The return to normal

The return to normal

What will post-pandemic life be like?

In every crisis, there’s a deep yearning in the human soul for a return to normal. Crisis reveals how sweet simple, normal aspects of life—the ones that we so often take for granted—really are. But crises also redefine normal. Deep ones leave lasting scars on our character and behaviours. What’s more, our hyperspeed, impatience-impaired world brings with it a myopia that magnifies COVID-19 from episode to era—and a sense that the normal we knew is radically altered, forever. What will life be like on the other side of the pandemic?

Pundits are all over this one. Let’s face it, careers are established on the catchphrase that sums up the moment. In the process, rhetoric can diverge wildly from reality, and lead to decisions that cheat us and others out of opportunities. The Great Depression spurred widespread behaviours that limited opportunities for an entire generation.

Well, we’re emerging from this one—the signs of that are all around. Immunization rates are climbing, moving us closer toward herd immunity. Infection outbreaks in the emerging world are ramping up the availability of vaccines for those worst hit. And output is surging as economies resume business activity. Evidence of the return to full production is everywhere, no more than in surging prices. If so, what will things look like? Let’s have a look at what could be for certain key functions.

The office: Many are asking whether we’ll go back to the madness of the commute—the all-at-once rush from the ’burbs into the cluster of downtown glass-and-steel towers. Without question, we’re all now adept at digital meeting platforms, and polls suggest that many want to keep things this way. It works well when we’re all forced to work this way, but when return-to-work happens, will there be a split between those who are and aren’t present in terms of decision-making, advancement, access to information, selection for projects and so on? Time will tell, and much will come down to the psychology of teamwork.

Cybersurge: Clearly, COVID-19 has put the squeeze on firms to digitize operations. This is most clear in retail, where the analog set are still shuttered 14 months on. Some businesses facing labour reticence to return to their jobs will be looking at new automated systems that accommodate labour concerns. Others may well address chronic labour shortages with machine solutions. Firms caught flat-footed by the pandemic and seeing the success of the more digital set are likely trying to emulate or even surpass their technical constructs. 

In addition, there seem to be moves toward leveraging automation, mechanization, robotization and artificial intelligence solutions to consolidate production operations and avoid future supply-chain risks. It’s difficult to believe that this wave of upping reliance on machines will fade post-COVID-19, as they address not only the temporary effects of the pandemic, but also longer-standing, pre-existing structural issues.


Peter G. HallVice-President and Chief EconomistExport Development Canada

In every crisis, there’s a deep yearning in the human soul for a return to normal. Crisis reveals how sweet simple, normal aspects of life—the ones that we so often take for granted—really are. But crises also redefine normal. Deep ones leave lasting scars on our character and behaviours. What’s more, our hyperspeed, impatience-impaired world brings with it a myopia that magnifies COVID-19 from episode to era—and a sense that the normal we knew is radically altered, forever. What will life be like on the other side of the pandemic?

Pundits are all over this one. Let’s face it, careers are established on the catchphrase that sums up the moment. In the process, rhetoric can diverge wildly from reality, and lead to decisions that cheat us and others out of opportunities. The Great Depression spurred widespread behaviours that limited opportunities for an entire generation.

Well, we’re emerging from this one—the signs of that are all around. Immunization rates are climbing, moving us closer toward herd immunity. Infection outbreaks in the emerging world are ramping up the availability of vaccines for those worst hit. And output is surging as economies resume business activity. Evidence of the return to full production is everywhere, no more than in surging prices. If so, what will things look like? Let’s have a look at what could be for certain key functions.

The office: Many are asking whether we’ll go back to the madness of the commute—the all-at-once rush from the ’burbs into the cluster of downtown glass-and-steel towers. Without question, we’re all now adept at digital meeting platforms, and polls suggest that many want to keep things this way. It works well when we’re all forced to work this way, but when return-to-work happens, will there be a split between those who are and aren’t present in terms of decision-making, advancement, access to information, selection for projects and so on? Time will tell, and much will come down to the psychology of teamwork.

Cybersurge: Clearly, COVID-19 has put the squeeze on firms to digitize operations. This is most clear in retail, where the analog set are still shuttered 14 months on. Some businesses facing labour reticence to return to their jobs will be looking at new automated systems that accommodate labour concerns. Others may well address chronic labour shortages with machine solutions. Firms caught flat-footed by the pandemic and seeing the success of the more digital set are likely trying to emulate or even surpass their technical constructs. 

In addition, there seem to be moves toward leveraging automation, mechanization, robotization and artificial intelligence solutions to consolidate production operations and avoid future supply-chain risks. It’s difficult to believe that this wave of upping reliance on machines will fade post-COVID-19, as they address not only the temporary effects of the pandemic, but also longer-standing, pre-existing structural issues.


Planes, trains and automobiles: 
What will post-pandemic people-movement look like? Many believe it has changed permanently. We’ve discussed the commute; what about other travel? Will people ultimately want to get on public people-movers like we used to? It’s a big subject, but here are a few things to consider. The owners and operators of these assets definitely want them full again and will do their best to lure customers back with discounts, incentives, and testimonials of how safe it is again. Business is also indicating that person-to-person interactions are essential to the future of operations and needs to resume. Likewise, confinement has likely increased aggregate appetite for tourism—as soon as it can be done safely. With these pent-up forces in place, it’s hard to believe that we won’t at least attempt to get back to where we were before—as we did post-SARS.

Big oil: Major shifts in financial markets, regulation and legal actions are shifting perceptions of the role the fossil fuels industry will play when overall growth resumes. Usage has plummeted in the down-months of the pandemic, exciting conversation of a permanent shift. But a rapid rise in production will require an equivalent surge in energy usage, begging the question of whether this can be met by new, clean energy sources or whether old sources will still be needed as a bridge to the new reality. Make no mistake, clean is where we’re going; the immediate question is how fast we can get there.

The bottom line?

I think we can safely say that normal is being redefined, but not necessarily revolutionized—for the moment. The pandemic has taught us valuable lessons about how we can do things differently. But there’s a frustration about our new processes that suggests at least some reversion to our former ways, and soon. Transformation may well be more stepwise than expected.

Find out more here: https://www.edc.ca/en/weekly-commentary/yearning-return-to-normal.html

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