The COVID-19 pandemic has created considerable hardship and pain, causing damage across communities through uncertainty and rapid changes in how we get things done. Yet while narratives around the pandemic focused on the harmful elements, there have been several positive developments that we should try to maintain.

“As the saying goes – and we’ve heard this a lot during the past two years – there is opportunity in every crisis,” says Ben Nyakweba, Axiz Field Services’ Regional Service Delivery Manager for East Africa. “I think we’re under-representing the advantages we could salvage out of the pandemic situation. We should talk about these changes more because they are opportunities, some which have been waiting in the wings for a long time for us to change our attitudes towards them. But if we don’t keep them in mind, we might end up losing them!”

Many companies had to hit the brakes on operations during the early months of the pandemic. They turned to technology, hoping it would help carry them through that challenging period – and it did. Yet we risk becoming complacent and accepting the resulting changes as a given. Nyakweba sees this as a big mistake: “We’re only really at the start of our digital journeys. For years, we’ve heard the message that the world is changing and we must manage that change if we want the best results for our companies and communities. So, this is still at the beginning. If we take these changes for granted, we’ll lose a wonderful chance to align the two worlds together. We’ll assume digital will do everything when we really should be shaping digital services to fit our needs.”

What are the changes he refers to? Nyakweba highlights six positive trends that emerged out of the pandemic:

Fast-tracked digital access

We jumped almost overnight from a world where video conferences seemed odd to attending multiple virtual calls in a day. Physical workplaces quickly made room for virtual alternatives, prompting companies to rapidly rethink how their business models operate in a connected world.

“For most businesses, the shock impact of the pandemic sent them into fight or flight mode. If decisions weren’t made to implement a new way of working based on an increase in technology usage, the chances are that business wouldn’t survive. In many instances, things that would have traditionally taken months to negotiate or finalise through the old way of working, now take just hours.”

A chance to innovate

Sparked by the greater access to digital ecosystems, businesses, by chance or necessity, had opportunities to innovate. Specifically, customers were more patient with disruptions in delivery and companies needed to rapidly solve delivery issues. Such attitudes created a space to introduce new products and business systems.

“Businesses had an opportunity to diversify, introduce new products and explore new markets, with little risk of resistance. This period of instantaneous innovation helped to build confidence among businesses, to introduce change boldly and fearlessly.”

Opportunities to train and upskill

A digital world needs a new class of skills. That sounds fine in theory but is very daunting to get right in the real world. It’s not just about learning new formal skills and professions but also adding soft skills such as working independently and adding empathy to virtual engagements. Those two skills barely even registered on pre-pandemic reskilling discussions. Yet now it’s evident they are hugely important. Not only did the pandemic period help bring clarity to skills issues, but it also motivated companies to accelerate their reskilling agendas.

“Essentially, in order for a business to survive and thrive in a post-COVID world, everyone within the organisation has to continually improve on their digital communications skills. Many businesses are now updating their training packages to reflect the needs of today’s business operations in order to protect the growth of the company, alongside the well-being of staff.”

Employee autonomy boosts productivity

Companies might complain about many things, but productivity is not one of them. After years of gloomy predictions that remote work and rotational schedules would kill productivity, the exact opposite happened.

“The idea that employees would be too relaxed, become lazy and be distracted by things around the home as opposed to fulfilling work obligations was overlooked by the time saved travelling, reduced distractions and the effectiveness of virtual meetings. Although faced with challenges, working from home and communicating digitally have produced better productivity results than anyone could have expected.”

Business savings

We often don’t miss something until it’s gone. But by the same token, there are many things we hold onto yet can do without. Businesses are often full of redundant clutter, from old systems to obsolete processes. Uncertainties and sudden problem-solving prompted companies to shake out the cobwebs and claw back some of their resources.

“In the short term, it was safe to predict that at the very least, consumer spending patterns and purchasing activities would alter significantly. For the long term… well, it was near impossible to call! For many businesses, this triggered a ‘spring clean’ of the company accounts and a pull back on spending.”

A stronger sense of community

It’s the running joke of the pandemic: during video calls, we’ve all seen cats on tables and children running in the background, heard barking dogs and occasionally excused someone to answer their door. These events also remind us that our colleagues are humans with personal lives and spaces. It’s fostered a much greater empathy for colleagues and employees. Not surprisingly, mental wellness and work-life balance are now important priorities at many companies. And working closer to home has been great for communities.

“Socialising virtually with colleagues has become more accessible to those who may have commitments outside of work, or live in a remote area. Many employees feel their work-life balance is healthier and their general well-being has noticeably improved. Being more present at home has encouraged people to establish or enhance relationships with neighbours and others within the local vicinity. Being part of a community is essential for good all-around mental health.”

COVID-19 will be remembered as a difficult time. But it inadvertently ushered in positive changes as well. As long as we keep these changes in mind and appreciate their impact, we can build on their successes.