Pay attention – COVID-19 gives us a real taste of Industry 4.0

Stephen Barber, Professor of Global Affairs, examines the effect COVID-19 has on business, collaboration and communication. 

This article is part of our new series, Regent's Review: thoughts, research and academic discussion on the rapidly unfolding pandemic.


  • This crisis might not speed up the pace of the technological transformation, but it has already changed the way we work for good.
  • This world will mean completely new ways of working, communicating and thinking. 
  • The ease of working with someone halfway across the world is a truly liberating feature of a crisis characterised by confinement. 

Pay attention – COVID-19 gives us a real taste of Industry 4.0

This crisis might not speed up the pace of the technological transformation, but it has already changed the way we work for good. As we look towards a time when we will be able to pick up the pieces and repair the economic damage, we should realise that some of our emergency practices and new forms of leadership must become permanent innovations. It explains too why we must shape the new technology and accept the shift in our thinking that is happening right now.
The economist Herb Stein had a simple maxim that I have always tried to remember in good times and bad. ‘What can’t go on forever, won’t’, he said, and this COVID-19 crisis, terrible as it is, cannot and will not and go on forever. Before long we will return to some sort of normality and with it, our relationships with families, friends and work colleagues will become familiar once again. The economic impact of these weeks will, of course, be significant. We are looking at a permanent loss of output on a scale worse than that of the global financial crisis a decade ago. But just maybe some of our new ways of working are a glimpse into the future and will help us transform our organisations for the better. 
Times of crisis lead to innovations and these are abundant today whether in pharmaceuticals or medical equipment. Remember though, the pace of technological change is already on the brink of revolution. The possibilities of artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, the internet of things, biotech and everything else is set to transform our economy and our lives. This is what is known as Industry 4.0 and it is on its way. And even if the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t speed up the pace of technological change, it has begun to shift our thinking, reframe our perspectives, and knock us out of the old industrial mindset into something freer and more creative.
Too much of recent discourse has viewed Industry 4.0 as something that will be done to us. That our jobs will be replaced by compliant robots or that driverless cars will decide which of us lives or dies. You’ve heard the stories. But all the while that new world remains just over the horizon, we have clung to our established ways of thinking and doing: a mindset which has been with us since industrialisation and top-down structures to match which promote operational efficiency, productivity and management. 
The digital revolution before us is bound to increase productivity because otherwise we would not adopt the new technologies. However, the reality is that new tech will free up people to make more flexible and imaginative contributions. It will also need to collaborate with human specialists cutting across and bringing together multiple disciplines. In doing so, the possibilities of this creativity are truly endless. 
This world will also mean completely new ways of working, communicating and thinking. Sound familiar?
Millions of workers across the world have rapidly changed the way they work and hastily adopted new technologies to communicate, collaborate and to produce. COVID-19 home offices have sprung up around the globe, meetings have gone online as have work chats and social engagements. The idea of 9 to 5 working has surely been dumped. Interactions are digital and teams work remotely which can be constraining but equally we are no longer as bound by physical and organisational structures. It is no harder to work with someone on the other side of the world than it is with people employed in your division. And that is a truly liberating feature of a crisis characterised by confinement. 
There is more. Even the most committed command control manager has had to give in to trust. And that means not only trusting that staff will do their jobs without supervision but also trust in their judgements as specialists able to adapt and create. Without ever meaning to do so, organisations have adopted approaches much closer to creative leadership than they might ever have envisaged or wanted. 
We will eventually return to our workplaces and we will once again sit around meeting tables. But I’m convinced things will never be quite the same again. What cannot go on forever won’t and the old industrial mindset cannot go on forever. Collaborations across teams, divisions and disciplines will surely increase just as authoritarian managers find themselves surplus to requirements. This crisis has changed the way we think, it has given us a taste of the future. And that means it has sped up the pace of Industry 4.0 – not in technology, but in human adaptability.