The new normal under Covid-19
THE coronavirus pandemic has exerted enormous pressure on our society, world wide and forced a host of changes to how we live and work. But those pressures have ebbed and flowed with the outbreak’s progress.
When it all recedes in the likely not-too-distant future, experts expect older, more familiar ways of doing things to return, undoing some of the changes we’ve seen since March 2020.
Harvard experts say some of our adaptations have accelerated already existing trends, like the development of a cashless society, the increase in remote work, and the decline of brick-and-mortar retail.
And, they expect, some of these will become a more permanent part of the post-pandemic’s “new normal.”
They also say, however, that the most lasting impact may turn out to be one that is invisible: the marking of those coming of age in the pandemic era, much as the Great Depression and World War II marked their generations, with broad but hard-to-predict effects that will affect society for decades to come.
Karestan Koenen, Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, views the effects of the pandemic as both acute and long-lasting, similar to those wrought by economic depression and war.
“That ongoing uncertainty takes a big toll. That’s the basis of a traumatic stressor — unpredictability, uncontrollability — until it exceeds the ability of the organism to cope,” Koenen said.
“It’s affecting every milestone: graduation, entering school, leaving school, marriages, jobs — in fact, there aren’t jobs.
That’s a formative period in their lives when people are figuring out: What’s important to me? What do I want my life to look like compared to my parents’ life?”
While it’s likely that the coming-of-age generation will bear long-term impacts, it’s less clear what those might be.
Today’s young adults may think of health differently from earlier generations, as more of a common good than something intrinsically personal.
If mask-wearing endures, they may not remember a time when not wearing one was acceptable.
The pandemic’s traumas could lead to a rise in hopelessness. Physical distancing may accelerate existing trends to connect via social media rather than in person, which, though compensating somewhat for pandemic-induced isolation, may hold its own negative effects.
Younger generation already exhibits higher levels of anxiety and depression than older generations that will be exacerbated in the years to come. Harder to measure is the impact of missed opportunities.
One characteristic of youth is a willingness to reach out and try new things, even when those things provoke anxiety
. During normal times, initial worries fade as a new skill is learned or with the recognition that something isn’t as bad as feared. Enforced isolation and curtailed activities are effectively swapping new experiences and challenges.
For those older and in the workforce, an obvious — and dramatic — change has been how their jobs have been affected.
Advances in videoconferencing and other remote technologies have allowed many to continue to produce — and collect a paycheck — working from home.
Though many will eventually return to the office, Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School’s Professor of Business Administration, said the shutdown highlighted the ease with which modern technology handled the shift from one location to another, as well as the ability of many office workers to get the job done even when not under their manager’s eye.
It also showed companies that there may be benefits — like saving money on office space — to the new arrangements.
“I don’t think remote work will be permanent at the scale we saw after March 2020 but I have no doubt that remote work will increase,” said Neeley, whose forthcoming book is “Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere.” “We’re definitely going to see a much bigger population working remotely”, she says.
One function of the shutdown was forcing those unfamiliar with applications like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet to take the plunge and learn. And what many learned is it’s not as hard as they thought.
People are on Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams and with this ease, the possibilities open up,” Neeley said.
“I think that’s what’s going to break this open for many, many people, especially if people in top positions see this is as an effective work format that they can now incorporate as part of their workforce planning.”
Benefits of that shift can accrue both to businesses whose office overhead expenses have declined and workers, who are able to maintain a stable financial footing despite the crisis, save time commuting and keep closer tabs on children. But the change hasn’t been without negative side effects.
Spending hours videoconferencing can sap energy and home workers report fewer social connections and more time alone. Managers say it’s harder to stay engaged with workers.
Unanticipated situations have also cropped up like a company that hired 800 people and brought all of them on board virtually, never met them face-to-face. A lot of firsts are happening.
The repercussions of the shift are potentially far-reaching. Not only has it already transformed the workdays of millions, it could create a self-perpetuating cycle, as more workers become familiar with the virtual tools needed to work remotely and organizations change to accommodate those working out of the office.
The move to remote work may also ripple through high-priced commercial real estate markets as companies take advantage of potential savings.
Software company “Culdesac” announced last spring that it is moving workers online and closing its high-priced San Francisco offices.
In July, Google announced that those whose functions don’t require them in the office can work from home through July 2021 and, as the pandemic has stretched into the summer, other companies, like Microsoft and Ford Motor Co, have said offices will be closed through next summer.
Twitter, meanwhile, has announced permanent remote work as an option for its employees.
Its go-slow approach lets workers decide what is right for them, after which the company can reassess its office footprint without alienating staffers.
All the satisfaction comes when people are given a choice. Choice and autonomy are crucial for people to appreciate remote work and the chance afforded them.
— The writer is former DG (Emigration) and consultant ILO, IOM.