Posted in Professional Development

Coronavirus May be Kicking Open the Door to a Scary New World

“Timing is everything” is a universal business principle. It’s probably a life principle more than a professional one. Timing is often the difference between success and failure. It is just as frequently the difference between marginal approval and mass cultural integration. Timing can change civilization.

The entertainment industry suffers and benefits from this. Movies and television programs are sometimes viewed as being “ahead of their time.” This analysis can be a curse during launch but may become a prophetic compliment if the show survives season one. The cancelation of 1960s iconic TV show Star Trek, came – in part – because some of the show’s key studio executives just didn’t get it. Its time slot was moved endlessly, dropping in and out of primetime hours for no apparent ‘business’ reason other than to appease more high-profile shows and celebrities.

Despite it all, the IP endured beyond cancelation. Star Trek became one of the largest entertainment franchises in the world. New spin-offs are still announced 50 years later. Had the creator, Gene Roddenberry, tried to put Star Trek on a network five years earlier or five years later, there is serious doubt to its acceptance and longevity. The mid-1960s were ripe with human-rights movements. The public was also captivated by outer space. These two ingredients made up the foundation of Roddenberry’s history of the future. Releasing the first episode in 1966 meant the show was still an optimist’s dream. The audience enjoyed the positive and speculative nature of human relations and technology in the centuries to come.

By the time the show ended just three years later, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, the Soviet/U.S. space race was running at full warp, and a whole new generation of ‘modern’ warfare blanketed the evening news. It’s hard not see 1966 as the perfect time to launch an optimistic show about the far future.

Nokia PhoneFast forward to 2020. There are no starships in sight, but everyone is walking around with their own personal communicator. The world is arguably smaller than ever before because of it. Not only can we talk with anyone, anywhere, at anytime, but these smartphones are portals to the sum of human knowledge. Perhaps more shockingly (to a time traveller from the 1960s at least) our general populace is nearly immune – or at least stunningly apathetic – to the horrors of war. Thanks to cable television, we now see the action live 24/7. My children have never known a time of peace in the U.S. but I don’t think the reality of this hits home to them.

Let’s interject a worldwide pandemic into the middle of that.

Every other tech related article these days suggests the importance of disconnecting. Get your kids away from the iPads and lock up everyone’s phones during dinner. Your mental health is at stake! First and foremost, I agree wholeheartedly with  this. It’s difficult to understate the importance of being screen and social media free for as many hours a day as possible. And it’s not just a fad, cities and states are passing laws to make sure that employees can be offline without reprimand.

Enter COVID-19. We now have bonafide medical and legal reasons to be antisocial.  Will we shrink back out of the world to protect our health? Will we (can we) abandon our technology as recommended? Or will we cling to it with a white-knuckled grasp?

At first it seems like a Joey Lawrence “whoa” moment, but it might wind up being more of a ‘meh’ emoji. There is a real possibility of a social awakening here.  We may survive just fine thanks to our limitless connectivity. Over a century, we slowly built an ecosystem of technological demand. We rely on it in more critical ways than simple smartphone addiction. There are survival skills most humans, Americans certainly, don’t have anymore. Some of these things are as basic as gathering, growing, and preparing food.

This technological civilization we’ve developed is based around immediate reward, satisfaction, and convenience. Those things now define our first world way of life. And we’ve done it very well. Social separation may not turn out to be the disaster that tech disconnection is, even over long – maybe indefinite – terms. The thought of the technological infrastructure failing and returning us to a pioneer lifestyles is scary, but what if the quarantine proves the opposite? What if our technology is stable enough to support our civilization without leaving the house?

Over the past two decades, many organizations have opened-up to the idea of the telecommute. But that openness has translated to a slow adoption rate. What type of thing could force slow and resistant organizations to immediately adopt a remote work model? Hmm, how about a government established quarantine? What if at the end of this, there’s no going back simply because we really don’t need to?

If between 75% and 100% of company staff suddenly starts staying home and the work still gets done and the bills still get paid, the accounts payable department could begin reporting that the organization’s electric, heating, cooling, materials, infrastructure, cleaning, travel, and cafeteria bills have become a nominal expense. Real world fiscal analysis might be the boot-in-the-ass a first world corporate culture has been waiting for to adopt a new era of remote work expectations.

The idea affects every working, not just pencil pushers. IT and other technical fields will need to evolve to increase security and stability of VPNs, cloud storage, and web apps. Engineers and construction jobs will implement new procedures to limit social tasks. Heavy construction equipment may come under remote control with the operators safely hidden behind a technology curtain. AI, with all its current flaws and inconsistency, will hit unscheduled professional primetime. Architects and designers may abandon plans for skyscraper office complexes in favor of isolation apartment buildings and super-efficient suburban homes.

Other industries could boom into billion-dollar forces. Services like DoorDash could become a standard of life. Groceries stores that refuse to offer home delivery may not survive. Struggling entities like the U.S. Post Office, FedEx, and UPS would be revitalized as same-day delivery becomes a requirement. New markets would come into existence and begin mass distribution without their inventors or investors leaving the house. Crowdfunding has already proven the model can be successful and sustainable. Sure, someone somewhere is going to have to leave the house. At least until the next phase of this new world solidifies; flawless AI driven robotics.

Did talk like this stop being science fiction when the pandemic started? Nope. It’s been a quiet reality for decades. A global illness has given tech and modern business practices a new stage. We are discovering what we already had. It was invisible, and would have remained that way, without a force to drive us behind closed doors and look around at what is there; a fully functional and connected workspace. Flawed, certainly, but functional and ready to be tweaked into standard practice.

Remember, timing is everything and the timing here is perfect. We have a love affair with our technology but still often see it as a luxury we could live without. In that fashion it really is more like an addictive drug. Yeah, I can quit anytime I want, just not in the middle of this pandemic, m’kay?

But this new global health event could illuminate a deeper truth – not only can we not live without our technology but we’ve crossed an invisible line where we are already living comfortably with it in an irreversible way. Once the shelter at home orders are lifted and self-quarantines are removed, the outside world may feel a lot different.

Beyond COVID-19 may even be a new new world. Depending on the following years and how we either push-back or embrace technology further. Our phones may become true life support devices. The outside world is where all the food and clothing and toilet paper comes from.  What if we don’t have to be anywhere near the outside world to reap its benefits? What if we have already surpassed the point where pushing-the-flesh social interaction to survive is genuinely not needed by the majority of first-world citizens? How much of daily life will that change for the following decade?

Again, I’m not suggesting that this is something happening because of COVID-19, I’m suggesting that this situation already exists and we’ve been living it for years, not realizing as a social unit that a lot of interactions could just stop and nothing would really change. Ten years ago, I don’t believe the technology was quite there. Ten years from now, who knows where the global focus of our research and development will be. Right now not only is the technology capable (or capable enough) but people are all still hopeful about the future of humanity and our technological progress over the next few decades. Millenials are completely comfortable with technology in a way even Generation Xers can’t comprehend. They trust it, but they are not controlled by it. They have no ‘digital fear’.

There are some very scary issues here to consider. We haven’t advanced our civil rights far enough. Equal opportunity is not a guarantee. That means that not everyone who should be working from home will be. There will still be a lot of jobs in the “dirty world” like manufacturing and transportation. But this might also be a push for those industry to invest in automated vehicles and advanced robotics meaning less jobs to go around there, too. Markets like fast-food operate largely on social appearances. McDonald’s will start their own in-house delivery service at every location, but I find it hard to believe that the billions-and-billions served catchphrase of the franchise will pan out in a new unsocial world.

The cooks and drivers though will still show up at the griddles and steering wheels each day. Managers and C-levels however, will sit at home attending virtual conferences, not wearing pants below their cameras (that’s how I do it). All things here are not equal.

At the end of the pandemic, many of us simply won’t want to go back to our cubicles because of the genuine realization that it’s a waste of time. What are the scenarios where we would be forced to reassume our desk jockey roles and re-energize our handshaking corporate culture at a large expense to our businesses? Human interaction is certainly important to individual humans, but progress may not care either way. Watch Death of a Salesman to find out if human interaction on a professional level is important. You’ll discover though, that progress doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the salesman.

One factor of business remains true: the almighty dollar speaks loudly. This pandemic will damage the global economy in unprecedented ways while it’s spreading across continents. It might also educate us on the huge cost savings of remote work for a post-COVID-19 America. A cold thing to point out when people are dying, I know, but I find it hard to believe that our business leaders aren’t watching this exact thing closely and their decision will impact the world, for everyone, forever.

With a few tweaks to our current systems, we could adopt a whole new professional paradigm which intermingles with our home and personal lives in new and scary ways. But those system stem from ones we’re already conditioned to accept as standard. If the dollar signs are there, a quiet revolution of abandoning old institutions is a near certainty. Definitely worth a “whoa”.