Finding the ‘New Normal’ after COVID-19

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The ‘new normal’ will make business more productive, but society more unequal. It’s time for a social reset.  

Dr. Tima Bansal is Founder of the Network for Business Sustainability.

Many people are saying that COVID-19 has created a ‘new normal.’ I admit that when I first heard the phrase, I didn’t know what it meant. I’m still not sure I do, as the ground keeps shifting beneath me. But as I reflect on the recent past, the present, and the future, the ‘new normal’ seems to be coming into sharper focus. I predict that businesses will become much more productive – which may be good for business, but maybe not for society.  

The Recent Past: The Economic Pause  

In March 2020, the world seemed to stand still. An unknown killer, called COVID-19, ravaged communities around the world. People stayed home from work, kids stayed home from school, and travel stalled. Essential workers and medical staff formed the ‘front line’ against the enemy. Everything paused.  

Many commentators called this the ‘new normal.’ But, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Really?” Surely, economic activity couldn’t stop forever? We would eventually run out of the things we need and people would need a source of income — beyond the government cheques.  

The Present: Stop and Go  

It’s now been four months, and the pause button is being slowly released. Many businesses and physical spaces are opening up, and some are even shutting back down, as COVID-19 reasserts itself.  

So, is this the ‘new normal’? People returning to crippled businesses, which have turned on but remain ready to turn off if needed. Surely not, as eventually we will either figure out the norms of social distancing or have found a vaccine.  

The Future: Winners and Losers 

As I look forward, I think I finally see the ‘new normal’ emerging.   

Many people recognize that digital technologies are accelerating in order to fill the gaps created by physical distancing. And, the stock market is rewarding the move to digital.  

Investors are seeing a bright future for digital tech companies, such as FAANG [1], and on-line retailers, such as Shopify. The NYSE FANG+ Index [2] is breaking records, even though a higher percentage of people are unemployed now in the US than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  

As commercial and retail spaces remain half empty on Main Street and High Street, digital tech companies are surging on Wall Street and The City. Amazon is replacing shops, Netflix is replacing cinema, and Facebook is replacing newspapers.  

Tech companies are dominating the economy and changing the way that we work.  

The New Normal – Cheaper, Faster, Global 

In early July, I started the day by giving a talk for a UK audience and ended the day at 7:30 pm with a talk for an Australian audience. Between those talks, I met virtually with people in Rotterdam and Toronto, and physically with my contractor in my front yard. I did in one day what would have previously taken one week.   

So, I think the ‘new normal’ is what scholar David Harvey calls “time-space compression” in his 1989 book, The Condition of Postmodernity. Harvey argued that communication and transportation technologies were making the economy faster and the world smaller. People could do more within the same period of time and across a bigger space than ever before.  

Even 7 years ago, when I argued that sustainability was being hampered by time-space compression in a TEDx talk , I did not fully envision the future in front of us. In fact, I didn’t even see it fully in my February 25, 2020 post about the need to slow down, when COVID-19 was at the front door.  

The move to digital will increase productivity. Twitter and Facebook announced that employees can now work at home permanently – these companies save office space, their employees save time. The economy becomes faster, more efficient, and more global.   

But, there’s a cost. With higher productivity comes less employment.   

I can already see this happening with higher education. Faculty members worldwide are being forced to post lectures and videos online. Only months ago, I had a captive live audience in my classroom; I now have a virtual audience that gives me global reach, but puts me in direct competition with professors from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. It’s good for students, whose choices have widened. It’s not so good for faculty members.   

As Anand Giridharadas memes: the winners are taking all. There will be fewer business schools, fewer faculty members and staff, and yet more students. That leaves more money for the universities that remain.  

Dystopia or Utopia? 

Is this a dystopic future? It could be, unless civil society actively discusses the future we want.  

The idea of ‘building back better’ from COVID-19 is admirable. But is it happening?   

According to a McKinsey report, government spending in the wake of COVID-19 was more than three times larger than that spent in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Yet the Institute of International Finance reported that only 1% of the $11 trillion in stimulus money worldwide is dedicated to the green economy. That’s disappointing: governments squandered an opportunity for a green shift.  

So, let’s talk about a social shift. Civil society, business and governments need to collectively engage in a dialogue not just about minimum wage and minimum basic income, but maximum work hours. By spreading hours of work, more people can join the economy and share in leisure activities.   

We are at an inflection point. We need to decide if we want economic wealth to be distributed among the many or the few. The ‘new normal’ favors the few. I argue that the few cannot be successful or happy, if we don’t collectively care for the many.  

[1] Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Netflix (NFLX); and Alphabet (GOOG) (formerly known as Google).

[2] Ten heavily-traded, growth-oriented tech and media companies that include FAANG and 5 others.

Continuing the Conversation

What does the new normal mean to you? Do you see the post COVID-19 future with society in a better place or worse than pre-COVID? As always, I welcome your reactions. Comment below or feel free to message me (@TimaBansal, tbansal@ivey.ca) or the NBS community (@NBSnet) privately or publicly.

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Dr. Tima Bansal, NBS’s Founder, regularly shares her observations about business sustainability. Click the button below to see the full series.

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  • Tima Bansal is the Founder of the Network for Business Sustainability and Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the Ivey Business School (Canada). She also heads Innovation North, which helps businesses create value for themselves and society simultaneously over the long term.

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