Will new digital habits stick in our post-pandemic world? Meet a researcher who’s finding out.

Ask someone about what they’re most excited to do when life begins to normalize, and you’re likely to get a range of answers: a trip, a family reunion, a dance party, a favorite restaurant. As people start to get out and about, digital use is expected to drop across all industries except for travel and banking, according to a new McKinsey survey of some 29,000 consumers across 24 countries.

“We crave being outside, seeing loved ones, and getting hugs,” explains Neira Hajro, a McKinsey partner who led the research. A native of Bosnia, Neira has worked with McKinsey in both New York and now in London, where she serves startups and helps clients with their digital transformations. “As the world opens and consumers have more choices, they will move to a hybrid model, combining pre-pandemic preferences for physical channels with the digital knowledge and sophistication they've acquired over the last 18 months,” she reports.

What does this mean for businesses going forward? She explained in a recent conversation excerpted here.

Let’s start on a personal note. You were born and raised in Bosnia.

Neira and son Djoli
Neira and son Djoli
Neira and son Djoli

Yes, I grew up Sarajevo. My dad was a professor in the university and my mum was an executive at an energy company. During the war from 1992 to 1995, my family, including my sister with whom I am very close, stayed there because we love our country. My parents made the decision. I was 13 at the time, and none of us knew what war looked or felt like. After the war, when I was 17, I got a scholarship to attend school in the US. I still remember that first time on a plane by myself. I landed on a Saturday,  started school on Tuesday, and took my first calculus test on Wednesday.

After a year, the lovely family I was staying with in Virginia convinced me to go to university in America. I received a full scholarship to MIT, where I earned a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science. In 2004, I joined McKinsey and worked in New York for six years. I then moved to London because I wanted to be closer to my family, spent some time at Google, and rejoined McKinsey in London in 2016.

We conducted this survey in April 2021, a turning point in COVID-19, as a few countries were starting to open up. Which findings surprised you most?

In the last six months of the pandemic, we saw nearly 70 million more people across Europe use digital services for the first time, with almost seven million in the UK alone, and they were not just the 18 to 35 age group glued to their screens. We saw older generations get online for food shopping, doctor appointments, talking to grandchildren, and more.

We experienced the equivalent of five years of digital growth in eight weeks of time. In that sense, we jumped from 2020 to 2025. This was amazing. But based on our survey results, consumers say they think that they will slip back to their pre-pandemic habits, doing less online. They are not turning off completely, just doing less. But we believe businesses have the opportunity to keep some of those valuable online consumers.

Tell us more about these new digital converts.

They became savvy very quickly. As we were all on lockdown, consumers began investing in their homes—we call it "nesting behaviors"—buying furniture, electronic equipment, groceries, outdoor items. They were forced to try new brands beyond the local physical world of goods and had new digital experiences, which caused them to become more discerning.

In this borderless digital world, they also moved beyond their local environments to experience best-in-class events, resources, and expertise. Students from Denmark dialed into MIT for lectures. Patients consulted with medical specialists from around the world. Music fans everywhere were able to watch the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra perform live, from their living rooms.

The bar is much higher now for any business: they must compete digitally on a global level, not just a local one.

What can businesses do to hold onto their new digital customers as physical channels beckon?

They'll need to innovate so they can give these newly sophisticated consumers what they say they want: a better user experience. This includes inspiring trust that their personal data is safe. It also means providing more complete, helpful product information online. And it means ensuring that users can easily move across channels: research products online; see and try them out in the store or at a physical location; go back online to complete the purchase and manage after-sales details, such as tracking and warranties; and return the item, if necessary, in-store.

This seamless experience requires access to human help at critical points in the buying process. Industries can innovate by learning from each other. For example, grocery stores and healthcare may pick up lessons from banking, which tends to offer best-in-class data security.

What’s next for digital consumers

What’s next for digital consumers

Many companies have struggled this year. Have you seen any bright spots?

Yes. A number of our clients who were faltering in their digital transformations were able to accomplish them during the pandemic. It became really clear that transformations, which undoubtedly are very hard to achieve, can be hindered by internal reasons: siloed teams, lack of agreement on goals, uncertainty about direction, inconsistent commitment. The pandemic swept away a lot of these issues, and we saw a number of transformations suddenly gain momentum and succeed.

Whats the big takeaway for business leaders in all this?

Some digital habits and usage will decrease, but there will be clear gains that will last. For business leaders, now is a very exciting time in digital because there is so much to do. We can iterate quickly because tech is cheap and fast. We can test with customers for feedback, innovate, and roll out the sorts of capabilities—improved privacy, seamless channels, thoughtful human intervention—that provide a more effective, sophisticated digital experience. It is a very nice flywheel.

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