The Great Migration: Adapting to digital-living post-COVID-19

Our way of life has been altered dramatically as a result of the restrictions introduced to combat the coronavirus. Sael Al Waary, Deputy Group CEO of Bank ABC, explores how the repercussions of the pandemic are quickly creating the “new normal” and the importance of embracing innovation and agility to stay connected as we enter a digital reality.

At the beginning of the year, it would have been difficult to imagine that only a few short months later the world would be at a stand-still. The streets outside starkly emptied, retail spaces closed, offices and boardrooms bare save for those few essential services striving to support key functions. In contrast cyberspace has never been so crowded; video conferences have replaced meetings, entire schools and universities have adopted virtual classrooms and even major industry events from AGMs to the G20 Summit are being held online.

We’re stepping into a new, post-COVID-19 (PC-19) reality: it is as pivotal a point in our civilization as the Great Depression, the two World Wars and 9/11. The new reality is signified by the increasing pressure on Governments, financial institutions and telecom companies to cope with the demands on their digital infrastructure.

With so much of our formerly physical lives having now moved online; to what extent will COVID-19 behaviours be incorporated into our lives thereafter?

Working From Home (WFH) as a concept was introduced into corporate culture many years ago in the US and Europe. However, in the MENA region this has been at the early stages of being adopted as part of our working lives. From what we have seen in light of COVID-19, it has been a smoother transition for those countries in the region where the pre-requisite digital infrastructure was already in place.

Bahrain has notably caught up with the concept at a remarkable speed with 60% of all Bank staff and approximately 70% of Government employees now Working From Home. This agility comes as a result of the foresight demonstrated by Bahrain’s Government and Regulators, who set out on their digital journey a few years ago as the first in the region to transition to a cloud-based infrastructure and offer online public services. The Kingdom of Bahrain has also positioned itself as the fintech hub of the Middle East through investment in human capital, infrastructure, the start-up community and disruptive technologies. Even with this steady evolution of the country’s digital identity underway, the seismic overnight shift to working from home could not have been anticipated and it has highlighted that only those organizations bolstered by the latest digital frameworks and robust information and cybersecurity systems have been able to adapt to the reliance on IT systems such as VPNs. The current crisis has acted as a litmus test for exposed organisations’ operational resilience. Fintech and financial institutions are finding out whether their innovation and agility can accelerate the roll-out of cyber change across MENA. I believe that Post-COVID 19 Bahrain will act as the regional blueprint for the wider adoption of the digital lifestyle.

Corporate culture has changed overnight; our workforce is divided, for the tech-savvy virtual communication is a way of life. Smartphones act as mobile offices; staff are able to adapt quickly to VC meetings and instant messaging their teams. For others, WFH presents new experiences and some challenges. With this new territory came opportunities for creativity and we have seen a surge in ingenuity and drive – people coming together to adapt and to stay connected and productive in these uncertain times. Performance management will become predominantly task-based, with VPN metrics and data able to monitor and analyze productivity and output in new terms which I foresee will be taken forward and enhance traditional KPIs.

The explosion in online activity beyond the realms of browsing brings with it the emergence of category-defining companies expanding the functionality of existing video platforms to seed new experiences for large virtual meetups and events. These new advances facilitate online spaces that support our communities and workforce to retain the vital human connection and to continue to work and engage with wider society. In this way the crisis has fostered a more compassionate workforce creating online support groups and sharing tips on how to navigate the nuances of COVID-19 life.

Another aspect of the digitization roadmap is the pursuit of a cashless economy and inclusive banking which serves the unbanked as part of the wider global financial system.

Demand for online banking and virtual customer services have soared, the download rates for mobile banking apps have tripled. Regulators are rising to the challenge and offering support to this turbo-charged trend. Within the Bank ABC Group we have witnessed a surge in the usage of our digital services, onboarding for ila Bank (Bank ABC’s digital mobile-only bank, launched in Bahrain in November 2019) has doubled during the pandemic and usage of the app in terms of online payments has quadrupled, evidence that customers are hungry for reliable digital banking and financial management.

The financial services industry is navigating an unprecedented set of challenges: a surge in consumer fears, anxieties and expectations; an extended period of regulatory and government upheaval; onerous new capital and liquidity requirements; and – crucially – the prominence of challenger banks and other new disruptive market entrants.

Digital, mobile-only banks are catering not only to millennials but are set to see all sections of the population eager to access their services as public trust in traditional banking services and physical transacting diminishes. Banking industry players will need to offer seamless interactions across different channels highlighting the opportunities presented by open banking. With limited alternatives to their digital offerings, many Banks and Financial Services are now faced with the limitations of their one-size-fits-all online portals and potential gaps in functionality when compared with what their customers need at this difficult time. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for the roll-out of digital services and the financial sector will need to act quickly to create a robust online service to survive in the post COVID-19 era.

In the aftermath of the coronavirus, the businesses that survive will be those that were able to adapt to the digital disruption of traditional services.

What has been most notable is the sense of unity that this crisis has introduced; a pause for reflection across every corner of the globe. A reminder of our mortality but also of our strength and resilience. At times like these, visionaries emerge. Adversity has historically unlocked our strengths, prompted us to develop new skills and highlighted the need for continuous growth. Our investment in a digital future and in developing new technological solutions is the vital link that supports our businesses and our people to remain safe, healthy, productive and to stay connected in the face of a COVID-19 and beyond.