. Professionals are being forced by circumstances to jettison habits of lifetimes and to adopt new and unfamiliar ways of working. This shift is happening in days, with little to no preparation or training. And many of these new ways of working rest entirely upon technology.

For years, we have heard doctors scoff at the idea of seeing patients online, we have listened to lawyers insist that court work could never be done virtually, and we have been told by teachers that students cannot learn properly unless they are in the same room. Telemedicine, virtual courts, and online learning, in the past few weeks have become not just possible but essential.

The professions will survive this crisis. They should be reassured that many of the technologies they will rely upon have indeed been in play for years, even if not evenly adopted. Five years ago, Harvard University’s online courses had attracted more students in a single year than had attended the actual university in its entire existence. The online dispute resolution system of eBay helps resolve 60 million disputes each year, without the involvement of traditional lawyers (40 times the number of civil claims that are filed annually in the entire English and Welsh justice system). And many healthcare start-ups offer online diagnostics as well as consultations with doctors.

Many of the world’s schools and universities have now closed, and parents have had to go virtual if their children are to continue being educated. Our courts are shutting down too, and we have had to move to remote hearings to maintain the rule of law and provide access to justice. And our healthcare providers are now practising medicine at a distance, like never before, so as to limit this disaster.

In time, once this crisis is over, there will be a reckoning. The professions must reflect deeply about their future. In weeks to come, a transformation will continue to take place in the professions that most would have dismissed last year as fanciful. It is hard to believe we will go back to our old ways. For now, though, this should not be our concern. We must do whatever we can to deliver professional services digitally, and quickly, because this will be immeasurably better than the alternative – which is to deliver nothing at all.

Featured image: public domain by Andrew Neel, via Unsplash.

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