By Michael R. Strain / Bloomberg Opinion
As the covid-19 pandemic recedes across much of the U.S., the difference between the lasting and temporary changes that it wrought are starting to emerge. Hype and wishful thinking have contributed to predictions that are likely to prove wrong; just because a change was striking or desirable doesn’t mean it will stick.
One way to think about the changes is to analyze the balance of power between competing interests; employers and employees, buyers and sellers, doctors and patients, among many others. Another is to ask which changes were already underway before the pandemic and see whether those are likely to accelerate or stall.
The pre-pandemic world operated as it did for specific reasons; and those reasons will reassert themselves as life continues to normalize.
Take remote work. It may be a great arrangement for many workers, giving them more control over their time and allowing them to avoid commuting. It may be great for many employers, letting them save on costly real estate while maintaining a productive workforce.
But I am skeptical that it is the way of the future. One reason why: Workers compete with each other, and those looking to get ahead will put in more face time at the office, knowing that deeper professional relationships can lead to better opportunities and advancement. This will create pressure for other workers to do the same. This was true before the pandemic, and will be true after it is a memory. In part because of this, even if employers continue to offer more generous work-from-anywhere policies, they will probably find before too long that most employees are in the office most days.
The same competitive dynamic could keep business travel at close to pre-pandemic levels. Maybe fewer people will fly from New York to Los Angeles for a meeting. But for many occupations, getting on a plane and traveling to meet a supplier, a customer or a potential colleague is a way to communicate the importance of that interaction.
The pandemic suspended this dynamic, but it didn’t eliminate it forever. As the virus fades, it will reassert itself. I live and work in Washington, D.C. It will be harder to get me to California than it used to be, but I suspect I’ll be in New York, Boston and Chicago just as often.
Other aspects of pandemic life accelerated pre-existing trends. In some instances, I don’t think we’ll see a reversal, despite forces that will be pushing for a return to the way things were.
Telemedicine is an example. For years, it has become steadily easier to receive routine medical care through innovations like medical clinics inside retail stores staffed by nurses authorized to write prescriptions.
The pandemic hit the gas pedal on ease. I had a sinus infection last fall. Within one hour, I had booked an appointment, completed a video conference with a provider on my phone, and picked up my prescription at a local pharmacy.
Some doctors may be concerned about inadequate patient interaction and too many non-physicians with prescription pads, but the convenience offered to patients and the productivity boost enjoyed by the health-care sector means that this change is here to stay.
Or consider e-commerce, which has been steadily growing as a share of total retail sales for the past two decades. Online shopping surged during the pandemic, fell back a bit last summer, but remains above its pre-virus trend.
Now that it’s safe to shop in brick-and-mortar stores, traditional retailers will try to lure customers back. They will succeed to some extent, but many consumers who were wary of shopping online before the pandemic will have enjoyed the experience.
In some ways, it’s a learned skill. Take clothes shopping. Instead of trying on pants and shirts in a store and buying the ones you like, you need to buy a closet full of clothes online, try them on at home, and return the items you don’t want to keep. That may seem odd at first, but once you’ve learned how to do it — as many were forced to during the lockdowns — the convenience of e-commerce becomes more attractive.
I would place outdoor dining in the category of big changes that will stick. Many restaurants learned to serve meals outdoors, and invested in tents and other equipment that made outdoor dining pleasant. Without the pandemic, this probably wouldn’t have happened.
Going to work when sick is another habit the pandemic is likely to break. I know I’ll think twice before going into the office with a mild fever or taking a flight with a cough. Despite having routinely gone to work under the weather, the pandemic has made me more aware of the risks of spreading disease. I’ve also taught myself how to be productive from home.
“Will the pandemic change the way we live and work?”
“Will life return to normal?”
These big questions are, well, too big. To figure out what will stick and what won’t, look at the deeper forces that led things to be the way they were prior to the virus. Will those forces remain? Strengthen? Weaken? They shaped life before, and will shape life after -; but with a pandemic twist we can now start to understand.
Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It).”