COVID-19 has impacted the world in ways unimaginable only a few months ago.  And the impacts have been felt from the largest countries and businesses all the way down to the family and individual level.  Although I live in the U.S., I have family living in Thailand. Part of my struggle has been not just coping with my own day-to-day existence amid the pandemic, but worrying about my family members half a world away.

At first, I thought COVID-19 was going to be another outbreak the world seems to get every couple of years with a few thousand cases and, although still tragic, relatively few deaths.  Then our overseas family members were ordered to shelter in place, register their health status and family member count with the local authorities and banned from travelling.  Okay so maybe it is more serious. Then tens of thousands of cases reached Europe with 10% death rates eventually landing in the U.S.

Finally, it hit home on April 01, 2020 as the Virginia Governor issued a temporary “stay at home” order due to novel coronavirus (COVID-19):

  • All individuals in Virginia were admonished to remain at their place of residence, unless it was necessary to go out;
  • Required to maintain social distancing of at least six (6) feet from any other person when in public; and
  • Only go out for obtaining food, seeking medical attention, or taking care of other individuals, animals, or engaging in outdoor activity, including exercise.

A whole lot of things we thought of as needs would soon reveal themselves to be pretty unnecessary.  I became hyper-aware about handwashing, finding hand sanitizer (DIY tip: aloe vera mixed with 70% alcohol), digging through the paint supplies in the basement hoping for an N95 mask, keeping six (6) feet apart from all except those with whom I lived and glaring at the person near you that didn’t seem to hear the news—or care.

“Okay,” I thought, “we can do this.” Me, my spouse, and my 19-year-old daughter who was home from college for spring break…” we got this.”  All I can say after two months is “thank goodness for technology.”

 

Learning

My daughter’s college decided, while everyone was away at spring break, to close the campus and move all classes online.   There were accommodations made to visit the dorms once to gather essentials like books and lab journals.   My daughter’s generation has grown up with smart phones from age 10 clicking through Instagram, Vine, TikTok, Facebook, Apple Facetime calls, etc. and her high school was technologically adept at posting lectures on YouTube and using Google Classroom to host team projects.  With MacBook in hand, this transition was not too challenging.  Although even though she can access the information portion of the class materials, in the pre-medical college track it emphasizes lab work (which cannot be made virtual) and viewing complex in- class animations/simulations which really taxes the home’s WIFI network.

 

Entertainment

Our house “cut the cord” (i.e., cable tv) long ago so we have been a Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming family for years (and soon, I suppose, Disney+).   Netflix was approached by several countries to move their content from high to low definition to save bandwidth as the demand for streaming services surged dramatically, taking the place of shuddered concerts, sporting events and movie theaters.   A lot of shows in production have had to stop filming during the pandemic so Netflix with years of original content on its service and more shows already in the can, is in a good position to entertain its socially starved audiences through the foreseeable future. Wall street says the most virus/recession-resistant stocks, according to RBC Capital Markets, are Akamai Technologies Inc. AKAM, -0.15% (a global content delivery network), Amazon.com, Chewy Inc. (pet toys), Netflix, and Spotify Technology (streaming music). Imagine trying to get through this pandemic in the 80’s – with your Walkman, AM/FM radio, and rabbit ears for your tv.

 

Working

According to ZDnet, even before the COVID-19 coronavirus disrupted the planet, remote work had gone from that rare unicorn of workforce arrangements to a standard component of many people’s workweek. According to a recent Gallup poll, 43% of employed Americans log at least some out-of-office, on-the-clock time.

My spouse’s company had all employees setup with office PC’s but also laptops, virtual private networks (VPNs) and online team collaboration tools primarily because the employees are spread out across the globe.  They figured out the VPN security, SharePoint data sharing, and Microsoft Team collaboration issues related to remote work.   Using work computers and the inherent security software means there are less security risks that introduce unnecessary inefficiencies into their workflows.

From a human resource standpoint, a remote workforce certainly has some employer benefits. You can take advantage of a larger potential labor pool. When an employee pool is not geographically restricted, the likelihood of finding the right employee rises.  There’s also evidence that remote workers are more productive.  Remote workers spared a commute also report feeling less stressed.  The coronavirus also highlights a critical advantage of remote work: It could help keep workers online and healthy in situations where going into the office puts team members at risk of infection.  Sick employees should not go to work.  Having them spend less time in the office reduces their chance of contracting not just COVID-19 but any communicable illness.

 

Shopping

My sense throughout the pandemic has been that people are hearing the terrible news about the infection potential, understand that the risks of leaving their homes to shop or eat are substantial, but still need to feel like they can retain some control over how they live their lives.  Shopping creates a momentary feeling of control — something all of us are craving right now. With the pandemic limiting physical interaction, it is no wonder that online shopping has skyrocketed.  However, that is still no substitute (either in dollars or experience-wise) for in person shopping and dining.

As of 2018, the average household expenditure was $61,224. That figure includes rent and groceries, but also nonessential items: entertainment, vacation, clothes, plus all that other random stuff that ends up in your shopping cart.  But when a society-throttling, economy-decimating pandemic comes along, what happens when Americans’ ability to get out and shop disappears?   In April, retail sales fell an astonishing 16.4%, clothing store purchases went down by 78.8% and furniture and home furnishings plummeted 58.7%.  Even with the ease of online shopping, consumer purchasing is still historically low – imagine what it would look like without online retailers like Amazon, eBay, and Wal-Mart.

People are buying less because they scared for their economic future (the April 2020 unemployment rate of 14.7% was the highest in modern history), but they are also buying less because the actual act of purchasing — at least in person — is a health risk.   Thus, new considerations have been injected into the American shopping equation.  Do I need to put an essential worker in harm’s way to get this? Can I do without it? Can I afford it? Can I order it online and wait to receive it? And most telling for American consumers: “if I can’t have something immediately, do I really need it?”

We need food of course.  In a pandemic, people would rather have those groceries come to them than go buy them in physical stores. No surprise then that grocery delivery services are doing well like Amazon (which has Amazon Pantry) is up 25% from the beginning of the year and Walmart is up 7%.  Some large grocery stores are offering delivery on their own, but the demand for grocery shopping services such as Instacart and Shipped.com, which deliver groceries to your home, have skyrocketed and provide a way for shoppers to get what they need without ever leaving their home.

But like all technology solutions, there are always bumps in the road.  While you order your food or products online, not every shopper is as adept at locating them in the stores and may determine the store is out of that product when that was not actually true.  Plus, many “shopping services” have become overwhelmed, resulting in long delivery times in some areas of the country (e.g. 3 days or more).  I’ve experienced these hiccups myself, and against my better judgement I found myself donning a mask and disposable gloves and walking into the store to get what I needed.  Still, having the ability to order some of what I needed online or to have it delivered (where possible) has been an important component of allowing Americans to stay isolated from their co-workers, friends, and even family.

 

Conclusion

The technology is there to support learning, entertainment, working and shopping.  Will Americans, on a large scale, change their habits and adapt?  Back in April as the country was shutting down, a talk show host asked astrophysicist Neal DeGrasse-Tyson, “Is it hard to persuade “young invincibles” to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic?”  He said, “That message took a while, because the bars were all filled with the 20-somethings for so long, but they all have a grandparent (who could get infected). I think that’s what ultimately did it. Otherwise, in a free country, if the risk you take only affects you, then the most you can do is communicate to that person what those risks are, and then they make their own decisions. But it’s no longer a free country if that person taking risk with their own life puts your life at risk. That’s an important message to communicate.”

As of May 15, 2020, phase one of Virginia’s three-stage coronavirus economic reopening plan started (along with the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia’s entry into Phase 1 was delayed until May 29th).  There is no doubt people will begin to venture out again as state and local governments proceed with gradually lifting their respective stay at home orders.  However, some of the technological changes to the workforce, our education system, and our daily lives instigated the COVID-19 crisis will likely be here to stay.

C2 provides strategic HR outsourcing to clients who want to develop optimal workforce strategies and solutions to allow them to be more competitive and profitable. C2 blog posts are intended for educational and informational purposes only.