When life eventually returns back to normal after the current global COVID-19 crisis – and it shall – it will be a little less like the normal we once knew. The immediate pandemic may drag on for months if not longer, or might be shorter lived; its trajectory is unknowable. But it will touch every member of our society, infected or not.
It is far too soon to be discussing the long-run arc of the corona narrative and its human and financial toll.
But I think it’s not too soon to debate the social implications and how this might change the future of real estate. Now, whenever you make observations from within the eye of the storm, you risk sounding foolish after the storm passes; immediate reflections can quickly turn into hyperbole that the test of time will not look fondly upon. But here it goes.
The crisis is likely to accelerate many of the secular shifts we’ve been observing for some time, but perhaps not in ways you think.
There seems to be one school of thought that suggests the crisis will at long last drive remote working, in the most acute, comprehensive, forced change in business practices perhaps since the Blitz in 1940-41. Today, unlike then of course, we have the tools to make this shift in working habits more seamless. People will lean harder into social networking and online business tools to truly become digital nomads, and in a virtuous circle, this may accelerate the development of these things that we have been dabbling with for a decade or more.
To date, this argument goes, the digital world has largely been a mirror of the real world, but in this primary-versus-mirror tussle, it might just catch up and become the primary means of conducting business and interacting with one another. Just like the phenomenon in physics called “hysteresis” where even after removing the stimulus the system remains in its stimulated state, when we do come back to the office, a new normal may be reached where digital dominates.
However, this underplays the human side. After all, this is a grand human experiment, not a VC-funded focus group.
With many meetings and travel cancelled and a hunkering down to focus on key activities, surely we will realise that all along we’ve been working harder to fill our days with things that are just not that important. And as we soon may have more time to reflect while we “self-isolate”, of course we will re-focus on the importance of family, friends, and health which will amplify these sentiments.
Equally, we must acknowledge the debate going on about whether this kind of crisis brings out the best or worst in people. It will challenge each of us to examine who we are: do we choose fear over faith? Apathy over empathy? Indifference over compassion? Will we emerge with our spirits broken or with greater enlightenment?
I watch as people physically hurt each other in shops to get supplies, but equally I see people confined to home stepping out onto their balconies to sing in unison in cities across Italy, Greece, and yes, London. I listen as people say previously well-worn greetings like “take care” with greater meaning.
I see companies like Disney close theme parks but donate food that would otherwise spoil to charities. I read how LVMH is converting perfume factories to produce hand sanitiser that they will distribute for free across France. And the list of firms that “do the right thing” is growing daily.
So I choose hope.
And perhaps what we might see after this is all over is a Great Reconnecting.
Perhaps we will recognise that social cohesion cannot be wrapped up in an app, or achieved with a double tap. That purposeful connection needs human-to-human presence to flourish. And that the power of convening rests in the individual, in each one of us, not online. We will not let “social distancing” become a mindset of “mutual distancing.” That, as Rabbi Yousef Kanefsky in Los Angeles said, “every hand that we do not shake must become a phone call that we place; every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.”
I think we had already started to see evidence of these things manifesting in the built environment before the crisis. In how we design places, offices in particular, a focus on creating spaces that helps each one of us scale Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – fulfilment, self-actualisation. That integrating socially impactful policies cannot be just a strategy you implement, no more than looking after one another in times of crisis is. The penny will drop: the ability for companies to faithfully and authentically deliver on these promises to our communities will define those that survive this crisis and those that fail.
And perhaps when this is over, we will all open our front doors to breathe fresh air, reconnecting with our neighbours by asking “how are you?” and really mean it.
A version of this article first appeared in Property Week.