I’ve recently been hearing a lot of people pine for an earlier time. A time when we weren’t isolated in our homes, could go about our jobs in a comfortable fashion, and interact face-to-face with our family, friends, and colleagues. When I ask people what they really miss, what a return to ‘normal’ might look like, it really comes down to the personal connections. No one seems to miss the commute, the traffic, or the pollution. People miss hugging their friends and loved ones. They miss the freedom of exploring. They miss a carefree sense of abandon. In a sense many of us are nostalgic for a time gone by. A sepia toned memory of ease and safety.
But in reality, that recollection is anachronistic. That time, if it in fact ever existed, is over. Things are different now. Granted, some of our legacy ways of interacting and doing business will at some point return to something that feels familiar. Regardless, we have begun an inextricable shift to a new future. These changes are forcing us to reevaluate what is essential and where value really comes from.
We have begun an inextricable shift to a new future. These changes are forcing us to reevaluate what is essential and where value really comes from.
At a professional level, there are many practical considerations. Do we really need to have offices when we can effectively work remotely? Should we be spending so much time and money on business travel when video conferencing can suffice. Can we expect to resume industry events anytime soon and what purpose do they really serve? How do we continue to deliver products and services to customers amid new social distancing constraints? What types of systems and processes can we conjure to create new opportunities in an uncertain and continuously changing environment?
So a question arises: What does a return to normal look like and when will it happen? Of course no one knows the answer to this, but I have a few ideas on what it will take before substantial segments of the economy can resume activities that require in-person interactions.
Setting aside the obvious needs for more testing and contact tracing, to get people back to more contiguous work schedules schools will need to reopen on a consistent basis. Too many people, whether employed or not, have become de facto home school teachers helping their children navigate the newfound challenges of remote learning. The educational system across our country is poorly equipped to provide remote services to millions of children. Teachers are not technologists and many are struggling to adapt curriculum to new communication tools. In addition, there is a material gap in technology access that is leaving an entire swath of the population unable to take advantage of the limited learning opportunities that do exist.
A vast number of parents will not be able to fully reengage in their professional roles until their kids have adequate child care or are engaged at school for most of the day. The notion that schools can partially reopen with hybrid onsite and remote learning programs is admirable, but insufficient to allow the economy to truly begin moving toward complete recovery. Given the available evidence, it seems unlikely that full-time in-school enrollment will begin before next spring at earliest, and perhaps later.
For full-time school enrollment to occur, many people believe that humanity will have to develop a vaccine for coronavirus. Many, many smart people are working feverishly to accomplish this goal as quickly as possible, but most estimates still put a date of early 2021 at soonest for an effective vaccine to be tested for safety and produced in sufficient quantities to be widely available.
Regardless of when a vaccine is offered, it may take quite some time before a majority of people choose to receive the inoculation. If it’s anything like the flu vaccine, effectiveness varies by year and can be associated with side effects. Will you be the first in line to try out the new vaccine when it’s available? Will you give it to your kids who are in a low risk category and not likely to be seriously affected even if they were to contract the virus? Do you even get a flu shot every year? I think many people will think twice before running to the doctor for immunization, and concerns over efficacy and safety will serve to delay widespread immunity for a longer period of time.
In my estimation this means that it will likely be at least two to three years before we begin to gather in large groups again. Even if schools are widely reopened sooner, approaching anything close to ‘normal’ is going to take a long, long time.
Don’t wait to resume your life the way it once was. Embrace the changes that surround us and lean-in to the new paradigm.
So let’s forget the idea of normal. We can’t go backwards, but we can look for the opportunities that always surface during crises. Don’t wait to resume your life the way it once was. Embrace the changes that surround us and lean-in to the new paradigm. Contemplate deeply what is essential for your happiness. Think creatively about your work and reject legacy assumptions of what is possible. Envision a future that takes advantage of technology to give you more time to lead and do meaningful work. Take advantage of the time you’re not commuting to exercise, mediate, read, write, and spend time with your loved ones.
This is not a time for waiting. This is not a time for looking backward. This is a time for renewal and possibility and a better future. We’re not out of the woods, and we won’t be for quite some time, so accept that reality and adapt. I’ve always appreciated the choice to be part of the problem or part of the solution. We now face an equally important decision: To choose the past or to choose the future.