How COVID-19 is Accelerating the ‘Virtualization of Everything’

The developments we’ve seen over the past decade–including digitalization of services, cloud migration, the reliance on connectivity, artificial intelligence-based data insights, machine learning, the gig economy, and ‘as-a-service’ models–have upended businesses and changed how we live and work. 

The fact that they have taken place over the past decade (more or less, depending on the industry and region) has given businesses time to plan ahead and, through trial and error, adapt their infrastructure and ways of working. 

Due to COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns, similarly seismic changes are now occurring in the space in just weeks. Regulation, legislation and guidance have been unpredictable and ambiguous, making planning ahead almost impossible. 

The closure of physical workspaces and transportation networks has forced many businesses and public bodies to go virtual or go bust. Remote working has become the rule, rather than an exception to the rule. Firms that once based their models on tangible interactions, such as restaurants, gyms, theaters and schools, have had to completely redesign their offerings.

As a result, over the past few months we’ve witnessed the acceleration of virtualization. Globalization based on the physical movement of people and goods (and yes, viruses) has been replaced–in many cases overnight–by a reliance on global connectivity and the movement of data. 

Global connectedness may have gotten us into this disaster, but it’s also what will guide us through the uncertainty. Our global telecoms infrastructure is scaling up, with developments seeing it become more adaptable, more intelligent and more able to support a new virtual world. 


Video Killed The Real Estate Star?

It’s obvious that 2020 will mark the year in which many of us became unwilling participants in the “Great Remote Working Experiment.” What was once an option for a handful of office-based workers has become the de facto way of working. This has been made possible, in large part, in the rapid adoption of video conferencing and collaboration apps. Zoom, for instance, reported over 300 million daily meeting participants in April, up 50 percent from the start of the month, and a massive increase on the 10 million reported in December.

Despite resistance in the past, many businesses faced with little or no choice in the matter have now learned that a dispersed workforce can be a collaborative workforce and that home networks can support business applications. Employees, meanwhile, will be enjoying extra hours in the day that would ordinarily have been spent on the daily commute.

We’re not even two months into the experiment, but the adoption of necessary cultural changes has been swift, reflecting the adaptability of workforces. Seeing our colleagues in casual attire, often in makeshift home offices, and frequently with their kids and pets in the background, is no longer an embarrassment, but an accepted part of many engagements. In fact, in its recent work trends report, Microsoft found that people are turning on the video function of its Teams app more than three times as often as they did before the experiment began. 

In the long term, there are many benefits: Fewer polluting journeys once deemed necessary; the freedom to adapt hours around childcare; and significant savings on corporate real estate. However, it’s also impossible to ignore how this change will impact employee wellbeing, corporate culture and staff retention. Going forward, businesses must find new ways to keep employees engaged and motivated, and breed a distinct culture that complements the virtual norm. 


LoD: Life On-Demand

The cloud, supported by our global network infrastructure, has changed everything. It enables the rapid delivery of virtualized services and physical goods and makes “life on-demand” a near reality. From TV, fitness classes and degrees, to handymen, hairdressers and hospitality: Those who weren’t living life on-demand through choice before the COVID-19 crisis, are now doing so as a necessity.

Similarly, businesses that weren’t offering services on-demand have been forced to adapt quickly. According to reports, general practitioners working for the National Health Service, for example, are now seeing just seven in 100 patients in face-to-face meetings after shifting to virtual appointments. Such efficiencies have created new opportunities for startups, as well as providing a wake-up call to legacy players to update operations and processes to compete with cloud-natives and digital-first brands. 

The “virtualization of everything” will bring opportunities to businesses, but this rose-tinted future is a way from realization. In the meantime–during which we move away from total lockdown and toward vaccination–we must contend with and accept uncertainty. It’s difficult to sugar-coat this ‘in between’ phase: Unemployment in the U.S. has risen to 14.7 percent, a level not seen since the Great Depression.


Revolution, Not Evolution

The way we work, socialize, travel, communicate, consume and care has changed–and will continue to change–beyond all recognition. While revolutions of previous eras were gradual (think mechanization and steam power; electricity and mass production; and telecoms and IT), the world has now found itself hurtling toward all-out virtualization. Businesses are being forced to rapidly adapt their models and strategies, while we as individuals are making transformational changes in the way we interact with each other–and with our new world. The risks to management, profitability and social order are high. Technology promises–and has already delivered–a lot, but will it be enough to help drag us out of recession and into a profitable and equitable future for all?

Adaptability and agility of society are dependent on the adaptability and agility of the underlying telecoms networks that are supporting the current changes. The need for 9-to-5 connectivity in urban centers is a thing of the past. Instead, bandwidth-intensive applications must be supported wherever, whenever and however remote workforces demand. 

The new approach to designing, deploying and managing networks must therefore be software-centric. Intelligent software, powered by AI and machine learning, can identify user experience issues and congestion hot spots. It can then create additional capacity automatically, relocating content and optimizing network resources to maintain a high quality of service for individuals and businesses. 

Flexibility and adaptability used to be mere buzzwords. Now, however, to ensure the success of a new, increasingly virtualized world, they must become the defining features of our global network infrastructure.

  • Originally published July 16, 2020, updated June 15, 2022