COVID: The Ultimate Change Accelerant

Humans are wired to resist change. We get used to stuff and then resist change, even when change is for the better.

As a species we all have experienced a mega change. We had no choice and the warnings were muted and downplayed. The world as we knew it changed mid-March 2020. In that case change came on like a 2 by 4 across our heads. Professional and college sports were cancelled and businesses closed and sent their employees to WFH while it passed “in a couple of weeks”. We were all told to stay home and stay inside. We all now realize that the situation was far more serious than we were initially led to believe. Regardless of one’s politics, it’s been a mess both here and abroad. But there is hope, and now a year later the impact of COVID is declining as vaccines roll out. And if/when the impact of COVID fades in the coming months (though it will not go away entirely), we will begin to return to normal, though normal won’t be the same in many ways.

The pace of vaccinations is increasing and that’s really good news. Perhaps those who were initially hesitant to get vaccinated will change their minds as their friends, family, neighbors and co-workers get vaccinated.  One can hope. We’re still in the period when vaccinations are difficult to obtain, but that too is changing rapidly and opening up. So, it’s not unreasonable to think that this summer/fall our lives will resemble our former ones. There will be many similarities, but also differences.

First of all, time has passed since March 2020. A one+ year time gap is not Rip Van Winklian, but the pace of change is so rapid today that any one+ year period provides change, virus or not. What is definitely true is that COVID has been the ultimate change accelerant.

How so? Let me count the ways

1. Malls.

Been to a mall lately? Or even before COVID? The good news is that it is easy to find a primo parking spot. Malls are so yesterday. Anchor stores are closing, specialty stores are struggling and their reason for being has been decimated. Clearly this was a pre-COVID trend, but mall shrinkage will continue.

2. Online shopping.

Obviously not invented by COVID, but it’s easy for us all to see the parade of UPS, Fedex, Amazon etc. trucks in neighborhoods, and packages jamming apartment building lobbies. COVID did not create this, again it accelerated it.  And for the most part, people really like the ease and simplicity of online shopping.

3. Masking.

As a sample of one, I will never take public transportation again without wearing a mask. Have you even been on a NY subway? (yes, I take the B, D, or #4 often—you know where to). It’s an “intimate” experience. Masks are here to stay for many of us. Obviously, masking won’t not be universal, longer term, but wearing a mask was once viewed as strange, yet in the future will be commonplace.

4. Convenience.

Curbside, take-out, and delivery will continue to be a significant part of retail. 27% of U.S. consumers order from restaurants at least twice a week. Pandemic or not, consumers like convenience. No turning back.

5. Business travel.

Every business trip will henceforth be questioned, both for its cost and necessity, and rightfully so. Some are necessary, but many are not. Biz travel will bounce back, BUT never all the way. And secondary trade shows will shrink and disappear. 

6. Employment in service industries will shrink.

Jobs in entertainment & travel will decline during the decade: host or hostess jobs are expected to decline 24%. Servers: –16%. Bartenders: –19%. Travel, ticket agents: –17%. Hotel, motel clerks: –16%. Many of these jobs are not returning.

7. Academia will be forever changed. 

Colleges and Universities have been significantly hammered financially, some permanently in the COVID year. Colleges/universities without a strong reason for being will fail. Again, that was already happening. Online learning will increase and become a stronger supplement to in-person education, but not full-tilt zoom which is hardly ideal. Academia needed a kick in the ass anyhow. COVID did that.

8. Work from home.

The past year has proved that it is possible to conduct business while working from home. Most employees like it too. But possible and ideal might be at odds in a faded COVID world. The question is will business continue WFH or revert back to “the office”. In reality, it’ll probably be somewhere in the middle.

9. Commercial real estate.

It’s a really tough business. Workplaces will get smaller, more “hoteling” (no permanent space for employees) and businesses will downsize their space. There will be (and are) sublets up the whazoo. If you are a business owner, will you be willing to sign a 10-year lease of many floors in class A space? Not so fast.

10. Finances.

Brick and mortar branches are so yesterday. The neighborhood branch has value but every bank is asking themselves which branches they can close and still maintain their customers. At the same time, the merits of online banking have become obvious to even those who were reluctant. People like checking to see their finances. Wait a month to read a statement you got in the mail? (Mail, remember that) Really? 

Change is threatening. We resist, but we then evolve and adapt. And then we forget what we endured and we will move forward. Some of that is good. But we should never be so unprepared for a pandemic again. Time will tell.

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