When we look back through the annals of American history, March 2020 will stand out. That month, the spread of COVID-19 became the focus of intense national attention.
The NBA was cancelled. California issued a stay at home order, and many other states soon followed. Public life came to a grinding halt, as offices, restaurants, and much more, shut down. To say that life has changed, is a gross understatement.
Plenty has been written about COVID-19, vaccines, and the recent trajectory of the virus. I’d like to focus a bit more on what comes after.
More specifically, how might we use some of the changes which have occurred due to COVID-19, to improve our society — to really make things better? I have a few ideas.
1. Build A Distributed Workforce
Over the past 9+ months, we learned one important lesson: For certain types of jobs, folks can work from anywhere. For many employees and entrepreneurs, the transition was not smooth. Meetings which were once held in conference rooms, had to be conducted in bedrooms and living rooms. Children, pets and outdoors noise all intruded.
To be sure, there are numerous jobs where one cannot work remotely. Essential workers, whether in retail, food / meat processing plants, or other service occupations, have no such choice, and have faced substantial rates of COVID-19 infection. The same is true of individuals who work in construction and agriculture. We must be mindful to not exclude these folks from the conversation.
However, for white collar “knowledge” workers, there is not that much need to live in a specific location. Most meetings and daily communications can be conducted by Zoom, Slack, Trello, email and similar tools.
In order to maintain some cohesion and corporate culture, companies can arrange for all members of a team (or the company as a whole, depending on it’s size), to periodically travel (say every quarter) to corporate headquarters, or an offsite location. Or, when a manager / executive believes that team meetings would be beneficial, those who are part of a specific team might travel to corporate headquarters, or another location.
Another option might be to create a series of smaller corporate hubs. For example, if a tech company with 800 employees has 30 of them relocate to Austin, it might make sense to set up an office locally. This way, employees can go in a few days a week, and also work remotely when desired.
If we take this approach, then workers and entrepreneurs can live in a variety of locations. It is not mandatory to be in San Francisco, New York or anywhere else.
How does this benefit workers, and society more broadly? I’d say that there are several ways. First, employees enjoy greater flexibility, in terms of where they work, live and build their lives. There is no need to struggle in a location where living costs are high, and commutes are long, when they can choose a more affordable, simple lifestyle somewhere else.
Second, it helps ensure a wider geographic distribution of income and wealth. Pre-COVID, a disproportionately high number of well-paying jobs were concentrated in pricy coastal areas. Meanwhile, other parts of the country, like the industrial Midwest, have hollowed out over the decades.
There is little guarantee that those who relocate will move into long-neglected areas. If anything, many who are leaving expensive coastal areas seem to be moving to Sunbelt states like Texas, Florida and Arizona. However, even this shift will help stimulate jobs and economic growth in those states, which is positive for the nation as a whole.
2. Improve Mental Health
COVID-19 was a stress test for all of us — although, to varying degrees. Folks who lived alone found themselves increasingly isolated. On the other hand, those in large households were often stuck at home with their family all day — which could be a substantial source of conflict and stress.
Additionally, essential or healthcare workers had to worry about contracting COVID-19, or exposing their families to it. Some of these folks were with their families, but had to sleep and eat apart.
As if all of this weren’t enough, the economy shrank precipitously, and tens of millions lost their jobs. As anyone who has had trouble finding work before knows, lack of employment can be a serious drag on one’s mental state.
When we consider all of these issues in the aggregate, it’s not surprising that mental health professionals have major concerns about our current, (and post COVID-19) world, in terms of mental health. Suicides rose significantly in 2020, while some research suggests that depression has tripled amongst American adults.
Where do we go from here? To be sure, there are no easy answers. Mental health challenges don’t stem from a single cause, so there is no “one size fits all” easy solution. Yet, we clearly have to do better.
Perhaps the most effective change we can make is at the local level. We each need to make a greater effort to stay in touch with those we love, to listen, to support. By the same token, when we need help, we should not hesitate to ask.
From personal experience, I can say that this is quite difficult. However, it is something each of us will have to do.
From a national perspective, we need policy solutions. The reflexive solution is to push for more funding — and maybe that’s needed. Yet, we need to not only increase access to mental health professionals, but also, consider more holistic ways of bringing about mental wellness.
I’m talking about classes around things like meditation, visualization, Stoicism and working through the inherent messiness of life. These services should be optional — but they absolutely should be available.
Workplaces and schools are an ideal place to disseminate these services. If that requires providing tax breaks or additional funding, it’s worth it. COVID-19 has shown that collectively, we need to improve our mental health. This must be a top priority.
3. Spending Time Outdoors
When you can’t really go anywhere, you start to appreciate the smaller things in life. A quiet midday stroll outdoors. A weekend hike through the mountains or woods. A run along the beach.
Before COVID-19, too many of us didn’t find time to do these things — at least, not very often. When the initial lockdowns hit in March, so many of us found ourselves stuck in the house, with nowhere to go. Over time, we began to rediscover the beautiful world just outside our doors.
This is something we should continue, post COVID-19. I firmly believe that if each of us dedicate ourselves to spending as little as 15 minutes per day, outside, and at least 1 hour in concentrated outdoor activities (whether exercise or simply walking), we’d be better off.
Of course, this raises another question: How do we find time to spend outdoors? Simple: How do we find time to watch TV, or eat a snack after work, or spend time on Instagram?
If we add up all of the 5 minutes we burn throughout the day, we see that we have plenty of time. We just often don’t use it wisely. The time to exercise and wander outdoors is there. We just have to find it. By doing so, we’ll be healthier and happier.
A Few Final Thoughts
There’s no question that COVID-19 has been devastating to the world, and certainly to the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. For those who weren’t directly impacted by COVID, schools were closed, jobs lost, and life altered.
Out of this devastation and tragedy, perhaps we can create something a little better. We can work better, think better, treat our bodies better, and live better.
Doing so will have to be a conscious choice. Also, it wont’ happen overnight. However, with time and effort, we’ll be able to create a better life for ourselves, and ultimately, a better world for all of us.