My grandmother was born in 1910, and to her dying day in 2006 she never got over the Great Depression. During the years of the Depression from 1929 to 1933, she was a young wife and mother of three whose nightly struggle was figuring out what she could feed her family with the coins my grandfather brought home at the end of each day unloading cargo ships at the docks in Charleston, South Carolina. Like tens of millions of Americans of that generation, the financial insecurity they experienced during the Depression haunted them for the rest of their lives.
Though we lost my grandfather too soon, my grandmother, Juanita – Nan, as she would come to be known by her 13 grandchildren – enjoyed a long life, but she never got over the feeling that another Black Friday was right around the corner, so she never threw away anything she thought she could use again – not a button or a bobby pin.
And she surely never threw away any food. (Humorously, my grandfather didn’t throw away food either, but neither would he ever eat another banana after spending long, steamy Charleston summers after the Depression in the hulls of too many ships unloading bunches upon bunches of bananas.) Nan bought only what she needed and saved any leftovers for the next day. In effect, the Great Depression rewired her brain such that seven decades later and much to the bewilderment of her grandchildren, she still couldn’t alter the life-sustaining habits she established all those years ago.
Reflecting on her life now, I wonder how our brains are currently being rewired by what historians may one day call the Great Pandemic. As we settle into this “current abnormal” and wait to see what the “new normal” will hold for us, I think we too might permanently shift behaviors after prolonged periods of sheltering in place and social distancing. Will we eschew crowded elevators for the stairs? Will we change how we greet each other? Will we abandon social behaviors that were common only a few months ago – like attending large indoor gatherings – because they will prove to be too risky?
Since I run a business that helps our clients design and operate facilities where people gather, this question is more than just a mental exercise for me; it represents a possible existential threat to our livelihood. Sure, humanity is moving heaven and earth to create vaccines and therapeutics for this current virus and its disease, but there’s no guarantee mutations of this virus or other pathogens aren’t right around the corner and won’t become the background noise of our modern lives.
So, then what?
First things first, we need to use our talents, skills and brain power to help people feel comfortable that when they do re-enter the workplace or school, they are in a safe environment. If company owners and school administrators are going to create clean, healthy spaces, we need to communicate that not only with banners and smiling faces, but with digital messaging that shows occupants the air quality in their facilities is healthy, that their spaces have been disinfected, and that physical distancing guidelines are being actively monitored throughout the facility. We can do this through mobile apps, sensors, scheduling software and digital signage. While virologists focus on medicines to protect us and prevent future outbreaks, technologists should be focused on creating safe environments right now.
However, I also believe we need to look beyond the short term. Let’s learn from this crisis to make things better for the long haul. Let’s look toward the future that was already in our sights and pull that future closer to us in this moment in history. For instance, the modern workplace just wasn’t working for many people. Sure, the amenities were getting better, but the crowding of workers into open plans was hampering focus and productivity. Let’s say good-bye to endless cubicle farms and hello to a new normal where workers come together a few days a week for the experience of collaborating with colleagues and socializing over good food and drink in office buildings that resemble high-end conference centers. The other days of the week could be devoted to focused work from home. And since we’re not wasting as much time in traffic, can we all just agree to a four-day workweek please? Okay, I know. Now I’m dreaming.
Another change brought about by the pandemic is that physical location matters less and less for many workers. Imagine a future where, as long as you’re near some regional “conference hub” your company has established, you can live wherever is best for you and your family. This dynamic will allow many workers to leave overpriced metropolitan areas for lower-cost living, where we can be closer to family and friends, distributing talent and good-paying jobs more evenly throughout our nation. To do that, we’ll need robust technology and connectivity so whether a worker is “in the room” or at home, they can still have a great and equitable experience.
This equality of experience will likely spread through higher education as well. Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs, were initially designed to expand access to high-quality education to students worldwide before the experiment was deemed a failure because of low participation, but MOOCs are seeing a resurgence in utility as learning morphs from the largely in-person experience of the past to a highly virtualized experience today and into the future. Imagine receiving a degree from an Ivy League school from the comfort of your home and at a fraction of the cost. That day has arrived. We already have employees at Waveguide achieving advanced degrees entirely online from these elite universities, and we expect more will follow this model. Sure, it won’t be the same as actually “going to” Harvard or Yale or Princeton, but so many students were excluded from that experience for so long that something needed to change anyway. Instead, imagine learning hubs for top colleges being distributed so dispersed students can attend the same course in person or virtually, from Cambridge to Omaha and everywhere in between, safely and equitably. Just like we must reimagine existing technology to help people feel safe in the workplace, we must reimagine the technology we already have to make it possible for students to learn. That future was already starting to happen, but I believe it will be accelerated as schools find ways to not only survive, but thrive, in the new normal.
In the end, there will be some winners and many losers in the transformation happening during The Great Rewiring. I believe these times call for humans, organizations and companies like Waveguide and our partners at FLIK and Compass to embrace our inner entrepreneurial spirit and invent our way to a better future, sooner rather than later. Lastly, I’d like to say to my grandmother, “Hi, Nan. I hope you’re having fun up there. I get it now.”
This article originally appeared on the the FLIK Hospitality Group blog.