On the Road Back to Normal, What Do We Learn from COVID-19?

Working from home

As the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed the planet, a friend wrote to me in the spring of 2020, "I feel for humanity if we learn nothing from all this."

Rapid progress in expanding COVID-19 vaccinations provides the hope that we're at the beginning of the end of this health and economic crisis. But on the road back, do we return to normal, or do we strive for something better? What have we learned?

I believe this crisis gives us a clarifying opportunity to rethink, rebuild and rejuvenate our lives and our careers — and to envision a new, enriched normal. The grand work-from-home social experiment of the past year also gives us an opportunity to rethink not only where we work, but how and with whom we work.

To be sure, we've lost much during this crisis. But here's what we've gained:

The Value of Friends, Family and Colleagues

COVID-19 has made us recognize how much we need each other. One dramatic behavioral change is the increased interactions with family and friends (virtually, if not physically). Virtual happy hours, reunions, dates and even dances have become the norm. By some anecdotal estimates, people have more than doubled their social interactions with family and friends during this crisis.

I hope this behavior outlasts the pandemic.

Work from home highlights a surprising but seldom-discussed benefit of work: the value of socialization with colleagues. Sure, there's plenty of formal interaction on Zoom, but it's the daily, spontaneous, shared interactions around the watercooler that add some humanity and joy to the transactional nature of work.

Research shows the most important determinant to a healthy and happy life is a connection to family, friends, co-workers and community. Researchers conducted a meta-study — ultimately reviewing 148 individual studies — that involved more than 300,000 participants and spanned more than a century. This study concluded that for adults, robust social networks increase the odds of survival by 50%.

Importance of Job Security

COVID-19 also proves the value of job and financial security.

At light speed, this health pandemic induced an economic epidemic. Last year the United States shed the most jobs in a single year since records began in 1939 and nearly double the job losses from the 2009 Great Recession. More alarmingly, going into the crisis, almost 70% of Americans had less than $1,000 in savings.

As Patricia Cohen declared in the New York Times, "A job — once the guarantor of income security — no longer reliably plays that role."

Even if you view the pandemic as a once-in-a-century event, the past quarter-century is littered with one-off crises: The Great Recession, 9/11, the dot-com crash and the Asian Financial Crisis.

The Gift of Time

For those of us working from home, we improvised and got the job done. Zoom has made in-person meetings obsolete, and apps such as Slack and Microsoft Teams have kept us in touch with supervisors and colleagues. This may lead to a permanent paradigm shift in remote working.

For many, that's a very good thing. Here's why.

Without commuting and other time sucks, busy people suddenly have a lot more time and flexibility in schedules that have become simplified and de-cluttered. This has opened space for friends and family, exercise, quality downtime and passion projects — the very things that were often shortchanged before COVID-19.

There are two currencies in life: money and time. Money gets all the attention, but a positive relationship with time has a transformational impact on life satisfaction. People who value time over money tend to be happier. By slowing and simplifying our lives, COVID-19 has provided us the gift of time.

Nicholas Epley, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago, compares happiness to a leaky car tire. Just as we have to pump air into a tire to keep it inflated, we need to regularly infuse our lives with the ingredients that elate and enrich, that make life delicious.

For people looking for more life balance, working from home (at least a few days a week) may indeed be a game-changer — if we spend this windfall of time wealth intentionally and purposefully.

Recognition of What's Most Important

During this crisis, we've learned about the medical importance of wearing face masks, hand washing and social distancing. The pandemic has also shed light on something extraordinary: an acute appreciation about what, fundamentally, is most important in our lives. More than ever we need each other; we need financial security; we need to take advantage of the gift of time — at work and at home.

I hope, for humanity, that we learn something long-lasting and valuable from this tragic pandemic experience.

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