An Introductory Offer to the Future
What a pandemic teaches us about relationships.
Posted April 2, 2020
The adjustment to the bleak reality of the COVID-19 pandemic these past weeks has been increasingly constraining, confusing, and anxiety-provoking. Far too many changes are coming at us at once—we’re locked down, isolated from social contact, and trying to adapt to the sudden switch to online classes and remote work. Many of us will feel bereft of human interactions as the decision to socialize with friends, extended family, and colleagues has become a matter of life-or-death. Those who do venture out into the world do so because they perform amazing, essential services for all of us, despite the risks.
When people experience devastation from natural disasters, such as hurricanes, fires, and tsunamis, or man-made crises, such as wars, they wish to return to their “normal lives,” restore what they lost, and forget the horrors as quickly as possible. While there is a possibility we’ll feel similarly once the pandemic is behind us, I believe we won’t go back. Why? Because the trends we’re seeing now—led by an increased reliance on technology for connection—were already becoming a larger part of our everyday life, coronavirus or not. But with a sped-up timeline, we can now see its full implementation: We are getting an introductory offer to experience the future now.
When we are finally able to step back and learn from this extraordinary period, we will face a paradox. We will find that the world can be organized efficiently online with great cost-savings and benefits to the environment but will also conclude that this is not the life we want. Here are some of the major transformations that will take hold as we adjust to our new situation for the foreseeable future.
Work: Working from home has been a trend that has swept the economy, particularly in the past years. Forty-three percent of Americans work remotely at least sometimes. This number continues to soar across the globe, and many are noticing that working from home can also be highly productive. Some companies have even done away with physical offices before COVID-19 and run their operations completely online. Americans commute on average one hour a day, and 10 percent have over two-hour commutes. It is likely that employees will want that time for other activities while employers want to save on rent.
Business Travel: The cancellation of all conferences also helps us rethink whether holding frequent events for thousands of people is necessary. This level of travel—particularly air travel—is unsustainable and damages the environment beyond repair. Many gatherings can be held virtually, at least some of the time, especially as the technology becomes increasingly innovative and immersive. After the crisis is over, will there be a push to distinguish between necessary and superfluous travel to business meetings?
Health Care: We now have patients and doctors, even therapists and clients, who can communicate extremely well on telehealth platforms, and many insurance companies are finally willing to reimburse for these virtual services. This gives people access to experts beyond the direct local jurisdiction and across state borders. Once accustomed to virtual check-ups, who will be nostalgic about lengthy waits in overcrowded and germ-filled rooms for 10-minute in-person meetings?
Education: With educators and students all around the world needing to shift their teaching and learning online, an increasing number of university courses will likely shift toward blended or online-only education. Online education has risen in popularity in higher education, where the proportion of students who have taken at least one online class is up to around 35 percent. With around 1.5 billion students and 60 million teachers affected by school closures worldwide, we could discover that education could thrive in an online environment. How long will people continue to pay for schools and higher education as we know it when online versions will be far less expensive?
This inflection point allows us to try out trends in work, business travel, health, and learning on a mass scale. The reason why we can function at all is that all of these systems were already in place, but had only begun to fully penetrate our lives. But the dilemma is this: Despite the efficiency and benefits that technology is granting us, this crisis helps us realize that the positives come with a big price. We long for human connection with real people in real settings to laugh, eat, and work together. We long to leave the house and look forward to returning to it.
In other words, more than ever, we recognize the essential importance of relationships that include a real, physical presence. Education, for example, is not just about learning concepts and facts, which can be done online—it is about sharing ideas and being creative together as human beings. Seeing a doctor should not be only about getting a diagnosis or a medication, but it should be a human encounter of empathy and support.
We will all have choices to make. This time of social distancing is an extreme way of seeing that we need human interaction, not only faces on a screen. Ultimately, society must find the right balance, a melded approach, to protect the interpersonal parts of work, school, and home life while taking advantage of the technology as we learn to use it right now.
Just as few people wanted to go back to lining up for a bank teller once ATMs were available or waiting at the airport for a boarding pass from a person when they can use a kiosk, this period is propelling us into our future. But I doubt we will want a virtual, sanitized world to the point where our embodied selves do not matter. What we learn from this experience holds enormous potential for us to move forward with a better knowledge of the future. We will have to harvest the amazing technological potential we witness right now without becoming subservient to it and isolated from each other.