The Covid-19 Economy, Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow
There was a moment, back before Memorial Day, when a reasonable person might have assumed we had dodged the worst of the pandemic. Our attention shifted to George Floyd as the nightmare predictions for places like Florida, where DeSantis had defiantly resisted doing more or less anything to contain its spread, didn’t come to be. But it’s now late July, and things have only gotten worse in the vast majority of the country, even stalwarts like California that initially seemed to do everything right. But there’s a big exception: New York.
Once, we were digging mass graves in an abandoned, sepulchral city that had short weeks earlier been the epicenter of global commerce, accompanied only by the wailing of sirens. Now, our infection rate is less than 1%, where it’s hovered since the middle of June. Almost uniquely in the United States, we seem to have gotten through the worst of it (thus far) through a mixture of testing, an ongoing mask mandate, a slow data-driven reopening process, and good old-fashioned public buy-in by New Yorkers’ refusal to allow a return to the nightmare of April. All of which is preamble to the point I really want to make: New York is getting back to business (not as it once was of course, but as it can be), and in doing so, providing a model to the rest of the United States.
Early in the pandemic, pundits and commentators of all stripes penned prognosticating missives in an attempt to make sense of what I started calling our “strange new world.” But we didn’t know the shape of things to come; in those earliest, panicked weeks, we were still disinfecting our mail and groceries, and there was real fear that our economy could shutter indefinitely. Instead, as New York emerged from those early crisis months, we’ve begun to discover what “normal” might look like; outdoor dining, social distancing marks on the ground, and masks, masks, masks. We have stepped out, to some extent, from the cone of uncertainty.
What that means is we now have a good idea of what “long-term” can look like in New York, and the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks quite a bit like Hong Kong, where the SARS outbreaks eighteen years ago led to the growth of a culture of public health caution that’s allowed them to weather this disease with remarkable aplomb. New York City, long term, is a city with less public crowding, masks in place universally today and at the slightest sniffles tomorrow, disinfection notices at businesses large and small, reduced on-site staffing, and the ever-looming threat of another lockdown (reinforced, perhaps, by their periodic imposition as needed) to keep us on track.
Our offices, where open, will continue to operate at reduced capacity. Shared workstations will all but disappear. We’ll continue to work from home at least half-time where needed, and the in-person meeting is a thing of the past, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s not hard. It’s not particularly complicated. It just requires vigilance, maintenance, and unrelenting commitment to each other to spare ourselves the worst. No, what’s complicated isn’t staying safe; it’s staying productive. But after more than four months, we’re getting there too.
This new normal requires planning of a sort rarely encountered in an office environment. Staggering work shifts so that the people who need face-to-face contact are getting it without unduly exposing themselves to infection requires deep understanding of your actual office workflows, and more frequent cleanings not only of shared spaces like restrooms and breakrooms but even of individual desks demands strong safety protocols. But it goes deeper than that.
How does your office move? What are the high-traffic throughways? Where can you implement “one-way streets?” What spaces, like obsolete meeting rooms, can be repurposed for social distancing requirements?
The beauty here is that reducing office space dramatically lowers overhead, and the biggest lesson New York has learned is that, even with offices reopened, few office-workers have returned. That gives companies space to plan: to find new office space, or to remodel and reconfigure the one you already have, based on the knowledge of what you can and cannot do remotely.
Even that is a question with an evolving answer, as new technologies rush to fill the gaps created by a mobile and widely-dispersed team. I keep thinking of productivity structures built around efficiency and time management as well as project management procedures, like Agile methodologies, developed for on-site collaboration, and how they might adapt to a work environment that isn’t tethered to an eight-hour day in companies operating almost entirely off-site. The remote collaboration technologies we do have, like Google’s suite of productivity software, have already stepped in; those will only get better. After all, those engineers are working from home too.
Critically, what’s becoming necessary is the growth of a new idea of what professionalism actually looks like when you don’t have to get out of your pajamas and sit at a desk all day, especially if schools and childcare remain largely closed; it’s something excitingly more human. This is an area where companies are already struggling; remote work, back in March, was assumed to be a short-term experiment, but it’s going to be here for some time to come, and new professional norms are already evolving. There’s a growing recognition that you can’t impose regular work structures on remote teams or keep them tethered to their computers 24/7.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about dress and video etiquette, but we also need to start building new digital etiquette around communication; emails may come in at all hours, but responses may not always be immediate; deadlines should be made clear, while still allowing work to happen when it happens; more person-to-person coordination rather than top-down scheduling; more “mental health days” allowed for an isolated team; predetermined “contact hours” when the whole team is expected to be immediately available; proactive and more regular communication between and across teams to foster togetherness; encouraging meaningful remote face-to-face collaboration over Zoom; and the recognition that interruptions are inevitable, as long as they don’t keep you from accomplishing your goals.
In New York, we’re making “the new normal” actually normal. There are people on the streets, if less than before, and our trains are running, if at reduced capacity. Supermarkets have sneeze guards in place, our masks are on, and we’re getting our work done, carrying on with life in the liminal space of the pandemic that we’re all slowly learning how to inhabit for the foreseeable future. The business of New York remains business, conducted intelligently and—first and foremost—with care for the lives not only of our workers but of all our fellow New Yorkers. The model we’re building here—one focused on a commitment to protecting one another—day in and day out, is one the country as a whole could stand to learn from. We’ve been to hell and back, and learned from that experience. Let’s not mess it up.
Instead, let’s keep learning and growing, the whole country, together. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.