Leah Callon-Butler, a CoinDesk columnist, is the director of Emfarsis, a consulting firm focused on the role of technology in advancing economic development in Asia.
Call it panic-stricken or precautionary, the world is currently rejecting anything that lumps a bunch of humans in one spot. Events everywhere have been postponed or cancelled altogether, business trips have been put off, employees told to work from home and we’re HODLing toilet paper as though we’re about to be quarantined for months.
Some believe the apocalypse is upon us, while others (as per this recent McAfee-ism) think it’s all an elaborate hoax. Either way, unless you’ve been hiding in a coronavirus-proof vacuum, you’ll be aware the economy is taking a massive hit right now. And not everyone will be able to roll with these punches. If you’re in an industry that relies on events or travel or people or places, things are looking pretty grim. But if you can adapt, you must.
In Asia, where I’m based, Singapore’s crypto industry association, ACCESS, was forced to change tack in February, when the government raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from yellow to orange (red is the worst). While the Ministry of Health was urging organizers of large-scale events to cancel or defer, ACCESS and the Singapore FinTech Association were nearly done finalizing plans to run a workshop with the Monetary Authority of Singapore, which would help almost 300 participants come to terms with the new Payment Services Act.
With regulatory deadlines hanging over their heads, and an urgent need to begin issuing new operating licenses, the workshop couldn’t wait. So ACCESS Chairman Anson Zeall suggested they shift the whole thing onto the cloud-based video conferencing app Zoom. Of course, there was some anxiety about whether the platform could handle such a big crowd, but they pulled it off without a hitch and received rave reviews from attendees, including the Ledger sales team.
Zeall said it doesn’t matter if people liked the online mode of delivery or not. “We were forced to do it,” he said. “This is the new reality.”
While WFH (yes, “Work From Home” now has its own acronym) may have finally found its way into mainstream corporate culture, nothing about the movement is particularly novel. The way we connect, communicate and collaborate has been evolving for a long time and much of the crypto crew already resides within virtual worlds. We feel right at home chatting with complete strangers via an online forum, our teams are distributed across time zones and territories, and messaging services – such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, Discord, Signal and Slack – have become the proverbial water coolers by which much of the community hangs.
The retreat to Zoom is an intensification of existing social phenomena, as WFH tech moves to acquire a greater share of our working day. While online collaboration tools hoover up new users as fast as (ahem) the spread of a virus, these so-called stay-at-home stocks have emerged as some of the few that can call themselves beneficiaries of COVID-19. On March 5, Zoom hit an all-time-high of $125 (up from $68 at the start of January), making it one of the best performing stocks of the year.
This might trigger a sense of deja vu if you can recall how the SARS epidemic of 2002 to 2003 fueled the rise and rise of the Chinese internet economy. With streets and shopping malls eerily empty across the nation, and millions of Chinese stuck at home with a brand-spanking-new broadband connection, just recently installed, people began to go online instead. And they did it in droves, accelerating user adoption of mobile and internet technologies exponentially.
Some notably enterprising companies even adapted their business models and developed products in response to the changing conditions. It was during SARS that a fledgling e-commerce business named Alibaba made the strategic decision to move from a business-to-business model to a consumer-focused one, when it saw how many everyday people were connecting from home and learning to surf the web. In 2003, post-SARS, Alibaba rolled out the online shopping website Taobao. Today, China is the world-leader in e-commerce, and Taobao is its biggest e-commerce site, with 711 million annual active retail users.
The Taobao story demonstrates how a global health crisis could be a powerful catalyst to accelerate change. Human behavior is notoriously sticky, and in general we hate change. But we can also be extremely resourceful, and when left with no other options we tend to find new ways to get by. Sometimes we even like the new approach better. And before you know it, we’re wondering how we ever did it any other way.
As for the current situation, it’s possible we are being coerced into a new era of productivity, where we will finally leverage digital collaboration tools to their full potential and flexible work will be the standard, not the exception. We’ll develop new methods of virtual networking and rapport building, while rethinking how we measure the value and necessity of physical human interaction. We’ll lower the barriers to participation as we transcend traditional boundaries of time zone, location and cost. The reduction in flight miles won't be bad for sustainability either.
Not everyone will make it through, but crypto orgs might have a better chance than most. We’ve had the whole decentralized work thing down pat for a while now.
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