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What Happens Next?

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“What happens next?  You know, once all of this is over?” my friend asked. “There will be a new normal, but what will it look like?”

This is the question everyone is asking.

Lots of people proclaim to have the answer.  Some are based on history, but history isn’t a great predictor of the future.  Some opinions are based on trends and projections but rely assumptions which may or may not be true.  Many are based on our hopes or fears, but those are grounded in emotions which can change from one moment to the next.

No one actually has the answer.

What we’re experiencing is a fundamental disruption to our way of life.  It calls into question everything we believed to be true about ourselves and our worlds.  It requires us to re-think things that we took to be inviolable truths.  It is impossible to experience such a sudden and all-encompassing upheaval and emerge as if nothing happened.

We know things will be different once the restrictions (e.g. stay-at-home, limited gathering sizes, essential workers only, curfews) are lifted.

What we do not know is HOW they will be different and HOW LONG they will stay different.

I certainly don’t and that’s a terribly frustrating feeling.  After all, I’m the person who reads the last page (or chapter) of a novel before I read the first because I want to know who is still alive and whether the ending is happy or sad.  So, as you can imagine, I’m impatient to get at least a hint of what comes next.

Happily, there are ways to get that hint: Be curious, ask questions, seek input from a wide variety of sources, and observe how things progress.

Here are the questions I’m asking:

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How will connection be different?

History says we’ll grow further apart.   During pandemics, people choose, or are forced to, separate from one another, to stay at home, and to minimize contact with the outside world.  Pandemics also highlight economic and social inequalities, disproportionately impacting the poor and working poor and inflaming class divisions.  After the crisis passes, people remain wary of others and physically and emotional exhausted from the experience.  They don’t want to re-live it by talking about it or, even worse, reflect on who they became during the experience.

OR…

We’re more connected than ever as the internet, social media, and video conferences make this a shared experience on a global scale.  Yes, there’s a lot of crap on social media and Zoom-bombing isn’t helping things.  But social media is also spreading good news – videos of people in Italy singing together and playing Bingo, people in various cities applauding healthcare workers, parades as substitutes for parties. Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and similar services enable us to see the people we’re talking to, engage in the conversation (because it’s hard to multi-task on camera), and connect in deeper and more effective ways than we could by phone or email.

I HOPE that…

Connection takes on deeper meaning, that we’ll care more about the quality of our connections than the quantity and, as a result, invest more time with the people we care about than we do in generating likes and followers.

Gratitude continues to be part of our daily social interactions, that we say, and mean, “thank you” to the people working in healthcare, retail, restaurants, delivery, and other essential businesses.

Empathy remains a part of how we think and act because we have all shared an experience of great uncertainty, witnessed how fragile our lives and lifestyles are, and realized that we actually are all in this together.

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How will work be done?

People will return to the office because they have grown tired of staying in their homes, relying on technology for virtual meetings, and having their calendars filled with meetings that were once hallway conversations. Offices are suddenly a welcome respite from the home because they are purpose-built for work, establishing physical definition between our work and personal selves, enabling direct human interactions, and creating an environment where connections between people and between ideas effortlessly occur.

Or…

More people will work from home because they value the flexibility and control it offers.  Employers will have a hard time arguing that physical presence in the office is essential for most jobs when people have been working remotely for over a month.  And those employers that do mandate a return to the physical workplace risk sending the message that they don’t trust their employees which could, in turn, result in employees leaving for a different employer that does trust and respect them as adults.

I PREDICT that…

Employers and employees will work together to figure out what works best.  Old school managers who once resisted letting people work from home for fear that no work would be done are experiencing the reality that people are as, or more, productive at home than in the office.  While employees who clamored to work from home now miss the informal chats, hallway conversations, and sense of community that are part of working from an office.

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How will learning and education occur?

School will look like it did pre-COVID-19. Kids want to be back with their friends and parents don’t want to be teachers, principals, hall monitors, and test proctors.  As a result, kids will go to a school building, sit in a classroom with other students their age, and teachers will teach what the curriculum requires.  Inequity will continue as the richest schools are able to attract the best teachers and the most and latest resources, while the poorest schools will scrap by, focused as much (if not more) on meeting basic needs, like food, clothing, and cleanliness, as they do on teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Or…

School is no longer a physical place but a set of activities and interactions.  Learning happens when and how best for the student (within certain parameters, of course) and parents stay engaged in what, how, and when their kids are learning.  Teachers will continue to find new ways to teach, including recording lessons once taught live to a full classroom and then engaging live with students one-on-one.  Everyone will have more freedom to explore, create, discover, socialize, and learn.

I HOPE that…

This seismic shift in what it means to go to school will open people’s minds to what’s possible and increase their willingness to experiment as a means to reduce inequity and raise what’s “minimally acceptable.”

But I PREDICT that…

There will be innovation on the margins, that those who have the most resources will enjoy most of the benefits, and the majority will return to the pre-COVID-19 status-quo.

HOW LONG will the “new normal” last?

We’re human and we don’t like change.  We especially dislike change when it’s forced on us.  Even in the best of times, we want safety and security and we crave those things even more in periods of uncertainty.  As a result, we will go back to the “old normal” as soon as we possibly can.

Or…

We have been fundamentally changed and therefore lasting change is inevitable.  We see how hard healthcare workers work and the sacrifices they make.  Parents are experiencing how hard teachers work and, if the tweets are to be believed, are willing to pay them millions to resume their roles.  We appreciate the essential workers working grocery stores, delivering packages, and maintaining our infrastructure.  We’ve returned to having conversations with family members, cooking and eating meals together, and reaching out to people who matter the most.  We’ve been forced into a “new normal” but, by the end of it, it will simply be “normal.”

I PREDICT that…

The duration of the “new normal” depends entirely on how long the current situation lasts.  The longer this situation – social distancing, stay at home orders, schools and non-essential businesses closed, the numbers of the sick and the dead leading the news – the greater the likelihood that things that felt new and different two weeks ago will become normal habits and expectations that endure.  But, if the worst truly is over by April 30 and there’s no Round 2 in the summer or fall, we’ll return to the “old normal” as soon as we possibly can.

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Robyn Bolton
Robyn is the Founder & Chief Navigator at MileZero, where she works with large organizations to go beyond innovation theory and theater to craft innovation and growth strategies, build organizational capabilities, create and test new businesses, and, most importantly, generate real business results. Prior to founding MileZero, she was a Partner at Innosight, the innovation and growth strategy consulting firm founded by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen. Her clients include Medtronic, Ariadne Labs, Nike, Ahold USA, and DonorsChoose.org. Robyn began her career at Procter & Gamble where, as a Brand Manager, she led the launches of Swiffer and Swiffer WetJet, and led strategy and marketing for P&G's $2B Household Needs business at WalMart. She left P&G to earn her MBA at Harvard Business School and then worked for The Boston Consulting Group in both Boston and Copenhagen Denmark.

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