COVID-19: Taking Comfort from the Past

16th April 2020
Esri UK

COVID-19: Taking Comfort from the Past

We should not be quick to call this the new normal. Normal has always been something of an illusion.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the world swiftly and profoundly—and will continue to in the weeks and months ahead—but it is valuable to remember the long view.

The urgent challenge is to solve the medical crisis and the now-unfolding impacts to the economy. But as we start to look forward, we should remember that throughout history, the world has found a way through eras of upheaval and even tragedy. Across time, societies have endured terrible hardships that feel novel each time—and sometimes close to unbearable. And each time our resilience is tested, we’ve struggled toward betterment.

Disruptive and terrible moments like this push leaders to think in new ways, mine new sources of information, and change the way they operate—sometimes fundamentally.

As we consider how the COVID-19 outbreak might shape people, organisations, and companies in the years ahead, a look back might offer insight and hopefulness.

Article snapshot: Few decades pass without an event that changes the world. No matter how widespread each event is, its effects are best examined one location at a time.

The Impact of Major Events

Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, people shifted toward frugality. Some adjusted in small ways—by reusing aluminium foil or watching their water usage more closely. Many changed larger habits. By 1940, the savings rate, which had been negative, surpassed 15 percent as people protected themselves against the risk of another contraction. Automakers like GM moved aggressively to accommodate the decrease in household spending, ramping up production and marketing of its low-cost Chevrolet brand. That shift helped lead to a time when nearly every family could afford a car. Still, that change didn’t happen en masse—car-buying habits varied across demographic groups and locations.

During World War II, the military appetite for steel and other metals drove manufacturers to embrace alternate materials for consumer goods. That fed a surge in plastics innovation and production which continued for decades, shaping regional manufacturing economies, inspiring new consumer habits, and altering the environment.

Then in fairly quick succession, major events continued to punctuate what might otherwise have been called normal times: the space race, civil rights struggle, Vietnam War, economic globalisation, and internet-based communications changed society and culture dramatically.

Starting in 2007, the Great Recession severely impacted labour dynamics, driving many middle-skilled workers—in manufacturing, administrative, and similar jobs—out of the workforce. Subsequent studies of location data revealed that US counties with higher levels of income inequality were less able to withstand the economic downturn. The fallout from that disparity continues to influence a patchwork of economic conditions and even voting patterns today.

COVID-19’s effects have been widespread, but by no means universal. Different parts of the world have experienced different rates of infection and impact. In the US, New Jersey had more than 64,000 COVID cases as of April 14, while Maine had fewer than 700. Italy had lost 20,000 citizens to the virus, while in Greece, fewer than 100 had died.

In ordinary and extraordinary times, location shapes what people experience and how they view the world. That reality should be embraced by executives and leaders as they create plans for business recovery in the days and weeks ahead.

In retrospect, the events that make history tend to define our views and societies more emphatically than the “normal” times that pass quietly between them.

What Changes Will Come

At the moment, many business leaders are practising what might be called COVID-19 protectionism—ensuring the well-being of employees, idling non-essential production and services, and planning for recovery when conditions allow.

It has been heartening to see so many of them rally around their employees, customers, and front-line workers. This list of companies taking action is welcome evidence of the business community’s commitment to corporate social responsibility, and a reminder of the resilience that often shines during shared hardship.

As we begin, perhaps warily, to map out recovery plans, it is important to recall the major shifts of decades past, to consider how this pandemic may influence habits and views, and to assess where and how businesses will change as a result. Here are a few examples where this dynamic is already playing out:

Commercial Real Estate and Corporate Offices

Millions of professionals are now working from home, and when COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders recede, some percentage of them will likely become permanent or semi-permanent remote workers. For those who return to the corporate office, things may change, too. Cushman & Wakefield, a top corporate real estate firm, has formed a task force to advise clients on how to set up what it calls “the 6-foot office”—a space that encourages social distancing and better protects employee health.

The push toward more careful space planning is likely to change the CRE industry and corporate offices for years to come. HR planners and corporate leaders have already used indoor location technology to map facilities and understand their asset usage. That same tech will play a central role as they reconfigure offices for a post-COVID reality.

Many companies shifted a large percentage of employees to home-office work in just weeks or months to accommodate coronavirus shutdowns. When executives have more time to assess the long-term options for remote work, they’ll rely on new sources of information, including data on which towns or neighbourhoods have reliable access to broadband service. (see the sidebar for more.) With that location intelligence in hand, some executives might seek creative ways to partner with broadband providers to improve access for people on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Remote Readiness by Location

As the COVID-19 outbreak unfolded, the team at SmartAsset examined occupation data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics to determine which US locations were the most receptive to remote working. The analysis was based on the prevalence of certain occupations in a location, and did not directly account for digital access. Its results are an interesting read—from the finding that Arlington, VA, has the best profile for remote work, to the discovery that Sunrise Manor, NV, is least equipped to make the shift. For data on broadband access across the US, visit this smart map.

A Retail Industry in Flux

Effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on the retail sector have been stunning. Shutdown orders have driven some companies toward the brink, while others have benefited from spikes in online shopping or have found creative forms of contactless delivery to keep customers safe.

Business leaders who embrace new customer expectations during the pandemic are likely to retain many of those customers in the long run. As Gartner’s Amie Song told AdWeek recently, Chinese online retailers and Tmall grew precipitously in the early 2000s after the SARS outbreak scared many shoppers away from stores and onto computers and phones.

Today, eCommerce is ingrained in our shopping patterns, but it still accounted for just 10 percent of US retail sales at the close of 2019. COVID-19 is changing that dynamic, as evidenced by March’s 74 percent year-over-year increase in online sales. Like social distancing in offices, online shopping habits formed during the COVID-19 pandemic may persist well beyond the crisis. Those preferences will differ in each global location, and businesses that use location data to understand them will find ways to cater to evolving tastes.

In a retail climate where fashions change rapidly, calling something the new normal is a misguided approach. Companies that stay nimble and explore emerging sales techniques may manage to make a positive impression on shoppers long after COVID-19 fades.

Manufacturers Locate Weak Spots  

COVID-19 has changed the fortunes of many manufacturers nearly overnight. Late in March, sales of hair clippers rose 166 percent from a year earlier as at-home hair care caught steam. Meanwhile, makers of products as diverse as video game consoles and toilet paper couldn’t keep their offerings in stock at retail outlets. On the flip side, milk producers were dumping excess product as restaurants idled and grocery shoppers opted for less-perishable foods. Automakers reported sharp sales declines, with more likely to come, and some paper mills went on hiatus as shuttered schools and offices undercut demand for paper products.

The pandemic has exposed many truths about manufacturing, but most prominent is the benefit of knowing your supply chain.

When a slowdown or surge like that brought on by COVID-19 hits, manufacturers that use GIS technology know the exposure risk at their tier 2 factories, the status of finished goods in transit, and where demand for products is outside normal levels. Some have built that supply chain awareness over years to cope with natural disasters; more will in the near future.

As they do, they should consider which forms of customer demand will reach beyond the crisis and which may emerge. For instance, following the SARS epidemic of 2003, many Beijing residents bought cars to avoid what they saw as the public health hazards of public transportation. The COVID-19 pandemic could reset transportation attitudes in similar ways. Executives can use GIS to track consumer sentiment in locations worldwide and prepare for consumer changes.

Banks and Financial Services Institutions

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, bank leaders were already becoming savvy students of location information. In the wake of the virus, wise executives will pay greater attention to how location affects their customers.

COVID-19 has exposed glaring inequities across the country and the world. In addition to early indications that the disease disproportionately imperils minority populations, we’re also reminded that many communities lack access to key services, including healthcare, the internet, and banking.

As of early April, the pandemic had produced a 50 percent jump in online banking as home bound citizens turned to mobile devices to manage finances. While some communities have contributed heavily to that surge, others have been left out due to poor digital access, lack of bank accounts, or both.

That may prompt some bank executives to continue rethinking the purpose and format of branches. Consider the innovative Capital One Cafés, designed to resemble coffee shops more than traditional bank branches. Aimed at Millennials who might otherwise shun traditional banking options, the locations debuted in 2017 featuring resources such as community rooms for local nonprofits, free money coaching, and WiFi-equipped meeting spaces.

The COVID-19 experience will likely change banking habits even further. People who had access to mobile services may emerge from the pandemic confident that they can handle finances exclusively online. Others may see ever more clearly the need for in-person options.

Some banks are already experimenting with a middle ground, including the delivery of banking services via customised trucks that visit neighbourhoods on a rotating schedule.

Decisions on whether and where to expand such services will be highly influenced by the needs of individual neighbourhoods, something leading banks have been analysing with GIS technology for years. As pandemic restrictions begin to fade, the demands on banks will continue, but the complexion of their presence in many locations may well change.

Data Analysts Drive Decisions across Commercial Industries

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, one group of employees has been busy helping executives and colleagues navigate important decisions. Analysts and data scientists have been the news gatherers of this pandemic, using GIS technology to map conditions for many types of business. They’ve used data from inside and outside their companies to deliver intel on the well-being of employees and customers, while making sense of health and business conditions around the world.

At one retailer with a presence in almost every US state, the pandemic immediately raised executives’ interest in smart maps and dashboards. Analysts used GIS technology to map store-level data that had been confined to spreadsheets, creating near real-time maps of store openings, employee availability, and COVID-19 cases in each location’s county.

At a US grocer, the emergency operations centre quickly became the GIS team’s biggest client. Analysts delivered location intelligence on maps and dashboards, creating situational awareness to help executives make key decisions on employee and customer health.

Locating a New Definition of Normal

On the far side of the COVID curve, these teams of location specialists will remain vital, providing insight on how and where businesses can ramp up safely and effectively to meet emerging customer needs.

It may be jarring to think that days of turmoil are closer to normal than we imagine, but it’s also comforting to remember how resilient we can be. And while consumer habits and world views may vary by location, it’s encouraging to know that perseverance is universal.


Additional Resources for COVID-19 Response:


  • An inventory of some of the ways businesses are protecting employees and customers during the pandemic [read the article]


  • A site featuring location technology resources to help with business continuity and recovery [explore the site]




This article was originally published in the global edition of WhereNext.