“The pandemic hasn’t gone away just because you’re bored,” read a recent Tweet. The idea stayed with me. The writer had a point, but, we’re way beyond boredom now. COVID-19 is really starting to drag, and with each passing day, governments, businesses and citizens, are growing restless. You can see it: frustrations are starting to simmer, adherence to lockdown laws is slackening, and people are getting angry. If the rules don’t change soon, societies will start making their own.

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There are no quick fixes here and political leaders are faced with the unenviable task of balancing life with livelihoods, human safety with financial security. Making matters worse, scientific consensus indicates that coronavirus is here to stay, and with a state of permanent isolation economically (and psychologically) untenable, nations are left with no choice but to learn how to live with it. Whichever way you look at it, it’s time to get back to work. The multi-billion-dollar question is how?

Clearly, there is no magic answer, but here’s a clue about the direction in which we’re headed: if people were concerned about workplace privacy before, it’s about to get a whole lot worse. I’m talking about monitoring with a capital M. But before your alarm bells start ringing, let me say one thing: COVID-19 has changed the conversation. Privacy used to be a question of trade-offs. Now it’s a question of life and death.

With the stakes as high as they can get, now’s the time to make peace with data-sharing. As a pioneer of AI-driven leadership and productivity tools, I have long made the case for trading elements of our privacy for positive change, and never has that need been greater than it is today.

We need to stop viewing Big Brother as the enemy, and start seeing him as the caring sibling he is – always there quietly watching over us, but only really stepping in during times of need. The evidence is there to see: in the aftermath of 9/11 people didn’t call for more privacy, they turned to heightened monitoring and surveillance in order to stay safe. Since then, employees have grown accustomed to key cards, visitor badges and x-ray machines at office block entrances.

Those measures rapidly became the new normal, just as the measures now being tabled will be in the post-COVID world. Apps that help monitor social distancing, enable efficient contact tracing, and track the health status of employees, are the way forward, and companies are already starting to incorporate them into corporate life.

It is part of a broader trend gaining traction in the business world. Before the coronavirus created the need for companies to monitor health, leaders were already turning to workplace monitoring tools, and when it comes to employee surveillance, Bridgewater Associates reigns supreme. By collecting and analysing vast pools of data on almost every aspect of employee behavior, movement and performance, the firm gains the insight it needs to make accurate judgements and drive productivity. Founder Ray Dalio has received his fair share of criticism for the firm’s “radical transparency” over the years, but Bridgewater’s success speaks for itself – and people still want to work there.

Dalio’s hedge fund is an extreme example, but workplace monitoring in some form or other is happening every single day at companies world-wide. Software can enable employers to see their employees’ screens, track time spent away from their computers, check emails and website activity - even monitor keystrokes. You can call it spying, but it differs little from the actions of a good coach. Before handing out advice, great coaches spend time observing and understanding their client, down to the detail. Ok, so being observed can feel uncomfortable, but it is absolutely necessary if you want to become more productive, and better at what you do.

The need for privacy is human instinct, but so too is the pursuit of self-betterment – and of course, the will to survive. If monitoring can help both, what’s not to like?

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When all of this is over, will your life return to normal? Will you revert to your default settings and slip effortlessly back into the pre-virus habits that shaped your everyday? Will you view the world the way you always did, before COVID-19 turned things upside down? Cynics say our memories are short. That all the promises we have made to ourselves in recent weeks about becoming a more caring and resourceful society will fall by the wayside as soon as countries re-open for business. But if you ask me, people won’t forget that easily.

I’m looking forward to grabbing coffee in an actual coffee shop and feeling the buzz of city life as much as the next person, but I’m facing the near future with my eyes wide open. Think about it: when the lockdown is lifted and we get the green light to go about our everyday lives, are you going to jump straight on a plane, brushing shoulders with the guy next to you as you take your seat? Are you going to feel comfortable stepping into a crowded elevator or dining in the confines of (your favorite) busy restaurant on a Friday night? Probably not.

And just as some habits will be hard to return to, other things will be hard to give up. Almost overnight, we became chefs and bakers – so much so, flour has become hot stuff. When the lockdown is lifted, will we all hang up our aprons, or will we realize that our newfound hobbies are in fact the source of a whole new kind of satisfaction?

Then there’s the facemask. In the western world, wearing a surgical mask in the street would have met uneasy glances from passersby not too long ago. Now, donning a mask has become the new norm and a coveted accessory in short supply, such is the demand. Once all this is over, separating man from mask could be a challenge.

Whether it’s facemasks or cake baking, research tells us that it takes 30 days to build a new habit, so there’s a very real possibility that the activities, interests and behaviors that you have incubated since coronavirus forced you underground now represent the “new you”.

But life under COVID-19 isn’t just changing people, it’s changing how we work and altering the priorities of companies large and small. Coronavirus has landed businesses in uncharted, unprecedented and unpredictable territory, making a return to normal a near-impossible ask.

With entire economies on hold, companies have been left with no option but to slash pay and let people go in order to keep their heads above water. Meanwhile, those employees who have managed to cling onto their jobs are forced to carry out their work from home, adding to a displaced workforce that, through no fault of its own, is wholly unprepared for remote life.

But make no mistake, remote working is no temporary measure; it is here to stay. Companies that fail to make the shift towards a remote platform will rapidly find themselves left behind and losing valued employees.

What corporate leaders need now more than anything, is a way to help their employees to become more productive, wherever they happen to be. And, with people still grappling with their new remote realities and workforces downsizing by the day, the need for productivity growth is greater than ever.

Fortunately, while economies sleep, companies like enaible are firing up their AI engines and devising productivity solutions for the post-virus world. By deploying AI-fueled technologies, companies can measure, compare and ultimately improve the productivity of their people, whether they’re in the office, at home, or in a café (ahh, remember those days?)

I was recently asked why organizations should prioritize productivity right now, and my answer is this: they have no other option. Productivity drives profits which drives employment – it’s a simple as that. COVID-19 has changed many things in life, but that’s one reality that remains firmly the same.

Author: Malik Noureed Awan

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