In his recent commencement address, actor Tom Hanks told graduating seniors that they will have “started in the olden times, in a world back before the Great Pandemic of 2020.” Hanks’ forward-looking vision, framing three months ago as the days of old, allows us to think bigger and look ahead.
From haircuts to concerts, everyone wants to go back to the way things were before the lockdown. Even at the scale of this crisis, it’s tempting to think of it as a blip or an anomaly, but things are not likely to go back to normal. Our new reality is forcing change and accelerating changes already underway.
We need a new frame for the challenges we face today. In the middle of a global pandemic, we find ourselves at home, left to consider what comes next. We are obliged to change our behavior in our personal and business lives. Even more significant change – new patterns, habits, and protocols are likely to emerge.
Change is hard enough. Accelerated change is undoubtedly harder, but it feels different. It may require short-term pain, but ripping the band-aid off may lead to a healthier future.
In the nearly two decades since 9/11, we have seen a global shift in priorities. From airport security to sporting events, scanning technology to personal IDs, immigration to geopolitical conflict, we have adopted new protocols for managing the risk of terrorism. Over time, we accepted these changes as a new normal.
New protocols are coming in the wake of the pandemic. Like global counterterrorism, infection control will be part of our future. Technology will play a role; chemicals for cleaning hands and surfaces, masks and protective gear, expedited temperature checks and testing, hopes of a vaccine. As with digital transformation, it’s also about people – a different mindset, new systems, and training. Technology is only as good as the people who know how to use it.
Even after today’s emergency, we have awakened from an infection management slumber. COVID-19 may not be the only new virus we will see in our lifetime – or even the most dangerous. We will emerge from our homes, but the rules that govern public life will change for generations to come.
We are creatures of habit. Sudden stay-at-home orders came as a shock at first, but now it’s been going on for months. For many, staying and working from home will continue for the months ahead.
The longer we stay at home, the more new habits will emerge. Sheltering in place has broken nearly every stage of our collective habit loop, which means we’re all in the process of creating new loops. Our habit cues and rewards are changing as we rethink what we can do from home, see fewer people, and go to fewer places.
Habits are hard to break. If we suddenly had a successful vaccine available at scale, would we go to the store as often or make do with Amazon? Perhaps we like curbside pickups and watching movies at home. Surely, saving money and more family time is an improvement. If any of these things are true today, consider what it will look like in a year or two.
Accelerated change is making new patterns more visible. Organizations with an industrial mindset were already at risk. In recent weeks, well-known retail brands, including JCPenny, Neiman Marcus, J. Crew, Pier One, Art Van Furniture, and Gold’s Gym, have all filed for bankruptcy. It’s a disaster for employees and shareholders. However, in the age of Amazon, or even Peloton, would these companies have survived the long term?
People are working from home. With new habits and protocols on the horizon, we see new dynamics for work. Several technology companies, including Twitter, Facebook, and Shopify, have recently announced that their employees can decide never to come back to a traditional office. Not all companies will follow suit, but many can and will capitalize on the new reality.
Colleges and universities, already faced with the explosive growth of online learning alternatives, are pressured to find new paths for innovation faster than planned. What does a college campus need to be in the future – and what happens when the future is now? Even K-12 education is finding its way forward in this new era. Online resources from Google Classroom to TED Talks are forcing essential discussions about what needs to happen in a physical classroom.
Healthcare, which traditionally requires a lot of hands-on services, is seeing a renaissance of telemedicine. The pressure to decrease costs and risk was already immense. Soon, personal doctor visits may become as rare as house calls in former olden times. Infection control was previously a chief concern for hospitals, resulting in increased remote, outpatient, and federated facility services.
For shopping, working, education, and healthcare, new patterns are becoming evident. Same-time/place interactions were already the most expensive, and in the current crisis, the least manageable. Many are reimagining the customer journey with touchpoints requiring fewer humans. Ironically, to achieve this, we need real people to do the work. Once we forge these new paths, we may not go back.
No one can predict the future, but if we focus on the horizon, we can see the shape of what’s to come. While the pandemic seemed to come as a surprise, experts saw it coming. Similarly, we can see changes in the economy even before this system shock. Leaders with their eyes on the future will fare better than those rooted in the past.
Most organizations were already in the midst of a digital transformation – or soon would have been. Controlling the spread of infection creates an emphasis on reducing human contact for package and pizza delivery, but would have happened in any case. Organizations further along in their digital transformation (see: Amazon) will survive and thrive in the next chapter of our economy. Modernization of business is coming in the form of automation, with or without COVID-19.
Technology has empowered many of us in our homes, creating new habits, and increasing the need for self-serve digital platforms. The march toward automation now has two incentives – profitability and infection control. New awareness, protocols, and habits will shape our perceptions and public life.
A time of uncertainty creates opportunity. Many are taking this moment to assess patterns for work and life. We have the chance to reconsider commuting, travel, and perhaps create a better rat race. We may think about the time we have and how to spend it. Add to this other macro forces such as generational shifts, climate change, population density, and continued technology innovation. We have the ingredients to capitalize on this period of accelerated change. If we focus on new incentives and outcomes over past assumptions and precedents, we can embrace this moment for the better.