These are uncertain times for us all. In this time of physical isolation, we are being forced to experience ourselves differently. How we relate to those close to us, to the outside world, and to the work we do.
San Francisco was one of the first cities in the US to encourage people to shelter-in-place, to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Non-essential businesses were forced to make employees work from home. Gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited and ‘6 feet of distance’ between people quickly became the new social norm.
What can history teach us?
In a recent White House press conference, Dr. Deborah Birx (along with Dr. Anthony Fauci) referenced her role in combating the AIDS epidemic during the early 1980s. While I have no intention of creating a direct comparison of the two viruses, the government response, or downplaying the significant lives lost to HIV/AIDS (>32 million people since 1981), I do believe there is something we can learn about the emotional impact a pandemic can have on the way people relate to one another.
During the AIDS epidemic, there was a learned adaptation to associate physical closeness or intimacy with death. Because the idea of physical closeness could potentially mean contracting the virus.
Over the past few decades, the fear and anxiety around intimate human contact have dramatically lessened. The advent of antiretroviral drugs and the ability of those living with the virus to have long, healthy lives have made this possible. Medical experts go so far as to compare the daily management of HIV to someone managing diabetes.
But as part of the queer generation that grew up in the 1980s, the learned fear that we developed during this time shaped who we are and how we approached relationships, and the world in general, for a very long time.
Grappling with Uncertainty
It is still very early in this pandemic, with thousands of new coronavirus cases being identified across the United States each day. As we grapple with the uncertainty of it all, trying to understand who we are in this new reality, I believe we must also begin to consider the reality that we will return to.
This recent Politico article offers some fascinating insights from top experts on how community, technology, government, and healthcare will all change in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
But what about the return to the workplace?
For many people who have been comfortably and safely working from home — with the makeshift office setup, frequent disruptions from family and pets, and the joys of wearing sweatpants to work — the return to the physical work environment will be jarring, to say the least.
Leisurely mornings will be replaced with frantic commutes. Lunch with family or roommates will be replaced by an overpriced salad or skipping lunch altogether. Clear delineations between work and home become blurred as we are forced to stay at the office a little later to finish up that one last thing.
But what about the physical work environment? What about coworkers and all of the random people we encounter on any given day — packed together on public transport or the elevator?
What will it feel like to return to social closeness?
Humans are social creatures. The weeks and months ahead of us will make us that much more starved for social interaction — lacking vital nutrients that we can’t quite get from daily consumption of Zoom meetings and FaceTime happy hours.
But how will we know it’s safe to return to the workplace?
Will my longing for realtime human interaction be overshadowed by my fear of germs and viruses?
The New Normal
Concerns around bio-safety will be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The team home, collaboration spaces, hot-desking, and shared phone booths that allowed for activity-based working and casual collisions with other colleagues, will become trigger words in a world of invisible threats.
Will facemasks and gloves become the new workplace fashion trend?
Will workplaces need to be designed like hospitals? With specific building materials and textiles? More segregation between floors? Greater air filtration? More privacy?
Will technology and occupancy sensors be used for more than determining workplace density and square footage per user? Could workplace technology be used to prevent the future spread of illness within the workplace?
For those of us who are responsible for the employee workplace experience (real estate, facilities, HR, IT, security, etc.), now is the time to come together and ask ourselves:
How will we take this time to deeply examine the ways in which the workplace needs to change, in order for people to feel safe to return?
Because when this is all over, we will return. Let’s be ready.