Opinion: The coronavirus outbreak could have some beneficial long-term effects

I should start by making it absolutely clear that I am of course not suggesting in this piece that the coronavirus outbreak was a good thing. It was a terrible thing. Many have died, many more have suffered extremely unpleasant illnesses, many have lost loved ones. If I could wave a magic wand and erase it from history, I’d do that in a heartbeat.

Nor am I suggesting that there is any equivalence between the terrible harm done and the possible good that may emerge. Nothing can come anywhere close to the pain of losing a loved one; any positive effects pale in comparison.

But with that made clear, we may see some silver linings …

A new appreciation for everyday life

The first, and most obvious, is that I think most of us will have a renewed sense of appreciation for things we took entirely for granted before.

Simple things, like being able to leave our homes whenever we want to. To be able to have groceries delivered to our door on the date and time of our choice, and to be confident that all, or almost all, of it will be there when it arrives.

And more fundamentally, the freedom to once again see, and hug, our friends and family. Video conferencing has been an enormous help – imagine the same lockdowns without the Internet! – but it’s in no way the same thing. Also, now that grandma is as comfortable making a video call as she is picking up the phone, it will also be easier to keep in regular contact with more distant family members.

Working from home could become much more common

I’m a huge fan of working from home. I did it from 1984 to 1997, and again from 2007 to present. To me, it’s a massively more civilized way to work.

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First, there’s no commute. That is, for the typical person living in a big city, an extra two hours a day of their life they recovered. More time with their families, more time to relax, less stress, less expense. It makes possible a greatly improved work-life balance.

Second, it can make for a more pleasant working environment. Many work in an anonymous cube, at an open-plan desk or – the absolute worst, in my view – at a hot-desk, where nothing is their own. The most fortunate of us have a dedicated home office, furnished and decorated to our own taste, while others can at least be a pleasant space with all the creature comforts to hand. It can even make it more practical for people to work from their own choice of platform, for example using a Mac in a predominantly Windows-based environment.

Of course, working from home isn’t for everyone. Extroverts, who thrive on the buzz of a busy office, may have zero interest in it. Others may value the solo time they get during a commute to read a book, listen to a podcast, or relax to music (especially parents!). But for a significant number of people, it could transform their lives for the better.

From the company perspective, many people are much more productive at home, free from the distractions of a busy office environment. Others are simply happier, boosting staff retention and making recruitment easier. And with physical office space a major expense in big cities, there can be substantial cost savings too.

Now that both employees and employers have experienced the pros and the cons, I suspect this will become a permanent arrangement for many.

New hobbies and skills

Not everyone can work from home. Some of those unable to do so have a lot of time on their hands, and from that may emerge new hobbies, perhaps new passions.

Some will put the time to good use learning new skills, perhaps earning additional qualifications. Ultimately, that could even lead to new careers.

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Video lessons will become a standard offering

The lockdown has hit private teachers hard. There’s a whole industry of private tutors out there teaching languages, musical instruments, dance, fitness, pilates, yoga … you name it. Any teaching that was done in person is now difficult or impossible, especially something like partner dance, which requires physical contact.

But a lot of teachers have responded by offering video lessons instead. For example, I had a combined fitness and pilates lesson, in which the tutor demonstrated exercises and then watched me complete them, both to check I was doing them correctly, and to get a sense of my flexibility from how far I could reach with each. I’m also experimenting with video lessons for tango, so far with technique exercises, but also soon dancing with my girlfriend.

These work best for more conversational teaching, like learning a new language, but even for more physical activities can provide a very convenient way to get some tuition and feedback. I’d expect many teachers to retain video lessons as an option long after the lockdowns.

Virtual consultations too

My colleague Zac mentioned that a local spa and pool supplier is now offering video consultations via FaceTime. While companies like this will, of course, need to physically visit your home at some point, the ability to hold an initial meeting via video call could prove a lot more convenient for customers, and a great deal more time-efficient and cost-effective for businesses.

Even counseling and therapy sessions are being offered via video. Some of those services existed prior to the virus, but there will be many more options afterwards.

More appreciation for small businesses

A lot of small businesses are really struggling at present. Retail ones especially, many of which have been forced to close – and are still having to pay rent and other overheads while their sales have disappeared overnight.

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Many consumers have responded by doing their best to help out, wanting to ensure that their favorite businesses still exist when this is over. Some have brought forward orders they were planning to place later, while others have proactively reached out to offline-only businesses to ask if they can place orders via email or phone. Many are ordering takeaway food from restaurants and cafes that have had to close to sit-in trade.

I’ve been particularly heartened by the response of the London tango community. Dance organizers have, of course, seen their income dry up immediately. Indeed, that happened some weeks before the lockdown, as they voluntarily decided to close their doors at an early stage. Organizers have been encouraged to create fundraisers, and many of us are donating the usual entrance fee each time we would have danced.

I think the thought that small businesses on which we rely may not survive without our help has given us all a new level of appreciation for them, and I hope this means more of us will choose to give our custom to them after this ends.

More incentive to be corporate good citizens

Large companies too have started to realize that their actions during this crisis will be remembered long after it’s all over.

Companies that continue to pay their staff, and which do things like donate spare food to food banks, and offer free or discounted products to healthcare staff, will benefit from that goodwill for years to come.

Conversely, large businesses which treat their staff shoddily, and do things like pay dividends while demanding state handouts, may find that their former customers have very long memories …

What else?

Can you think of other upsides to the crisis? If so, please share them in the comments.

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