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Adapting to the post-pandemic world

By Barry Katz

This morning an old friend who teaches at IMD [the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland] asked me for three words describing the current situation here in Silicon Valley. Since we go way back, I offered him a 33 1/3% discount: “On hold.”

But we are both professors, so I proceeded to elaborate:

Normally my life seems to cycle between the extremes of boredom and busyness. These days I am experiencing both, but at the same time. I have been locked down, self-isolated, socially distanced, and sheltered in place for about two months now — or is it two weeks? Or two years? I find it nearly impossible to estimate time or to measure productivity. The volume of electronic work seems to have skyrocketed, more than offsetting the decrease in physical work. Although my daily commute has shrunk from 35 miles to 16 feet (the distance from bedroom to study, with a stop in the bathroom or kitchen, depending), the time I should have saved is more than consumed with e-mail, Zoominars, news bulletins, statistical updates, and a seemingly unending stream of virtual distractions.

Many of the software tools we are relying on to get us through this crisis didn’t exist 10 years ago, and it is hard to imagine how our businesses and universities would have functioned at all. They are certain to improve—broadband coverage will go up; latency will go down—and we are learning tremendous amounts about how to collaborate remotely and in distributed teams. In that respect, at least, the pandemic couldn’t have come at a nicer time.

There is an emerging consensus that these learnings will persist into the post-COVID-19 future. I have friends who used to think nothing of hopping on a plane for a meeting in Japan and returning the same day; of jetting off to a distant conference to deliver a learned paper on the environmental impact of air travel; of spending 3 hours commuting to and from jobs where they work on technologies that should make it unnecessary to spend 3 hours commuting. Going forward, we will be rethinking many of these practices and paradoxes.

By the same token, there is mounting anecdotal evidence that people are growing accustomed to the eerie silence of neighborhoods without leaf blowers; of walkable city centers; of skies that appear unnaturally blue. One of my graduate students informs me that residents of her native Wuhan have for the first time in memory spotted fish swimming in the polluted Yangtze.

The economic collapse of 2020 is nothing like 2001 or 2008, both of which were purely man-made disasters with predictable outcomes. This one may have its roots in a bat-cave in Hubei Province and follows its own rules. We are treading water, watching to see whether the curve of the virus flattens more or less rapidly than the curve of the NASDAQ. It has been inspiring to see how swiftly my colleagues in the world of architecture and design have risen to the challenge of reimagining the cities, the workplaces, the products, and the interfaces of the future. On the other hand, what else have they got to do?

It seems as if everything is on hold.
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