The World Has Changed… For Good!

Frida Polli, PhD
April 15, 2020

COVID-19 has resulted in massive societal changes, but as some experts have recently noted, a lot of these shifts were already in progress before the pandemic struck. As somewhat of a silver lining during a challenging time, the behavioral adaptations of the last several weeks seem to be accelerating movement toward equity and inclusion. The following trends personally give me a lot of hope that, while circumstances might be tough right now, this unprecedented disaster just might be the thing we need to inspire unprecedented progress.  

Remote working is here to stay: As a trend that was already coming online, remote working is now becoming the norm. This society-wide experiment will show even the most skeptical managers that, not only is the shift possible, but all of the downsides that come with being in the office - time commuting, travel expenses, health risks, etc. -  are not worth the costs. Ironically, modern technology is making it possible for us to live the way we did in pre-industrial times, when our agricultural society made no distinction between home and work. Overall, this is a much more holistic approach to life, and as a working mom, I’m happy to have kids and pets make guest appearances during Zoom calls if it means I can see my own daughters for 15 minutes between meetings. A VC colleague of mine said it best last week: “I have learned that WFH is okay. It’s the parenting from work that’s brutal.” 

Humans are less eager to move: On the flip side, frivolous travel is going out of style. In the aftermath of COVID-19, even the most jetsetting business leaders will likely reconsider whether they really need to jump on a plane. For better or worse, our mental calculus for trips will incorporate the length of time on the transport, the number of people that have also been passengers, and the degree of trust we have in sanitation methods. Prior to the pandemic, a 30-minute conference presentation might necessitate 24 to 48 hours of travel to a different state or even continent, adding up to massive waste of time and resources. Of course, disability advocates have been trying to convince us to give up this mindset all along. It turns out that there is nothing wrong with video conferencing, and in making it the norm, we can avoid systematically discriminating against those who find travel difficult.

Hyperlocality is becoming a priority: Supply chains are also shrinking their geographic reach. Disruptions to production have rattled virtually every industry over the last few months, leaving companies around the world searching for ways to bring sourcing and manufacturing closer to home. Decentralization and hyperlocality will remain top-of-mind, in many ways accelerating the calls sustainability experts have been making for years. In food production, smaller local plants and farms will rise, particularly as consumers crave greater transparency about the origins of products. I think about the farm-to-table movement behind niche food chains like Sweetgreen, but on a much larger scale. In addition to the boon a focus on locally-sourced goods can provide to remote communities and small economies, the environment will be another important beneficiary of reduced fuel usage from shipping.

Digitization is a solution: With human-to-human contact feeling more risky, there is a new premium on tools that enable decentralization. As COVID-19 hit, it was clear that our society was feeling anxious about technology, with concerns like privacy, transparency, and security coming to the forefront. I personally find this discourse very necessary, but it can also create an environment that downplays the many important benefits of technology. New innovations must be met with appropriate safeguards, but we need to remember that overly alarmist attitudes about novel tools can be harmful too. The last several weeks have allowed even the most skeptical audiences to appreciate technology as a protecting and unifying force against COVID19. This optimism will hopefully foster more nuanced attitudes about the relative pros and cons of digitization for society. 

To end, while we all may think back about the pre-COVID-19 world fondly, the reality is that we might have to adapt our expectations to operate differently. Many of the parts of life we miss right now will be restored in time, but certain ways of living and working have been changed fundamentally. Before we grieve for 2019, I think it is worth asking ourselves whether that nostalgia is worth our well-being. If pandemic, disruption, and uncertainty ultimately bring about contentment, progress, and safety, the transition might be one worth making. 

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