As adept as the human brain is to charting space flight or constructing a 100-mile bridge, we all find it difficult to cope when our worldview is forced to shift due to circumstances outside our control.
Change on a societal scale can feel overwhelming, but it can also trigger the kind of scientific and cultural revitalisation that has historically made our tiny blue planet a safer, more prosperous and peaceful place to be.
So here are five predictions about how we will all work differently, with more caution and more kindness, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether you delight in any excuse to avoid human contact or grew up in a country where three kisses are the standard greeting, we’ll all be more considerate about hygiene and personal space in the future. No matter the culture, it will become instinctive to ask permission before greeting a person by shaking hands, to wash your hands before lunch or to sneeze into your elbow. Companies will develop their own unique cultures of considerate verbal greetings and gestures and, before long, we won’t even think about these changes consciously.
Preventing contagion will become an instinctive and regulated part of manufacturing, construction and product design: from voice-recognition in lifts; to motion sensors for lights and doors as standard; to touch-free checkouts in supermarkets and fast food outlets. Communal spaces will be required to have hand washing facilities; there will be limits on how many people can work side-by-side in proximity and surfaces will be designed and coated to minimise microbial transmission.
To maintain business continuity at all times, and to minimise the environmental impact of business travel, the majority of meetings will be hosted via video conferencing. As a result, working from home will become more commonplace and, even in the largest of organisations, staff will have more autonomy to organise their own location, hours and workloads. To ensure this doesn’t lead to less social contact the same opportunities to connect with colleagues in person will remain, but teams will keep in touch with their remote colleagues through virtual coffee breaks, messaging apps and online social events.
As managers become accustomed to working with remote teams — having navigated a crisis that affects everyone on their staff and in their supply chain over a period of several months — helping to prevent colleagues from experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety will be essential to maintaining business continuity to an extent that will change outdated managerial practices for good. It will become standard practice to have flexible compassionate leave schemes; to introduce buddy and peer mentoring systems and to monitor stress and anxiety in the workplace with the same zeal that companies work to maintain relationships with their customers and investors.
Big companies that try to maintain a business as usual approach at the unreasonable expense of staff wellbeing during the pandemic, or by leaving customers out of pocket while the Chancellor’s £350bn bailout keeps them afloat, will experience long term damage to their brand: damage that will be all the more apparent when governments eventually call on corporations to pay their fare share in taxes during an economic recovery.
In contrast, businesses that commit to sincere community-engagement from an early stage — whether that’s finding ways to compensate the eventual loss of free school meals; engaging in free training and reskilling programmes for those who lose their jobs; co-investing in infrastructure for local hospitals; or simply running informative and impartial marketing campaigns that make people smile — will see continued customer loyalty and perhaps even prioritised government-backed assistance in the future.