Almost in the same week that the FDA announced plans to fast track a COVID-19 vaccine, two major global clinical trials were paused due to negative side effects experienced by some participants. Though leadership is eager to have a vaccine ready by the end of the year, the exact timeline surrounding a cure remains murky. Our collective hope to “return to normal” hangs on a safe, widely available and adopted vaccine.
But what exactly will be “normal” in a post COVID-19 vaccine world?
Those of us lucky enough to work from home the last six months have hopefully by now acclimated to the perks and drawbacks of remote work. Despite the freedom to wear pajamas all day and a thirty-second commute, studies and anecdotal evidence has shown that remote work has presented as many challenges to employees as it has employers. Undoing the anxiety, stress and in some cases stagnancy that has overwhelmed some workers and industries will take a measured approach even with a vaccine. Employers will need to mix the best parts of the last six months with the things we miss about being in the office. The first step on this journey back to normalcy is the discovery of a vaccine. I’ve chosen three of the next possible steps to highlight below:
1. A New Workweek
Prior to the pandemic, the idea of remote work was finally gaining traction and had seen exponential growth in the numbers of remote workers in the U.S. over the last three years. In the same vein, the four day workweek has begun to gain traction in corporate America. Early on in the pandemic, TripAdvisor and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt switched briefly to four-day work weeks and former Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang touted the idea on his social media channels.
The idea is to compress the workweek into four, 10-hour days in order to give employees more of their time back. Companies that have already adopted the concept report higher levels of recruitment, retention and employee satisfaction and productivity. Furthermore, a compressed workweek could be beneficial to businesses looking to adhere to social distancing and other pandemic safety protocols aimed at keeping workers safe by allowing them to stagger worker shifts.
Another strategy that has already been implemented in some sectors (like tech where unorthodox ideas are more readily accepted), is employers offering a mixed schedule. Allowing workers the flexibility to determine which days they work in the office and which days they work remotely can help to soothe some of the pain points related to switching a formerly commuter-based office to a remote one. For companies that require teamwork to function, a mixed workweek gives employees the chance to work face-to-face and reap the benefits of that intangible, collaborative spirit fostered by being in the same office.
2. New Requirements
Of course, the discovery of an effective vaccine doesn’t not automatically mean universal vaccination, especially in the U.S. Between personal opinions and public skepticism related to the vaccine discovery campaign, getting the necessary number of people vaccinated to declare COVID-19 “over” will be an uphill battle. However, to speed that process along, certain high-risk industries may make vaccination a prerequisite for employees to return to pre-pandemic capacity and duties. Other countries have already adopted this strategy, with China currently carrying out clinical trials for two potential COVID-19 vaccines on high risk government employees including border patrol agents, military service persons, and doctors.
Some industries in the U.S. that would likely benefit from this practice are aviation/airline (which has suffered exorbitant profit and personnel losses in the pandemic) and government officials who travel frequently (for example, foreign service offices and other members of the State Department). Vaccinating these individuals could have a two-fold effect of increasingly public trust in the efficacy and safety of a COVID-19 vaccine and encourage consumers to change their behavior and get vaccinated themselves. As the vaccine becomes normalized in select settings, it will be more widely adopted on a macro scale, optimistically, resulting in a reinvigoration of the global economy which has yet to see the full scale of the damage done by the pandemic.
3. New Lives in New Places
The Great Exodus from expensive metropolitan cities and into suburbia is an enduring storyline in the pandemic. Locations like New York and San Francisco have long served as The Place To Be if you’re working in finance or tech, while becoming synonymous with an outrageous cost of living. But the pandemic has spurred a mass migration of the wealthy and privileged to smaller cities and towns outside of these spheres of influence.
This shift in focus from large cities to less expensive locales could mean a larger trend of investment and development in more locations across the country, rather than condensing them to big coastal cities. I’ve watched places like Raleigh, NC, Austin, TX and Atlanta, GA (which are modest in size, wealth and population density when compared to NYC or the Bay Area) consistently increase the number of tech sector jobs available over the last three years. The pandemic has further bolstered these numbers. All three provide a balance of a glitzy, thriving metropolitan area which attracts top level talent with the slower pace, more space and cheaper prices people are seeking in the wake of the pandemic.
This increased investment in less populous locations could breathe life into the disappearing downtowns and Mom and Pop stores that employ almost 50% of the U.S. population. Without government intervention and concerted campaigns, we’re on the cusp of one of the largest commercial real estate collapses in history as so many flagship businesses and smaller stores have gone under. Restoring small businesses and decimated downtowns will likely be a grand torch for policymakers once we have a widely available vaccine.
The future remains as uncertain as ever, but as we look forward to returning to "normal," we must also acknowledge the fact that things will never be the way they once were. Change is inevitable, and perhaps it’s more important to seek new ways of doing the same things than forcing us back to a status quo simply because it is familiar. My commentary here also doesn’t address just how much privilege is built into the discussions around a return to “normalcy” or the effect a vaccine’s presence will have on essential workers and those of us who can’t work remotely.
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