At 36, I've now had a job and been employed for nearly 20 years (briefly unemployed in 2008 after the computer store I worked at during my undergrad closed, but I was also in school at the time). For all of those 20 years, every single job I've held has required me to be physically present, be it my time as a cashier in retail, bartending, supervising blood drives for the American Red Cross, and now as an urban planner. That is, until last week.
Like most people who are stuck at home, I'm working remotely. For the most part, I have adjusted to my new routine, like for everyone else includes going outside for solitary exercise and running to the grocery store. One of the things that I see is how many of those meetings and calls that many of us are used too attending really could have been emails all along. We all saw the memes and GIFs two weeks ago and laughed, but now it is reality and we now see the light of not being on unnecessary meetings.
As a planner, I'm interested in seeing what long-term effects this new collective experience will have, if any. Will all this time working from home encourage and enable a large portion of people to ask for flexible schedules? Millennials listed flexibility in scheduling higher than some other benefits like pay and retirement contributions even before the pandemic hit. Many of us, myself included, are now tasting what that flexible life is like and we like it.
I'm interested to see what happens to traffic and congestion after the pandemic subsides. Will we slowly open up sections of the economy one at a time so that we don't overburden infrastructure with a flood of people coming back to work at once? There have been widespread reports from China, Europe, and here in the US of dramatically lower air pollution and traffic as the economy has ground to a halt. Will we as a society collectively decide that we're willing to forego some activity on the other side of this if it means cleaner air and less congested highways and transit?
What effect will this have on retail? For years now, we've been warned of a coming 'retail apocalypse' that was going to leave barren acres and acres of big-box stores in the suburbs and beyond. Will this hasten that by causing non-essential stores to go out of business and be replaced once and for all by Amazon, with just grocery stores and dollar stores left behind?
I have many friends in the restaurant and bar industry, and they've been immediately hit by the loss of shifts and the tips that come with them. Obviously they can't request a flexible schedule where they work from home one shift a month for example. But we can ease their burden in other ways, like raising wages. Raising wages will always get the ire of business owners who warn of economic ruin. But the reality is never as bad as they warn. NYC now has a $15 minimum wage and before Covid-19 hit, the restaurant industry was doing just fine. Maybe to allay fears we explore grants or some form of tax-relief for small businesses to raise those wages. Most of the time we are subsidizing low wages through public assistance.
One of the most gratifying experiences I've had recently is the renewed sense of community. Friends picking up groceries for each other, business owners organizing food drives, and people just coming together (with 6 feet of space between them). That's the best part of this and I hope that is an enduring legacy. Everyone always warns of looting and anarchy in times of crisis, but many times it is the complete opposite. After 9-11, the Blackout of 2003, in winter storms and hurricanes, and now with Covid-19, we're seeing the best of people.
My guess is that when this is all over we will most likely return to pretty much business as it was before the crisis. But maybe we will see little changes here and there that will improve life for a lot of people. The seeds are now planted for millions of workers to ask for a work from home day every so often. The idea of improved work-life balance, and guaranteed healthcare are now not so radical, and in my opinion that's a good thing. I don't know when this ends, whether it be completely or partially, but when it does I hope that we all take a long hard look at how we were living before Covid-19 and ask ourselves whether we really want to go back that.