Our Pre-COVID Lives – The Breakup We Didn’t See Coming

September 10, 2020

COVID Breakup

It’s not often that that an entire generation lives through a time it will talk to its grandchildren about. But we are definitively in one of those times. There will be a Before COVID and an After COVID. Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the After COVID state is just how unpredictable it is. How DOES a society respond when you lock it down for several months? How does it respond if you attempt to do it twice in a row (as we may have to do if COVID-19 comes roaring back in the Fall)? Will we ever shake hands again? Will the same number of us get on planes, gather in restaurants, go to stadiums to see sports teams? Will blowing our money at the Blackjack tables in Vegas seem quite so appealing? So much of what we do in life is in many ways because we have always done it. What happens when we don’t do it any more, for a period longer than the time psychologists say it takes to break a habit?

How will people behave?

If we want to understand how people respond to change, we normally look to behavioral science — but the behavioral scientists have a bit of a problem with COVID-19. After all, behavioral science is based on controlled observation and uses information about the past and the present to generalize human behavior in relation to society. But if the underlying environment you are observing has fundamentally shifted, you don’t really have precedent and your predictions can be startlingly off.

No, we are not in a world where we can reliably predict human behavior. We are in a crisis, and in a crisis, humans may just be too human to model effectively. In a sense, what we, our organizations and society are collectively going through is like a rough breakup from a relationship, where the partner we are breaking up with is our old lives, before COVID-19. Just as with breakups, we start with being in shock and swearing things will never be the same again. Then we shift to a phase of great perceived enlightenment and wisdom, often combined with a set of decisions we feel are genius in the moment but look very stupid down the line. We lurch around for a while and then, finally, we settle into our new normal, which often IS different, but doesn’t really feel that way, precisely because it is now normal.

If we go through a breakup, our most valuable friends will advise us to take it easy, try not to make any sudden decisions, give ourselves some time. As a society, whenever possible, we should probably try and follow the same advice. Reflecting now on a post COVID world is of course important, but just in like our post-breakup periods, it is wise to acknowledge that our judgment not only could be impaired by our situation right now, it most likely IS impaired by our situation. At an individual level we need to continue to reflect as services start to come back, and see what role we want to play in our families, jobs and society. Some of us will be forced into those decisions, but all of us have the opportunity to reevaluate and we should take that opportunity. Now is as good a time as ever to determine what the new normal means to us individually.

Of course post a breakup, others will provide us with less sage advice, perhaps advising us to pattern our lives after their clearly superior ones. This platform and the Internet more broadly has no shortage of this type of advice during COVID-19. One common refrain is that working from home is now The Greatest Thing Ever Invented! — Leading to miraculous improvements in productivity and deeper meaning in our lives! Read some of the WFH zealots on LinkedIn and you would be forgiven for believing that if it is not your cup of tea then clearly the problem is with you. Apparently all that is needed is for your home office to get a bit of the Feng Shui treatment, or you could just do with a personal motivation seminar. No, as someone who DOES work from home and likes it, I can confidently state that I’m in a largely self-selecting group that just isn’t that into face to face interaction with other human beings. Oh, and I have days when I’m hugely productive and days when I’m a disaster, just like you.

It’s Personal

The conclusions we draw and the decisions we make as individuals in the coming weeks and months should be deeply personal. The sales road warrior who is seeing more of his family right now may choose to launch himself back into his old work twice as enthusiastically, or he may never set foot in his car again. The information worker that travels 30 miles to her office every day will similarly draw her own conclusions. We will make dozens of decisions every day that determine how we interact with our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our local businesses. Where we end up collectively will be likely very different, but we are fooling ourselves if we think we know exactly how.

Of course the organizations we work in and our political leaders will be making their own decisions during these times. It is worrying to consider that they really have no more reliable information than the rest of us about how society will behave in the future, and are probably just as stressed we are while they try to determine the right course of action. The new society emerging today is a patchwork of personal experiences from people that have been impacted in radically different ways. Some of us are dealing with our own illness or handling personal tragedy, others are trying to cope with with economic strife that they could not have predicted even two months ago. Some will are working harder than ever and have never been more relevant in our workplace, others go to work terrified that they are about to be fired in the midst of a COVID-fueled depression. Some are connecting with their families in ways they never imagined, and others are just bored and lonely, just waiting for it all to be over.

So, everything is different today, and tomorrow everything will be different again. Beyond that no one really knows what will happen. Leaders and organizations that thrive will either be extraordinarily lucky, or more likely will be extraordinarily flexible. The post-COVID organization needs to be built with flexibility at its core, with systems, and work structured to adapt rapidly to whatever life brings us. And as a people, we need to learn enough about ourselves to find our own place in those organizations — a place that feels as good, perhaps better than the one we had before. Before the breakup with our old, pre-COVID-19 lives.