Interruption or Disruption? What Worldview Shifts Will Outlast Post Covid-19 Recovery?

In the past several weeks we have been inundated with opinion pieces describing dramatic changes or disruptions in how we will work and live in the coming years. Certainly, all economic sectors are currently experiencing serious interruptions to how they have done business in the past – restaurants, airlines, education, retail, commercial real estate, consultants, places of worship, tourism and so on.

Many writers have looked at the next year and then projected changes five years out. I am a bit skeptical of the ability to predict five years out at the moment with any certainty. I also recognize that there will be both small and major changes in most every sector in the coming years and decade.

I am reminded of the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld quote: “We don’t know what we don’t know.” I would offer that for the next one to four years we will mainly be in interruption mode with a few exceptions.

This will be dictated by several conditions and the answers to key questions that will help determine what shifts are interruptions and what are disruptions. I see an interruption as a temporary shift (1-4 years) in how we work, live, and socialize. At the end of the interrupted experience patterns of behaviour and interaction will generally return to some form of what we have considered normal, albeit there could be minor changes.

A disruption is a permanent change in how we have worked, lived our personal lives or socialized. These will be worldview shifts and will last beyond the next 4-5 years.  Wearing a mask now and social distancing are currently interruptions in our lives. If we are wearing masks five years from now when we go out, we will have experienced a disruption – a worldview shift in the way we view and experience human contact and relationships.

Questions that may influence whether changed behaviour is an interruption or disruption concern the nature of the virus and our responses to it. When will we have an effective vaccine that can be distributed globally? When will we have some form of treatment regimen if infected? Given the extremely contagious nature of this virus, will we need to eradicate it like we have done with polio and tried with measles in order to feel safe? Or, will we reach some coexistence like with H1NI or H3N2 and accept a certain number of deaths each year?

When we know the answers to these questions, then we can answer the bigger ones: when will the public feel safe to be in relatively close proximity with large numbers of others regularly and what will that look like in practice? Until we have good answers to these questions, it will be difficult to predict what changes will stick.

An indicator of where we stand socially might be when people are ready to go back to large public events like sports or concerts. Until we know what people’s behavior will be once there is a vaccine – perhaps a more settled new normal – it seems to me most everything is an interruption. Adjustments are being made everywhere for these interruptions. The question is what will become longer-term disruptions or worldview shifts and what might be more like before with modifications that are not worldview shifts.

Regarding disruptions, considering that it may be a few years before some changes are clearly discernable in various sectors, there are some factors emerging that seem to indicate a disruption or worldview shift. One factor is that there are underlying conditions that support a significant worldview shift. Here are a few examples:

  • Office space requirements may change due to the shift in increased working at home. While some people are predicting there will be a major change by companies to all or almost all office employees working from home, I think the final verdict is still out. Clearly, this change will happen, but to what extent? The underlying condition that makes this shift more likely is that younger employees (under 35) are, technologically and practice-wise, ready for this. It has been older managers who have been reluctant. Now as those managers see their employees being productive working from home, this worldview shift to working remotely instead of needing to be in the office all the time to be productive is likely.
  • Restaurants are expecting several years of social distancing, limited table space and employees wearing masks and gloves. Many are now looking to online orders as a way to survive over the long-term. The underlying condition here is that this was already happening for low-to-moderate priced restaurants with the birth of delivery services like GrubHub and Skip the Dishes. So, this worldview shift to a hybrid in-house and online ordering is likely to grow and include more higher-end restaurants.
  • There are many who predict higher-education will shift to all or almost all online learning. Surveys, however, show 65% of college students want time in the classroom and not all programs (think theater or medicine) work well solely online. So, while there are underlying conditions that might indicate a shift to extensive online learning, the desire to be in the classroom and to have a campus experience may be a balance to this and a more modest shift in education systems will happen.

A second factor is cost savings. Can the business or organization save money or improve operational efficiencies with a disruptive change? For example, it is becoming clear that increased working from home by employees can result in cost savings in areas such as office space rent and travel and meeting costs. There remains some costs not yet factored in, like equipment purchase (computers, printers, screens, etc.) for in-home use, various office supplies, high-speed internet access, or other operational costs. The mental health and physical well-being of employees must be considered as a cost factor as human beings are basically social beings and there are health and well-being benefits from in-person proximity. There is still some analytical work to be done here. Additionally, there is a question of the impact on creativity and innovation when people are not physically in the same space. This can be done virtually to some degree, but what is lost in the synergy of being in the same space?

A third factor is generational views. I think another indicator of whether a true shift is taking place is the generational aspect. As mentioned above, in the case of working from home, there is a whole generation of employees ready to do so. The conditions are ripe for this shift and it likely may have happened anyway. It is just happening faster than expected.

There are likely other disruption indicators that will emerge in the coming months. A look at the underlying readiness conditions for a shift could be helpful and a factor in forecasting.

Finally, I will put my economist hat on for a moment and consider supply/demand or seller/buyer factors. In particular, what are the expectations that the buyer will hold for the seller? As noted above, college students polled say they want to return to the classroom. While right now it may look like online learning is the predominant direction college education will go, is that what the buyer (student) will want or expects of the seller? Or is this a quick reaction by sellers (college administrators) to extend the current situation (as a cost saving factor)? Do we have an interruption or a disruption?

Now, it could be that the next generation of learners will expect classes to be online, but that is 10-15 years away, which also indicates a disruption post the interruption phase. I think seller/buyer expectations analysis, including generational analysis, could be helpful here.

So, here we are, not knowing what we don’t know. We can begin to identify potential disruptions and start making preliminary responses to them. But caution may also be the byword as we sort out the difference between an interruption and a disruption.