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When We All Go Back to Normal, It Won’t Be Normal Anymore

Gunnar Jaerv
Gunnar Jaerv 13 May 2021

A return to normality was the dominant theme of the first year of the Coronavirus pandemic. Announcements by politicians, columns by pundits and conversations between friends and colleagues made constant reference to it.

We made plans for what we’d do when all this is over. Political leaders focused on minimizing disruption and preserving “business as usual” as much as possible. Business leaders initially viewed the pandemic as a blip. And we all spent most of a year treating the Coronavirus pandemic as an interlude; special circumstances, soon to be replaced by normality.

In the meantime, we’ve developed vaccines at record speed and learned that the Coronavirus has mutated, including into some variants that seem to be resistant to the vaccine as well as even more highly contagious. And we’ve watched the economy do what economies always do: reflect what people really are willing to pay for, regardless of what they’re told and what they tell each other.

We aren’t going to go back to normal. We’re going to a world transfigured by the Coronavirus and the social, political and economic responses to it.

What’s that going to look like?

Work from home, or stay home and don’t work

Across the developed world, every nation has gone through lock down — some have done it differently to others but all have done it. Streets are empty, windows shuttered and doors closed. This has created two groups of workers: those who can work from home and those who cannot work at all.

The work-from-home group includes knowledge and information workers. If you did your job without being in the same physical location as your clients, or your job involves moving data, information or ideas rather than objects, you probably spent the pandemic learning to do it from home. But if your job is physical or service-oriented, you probably spent the pandemic reliant on furlough schemes, stimulus checks, and other forms of income that don’t come from what we conventionally regard as earnings.

This picture is blurred slightly by the different circumstances in different developed nations; America, with its spotty lockdowns and minimal state support for workers, had more service-level staff working through the pandemic than the UK, for instance.

Digital transformation accelerated

However, a massive increase in working from home among people who used to work in the office has transfigured the experience of work across the developed world. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, we’ve seen “two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”. And that was at the beginning of the pandemic!

In Germany, one in four people now work from home. But in America, only one in four people can work from home. That figure might change as jobs change and existing job roles alter; an Upwork survey in 2020 predicted that 22% of Americans would be working remotely by 2025, which would represent an 87% leap from pre-pandemic levels — and found that 61% of hiring managers were planning more remote work; over half the workers surveyed said they would work from home if their job permitted.

But those figures were based on research from the early days of the Coronavirus, when people were still talking confidently about going back to normal afterwards. Another survey by the same company, this time in 2021, found that one in four Americans were working from home already.

Many intend to continue working from home after the pandemic is over; to that extent, our “new normal” will be voluntary, and partly defined by the choices made by people with sufficient workplace clout to rearrange the terms of their employment. In one survey, 30% of professionals said they would quit their job if they were instructed to return to the office. In another, 47% of company leaders intended to allow their employees to work remotely full time and 82% intended to permit remote working some of the time.

That will have wide-reaching implications. Working from home or partly from home as the new normal will change the shapes of our cities and countries. In the US, there’s already a move by businesses and governments to encourage skilled remote workers to move to less densely-populated, more affordable areas.

When you work from home, move

Cheaper home prices outside downtown have always created a tension between being able to earn money in the city and being able to afford to live there; remote working reconfigures that tension fundamentally.

Ask Twilio software engineer Eric Anderle and his wife Rachel. In 2016, frustrated with Bay Area prices, the couple moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where mortgage payments on a 3,000-square-foot home were the same as rental on a 600-square-foot apartment in LA.

We’re going to see a lot more of that. Some tech companies are moving to Texas and other states, and some states are offering golden handshakes of thousands of dollars for individuals — not just businesses — to move there and bring their earning potential with them.

This is happening in the USA, where the size of the country and the long history of the tech industry make it more visible. But it’s happening elsewhere too. Look at the distributed business model used by software development companies across the EU: Registered in one country, developers mostly based in another, business development in another, and the C suite recruited from a global pool. That’s going to get much more common, and in many more locations, as work from home becomes an integral part of the new normal.

As it does, the whole face of our societies will change. A normal day and a normal life will assume a different shape.

The end of the commute — and the stores it sustained

Most of those who are able to work from home used to commute to the cities. They’re people who used to buy food, coffee, newspapers, clothes, stationery, and a thousand other things en route to or from work. And without them, cities are suffering. Governments are attempting to prop up these ailing industries, but such efforts are usually doomed to fail; even the state cannot swim upstream against the direction of a profoundly changing economy.

When service economies have no streams of office workers to serve, what will happen?

We’re seeing the preshocks of this transition in the USA too. This was the nation that led the way in the changeover from a heavy industry economy to one focused on white goods and service industries; now, those very service industries are struggling.

We’re used to hearing that America has an underemployment problem. The rust belt and ex-industrial areas are filled with people competing for the same small number of Walmart-and-fast-food jobs. But not anymore. Now, Taco Bell is holding spot interviews in the parking lots of 2,000 of its locations, and McDonalds is offering to pay anyone $50 just to attend a job interview. Even then, it expects to have to leave many of its locations shuttered even after the rules are relaxed and it’s technically permitted to resume “normal” operations.

So where are all the workers, and why does the “new normal” no longer seem to include a fast-food economy, at least in the USA?

The future of jobs is freelance?

Maybe it doesn’t; the reasons for the labor shortage are complex and some may be short-term.

Credit Suisse analyst Lauren Silberman told Insider that “I think there’s a fear element”, citing the potentially risky nature of frontline work during the pandemic; however, other factors Ms Silberman cited included an increased number of options that include rising retail wages and gig economy jobs offering higher incomes and more flexibility.

That speaks to the core issue of the post-pandemic transformation: gig work, like remote work, has long been expected to become the norm. By 2028, statistics agency Statista forecast before the pandemic, 50% of Americans would be freelancers; but during the Pandemic, one in three American workers already freelanced.

Conclusion: we’re going forward to normal

What’s happened in both cases is that the pandemic has accelerated the changes that were already taking place. The “new normal” is likely to be split, remote or gig work, including some element of freelancing, for many people. The appeal of living in suburbs around large cities will wane and the demand for housing across large areas will begin to even out as workers move wherever they like. Demand for assets and currencies that can be used for simple, rapid cross-border transactions will also rise.

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