There are so many hackneyed phrases used to try and describe the time we are currently living though. Unprecedented. Troubled. Whatever your adjective of choice, there is no doubt that the world today is suddenly and radically different to the way things were even a month or two ago. We have switched to new ways of living and working very suddenly and, I would argue, quite well really. The resilience and adaptability of the human spirit is an amazing thing. However, among all of this, I have found myself wondering what the new normal will look like once the COVID-19 pandemic has finally died down.
It’s been amazing to see how rapidly we’ve all been able to use modern remote working tools to connect when we cannot actually be together. All of our work meetings have switched to Teams or Skype and we’ve even resorted to that quaint old technology – the phone call. Outside of the 9-5 our church, like many others is streaming Sunday services online and we’re meeting weekly to pray together using Zoom.
In the context of that 9-5 work, we’ve made the assumption for years that remote working is OK now and again, to afford a little flexibility around the demands of life for instance, but that really we all NEED to be together in the same building to work effectively. However, recent personal experience and client feedback are suggesting that we were wrong. Projects are carrying on just as effectively and, with the exception of site-based work at the moment, the quality and quantity of output has not suffered. This begs the question, what is the point of the large and costly offices that many companies maintain on our city centres and beyond?
Personally, I do miss some time in the office but mainly for the social aspect and the ad hoc meetings that happen when bumping into a colleague I haven’t seen for a while. It’s amazing how often these encounters lead to something productive and so a mechanism for that to happen is important. However, that really doesn’t necessitate being in the same office for five days as week. Perhaps an increase in remote working with regular, structured group meetings would be a better normal than the one we have left behind us? Some companies work very successfully in that way. Doist for instance has a team which is completely distributed around the world and meets up for a fortnight, one per year for a social, strategy and planning get-together. I’ve always been intrigued by their model and, having had a chance to try it out just now, I can see the merits.
Larger companies like the one I work for will always need somewhere nice to bring clients. For a people business, it is our shop-window and an important part of our brand. However, maybe our offices will become used as client and team meeting spaces first rather than desk space first a meeting space second? Even before the recent lockdown it was never hard to find a desk to use, but often impossible to book a meeting room at short notice! Perhaps we’ll use this chance to rethink our approach to offices and shift our focus a little?
Church feels different somehow in that I really do miss a regular Sunday gathering with friends. Prayer, worship and ministry seem to need that physical human connection in a way that a lot else in life is managing without. Most of us can’t wait to get back to church regularly in a way that can’t be echoed about our office-working lives! However, that said, our Sunday evening prayer meeting is far better attended on Zoom than it ever was when held in person. Perhaps we’ll maintain a virtual option for some of our meetings, even when we can meet together once again? Our “workspace” at church is very, very flexible being used as it is by the local community far more through the week than just for a single meeting every Sunday. We have flexible spaces and set them up quickly in the way that each group needs at the time. Maybe we’re already modelling the way that offices ought to be thought about and used? Who knew that the church was so far ahead of the curve!
Overnight we’ve been pushed into a situation where social gatherings are discouraged, or forbidden altogether. Even after a few weeks of social distancing, the sight of a small group of people standing close together looks uncomfortable and wrong somehow. When this period of lockdown is released in a gradual way, how will we then react? Will people suddenly be happy to meet in large, packed crowds? Will we feel comfortable with the thought of attending a sporting event or busy pub? COVID-19 won’t have gone away and both treatments and vaccines are a long way off yet. It won’t really be any safer to gather in crowds for a long while and so the aversion to doing so is really going to sink into the collective psyche.
I listened to an episode of the First Contact podcast yesterday, recorded when China was locked down but we in the West were not yet. The man being interviewed talked about how quickly and easily things like music concerts and clubs had gone online. To those of us from older generations who grew up pre-internet, this is all new, slightly weird and interesting. However to younger people today, especially in very connected societies like China and Japan, living increasingly larger portions of life completely online is becoming more and more common. My own teenage son, even before lockdown, had the capacity to spend hours on the internet gaming with his friends. Of all five of us in our household, he’s probably noticing the smallest dent in his social life! But it does raise the question, will that behaviour become the new normal? As the gregarious beings that humans generally are, what will all this mean for the future of social interaction and our attendant emotional health and wellbeing?
In the small village we live in, before COVID-19, I knew perhaps five or six other households really well. Since we’ve been in lockdown, a number of us have reached out more widely to set up a village-wide What’sApp group (50 members and counting). It began (at least in my mind) as a means by which anyone completely isolated through illness could reach out for some help. It still serves that purpose, but is used far more a mini social network for the village. There’s a lot being shared on there from jokes and quizzes to information about which shops have which goods in stock. Through being forced into social isolation, using online media we have a a sense of community that didn’t exist previously. Looking at the news, that seems to be the case in other villages, towns and cities around the world too. I’m looking forward to the eventual parties that will happen when we really can sensibly meet together and, while I won’t be sorry to see the back of COVID-19, I do hope that the sense of community we’re developing now continues beyond it.
With all social events, clubs and so on cancelled, we all now have more time on our hands than we did a month ago. Even for those of us who have been fortunate enough not to lose our jobs, evenings and weekends are affording us time to do more of what we want and less of what we had to do. Sure, like many I’ve done my share of binge-watching TV (revisiting the whole series of “Lost”, if you’re interested) but I’ve also taken some time to read, to write, to pray and simply to think: tasks which were always squeezed into the margins of life before.
In my deepest moments of existential crisis, I am wondering whether the career I’ve given almost 25 years to is really what I want to be doing with my life. Slightly less far-reaching are the thoughts about which aspects of life before lockdown do I not want to rush back to? I actually like being at home more and travelling less. The furthest I have driven in a month is to Aldi, four miles away and I’m very happy with that. I don’t miss the early starts, late finishes, packed trains and three hours lost each day to commuting, all in the name of ensuring a “proper” amount of time in the office.
I’m sitting here on a Bank Holiday Monday, a day when I would usually feel restless until we’d decided to go out and DO something productive. Well I can’t do that at all today and it’s quite a blessing, at least to me personally. So many of the things that I HAD to do are now off limits and so I wonder which of them could go by the wayside permanently? The chance to take stock and think about the really important things in life has been for me one of the greatest blessings of this enforced period of change. That’s not to say I like this situation, I don’t and for the large part it sucks, but it does confirm what I wrote about the importance of gratitude and it being possible to find joy in even the most inconvenient of circumstances.
So how about you? How are you coping with the COVID-19 situation? How are you thinking about your life before and what will you change as a result?