March 29, 2020

What will change?

Here's a game to while away some of those long evenings in lockdown: Predict how the pandemic will change the world. What do you hope, or fear, will be different about our everyday life in a year or two?

It's likely that very little will change. We're pretty good at getting used to anything and carrying on as before. Eventually, a vaccine, wide-spread immunity or an effective treatment will relegate COVID-19 to just another hazard out there that might kill us, but probably won't. The roads will fill with traffic again, commuters will pack the Tube and we'll all just go back to business as usual. It's hard to knock us off track, especially well-grooved ones.

But this pandemic is big enough that there will be changes in the way we see the world, some of them long lasting.

Cottage Industry

Let's take an easy one to start: Many businesses will be discovering that they can operate from their employees' kitchen tables or spare bedrooms. It isn't easy at first, but as the weeks drag on, we will start getting the hang of this. Stuff will get done.

It'll be hard to put that genie back in the bottle. The staff will grow to like spending time with their families instead of commuting. The companies will find it hard to justify vast floor space at prestigious addresses.

Cottage industry has some downsides, of course. The biggest danger with working from home is over-work (not slacking off as most managers imagine), so employees will need to learn to keep a strict separation between home and work life, without the benefit of time and distance.

Also, ergonomic chairs that you can sit in for five or six hours at a time without killing your back cost a freaking fortune.

A slightly less obvious side effect of this will, I hope, be a resurgence of local high streets. All these people working at home will eventually be allowed outside again. They will be looking for things to do with that not-commuting time. They'll want to work and hang out in coffee shops, for a change of pace from the months of solitary confinement. They'll want to eat or buy lunch, and take yoga classes. They'll want a drink with friends who they haven't seen in person since the before-time. And they'll want to walk to these places, like they used to do at the office. Our local high streets, which have been dying for years, will get a new boost from a more dispersed workforce -- knowledge workers on break.


Finally, how about a long overdue big shake-up of what patriotism means? To be patriotic for the last century or two has often been tied up with a near worship of the armed forces -- all those marches, drumming and wreath laying. But if this pandemic has shown us anything it's that our health services are as important to our security -- and, really, much more so -- than even the military. We're seeing men and women putting their lives on the line in an entirely different way. Risking death to hold someone's hand so that they won't die alone. They are the new heroes.

I don't necessarily think we need a medical Cenotaph (although maybe we should), just recognition and financial support. How many ICU beds can we build and staff if we build one less aircraft carrier? How many medical school placements equal one Trident nuclear submarine?

That's my go. Your turn.

Tags: coronavirus work future remote first