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After the virus: More working at home, fewer but better friends

A person works on a laptop in North

A person works on a laptop in North Andover, Mass. on June 19, 2017. Credit: AP/Elise Amendola

ALBANY — Academic futurists say the COVID-19 virus will shape the future of everyday life, including the acceleration of big changes already underway such as more people working at home, having fewer but better friends, and the establishment of more corner bars in neighborhoods such as those on Long Island.

“It is going to be transformative on a personal basis, on a social basis, on a systems basis," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said last week. He fears hugging friends will be lost. "We’re never going to be the same again.”

It’s happened before.

Changes in everyday life were a result of the 1918 influenza pandemic that infected 1 in 4 Americans, said Nancy K. Bristow, history professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.

“Many communities passed new laws around public sanitation, for instance, banning the common drinking cup — still used regularly in many public spaces such as schools and train stations — or making spitting in public illegal,” she said. The Great Depression — another social and health upheaval just over a decade later — triggered long-term changes like public health care, she said.

“Life after the virus will be different from before the virus,” said Amy Webb, professor of strategic foresight at the New York University Stern School of Business. “We have a choice to make: Do we want to confront our cherished beliefs and make meaningful changes for the future, or do we simply want to preserve the status quo?” Webb said.

“Having to ‘shelter in place’ reveals the vulnerabilities in our education and health care systems,” she said. “Some school systems have a plan and were already using technology to support remote learning, but there are many teachers who lack familiarity with digital tools (and) not every household has an internet connection or a device for each child.

“Telemedicine is needed now for remote diagnostics, but it's clear that telemedicine software doesn't work with electronic health records or patient dashboards,” Webb said. “ … We must be willing to imagine the unimaginable, and to rethink our ideas for the future.”

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Some changes will be from within.

“Many things could change,” said Pete Lunn, head of the Behavioural Research Unit in the Department of Economics at Trinity College Dublin. “But I would argue that the primary thing to consider is the concept of habit. Habits are super-efficient. They free up our brains to think about things we need or want to think about, like work, looking after our families, spending time with friends — our primary goals.

“But habits also stop us from trying alternatives that may be better, because we just do the same thing day after day, week after week, and don’t really stop to question it,” Lunn said. “This crisis has made us stop and reconsider habitual activities … I would argue that the ones most likely to stick are those where people are surprised by how good the alternative has turned out to be.”

“New eating, shopping and travel patterns are also possible, because we spend a lot of time doing these things and yet they are very habitual,” he said, noting the decline in all those areas during the outbreak. “I think friendships may change, too. The crisis is a good excuse to break social habits and so shake off friendships or relationships that are not working for us.”

But he said there will likely be deeper change as well.

“A crisis like this can change values,” Lunn said. “Crises force communities to come together and work more as teams, be that as neighborhoods, company staff, voluntary organizations, whatever … and this may affect the values of those who live through this specific period — just as it has for wartime generations.”

In an age of social distancing, Wall Street analysts see Zoom and home-working platforms as hot future bets.

“Many believe the result of this experience will lead to more people choosing to work remotely one or two days a week,” said Liz Farmer of the Future of Labor Research Center fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government. “I would expect a rather exponential uptick. Now about 5.3% are working at home, I would expect that to be in double digits after this, a year from now when this smooths out.”

Farmer also sees a rise in “co-worker space” at the corner bar, the library or a coffee shop. There, at-home workers — often from the same field but even from different companies — can gather for water-cooler chat, and maybe come up with innovations.

“We are striving for personal connections,” she said. “We’re working from home, but we are working with kids running around in the background … in a kitchen or a messy bedroom. Our co-workers never saw that before and we’re all doing it at the same time. It will bring us together closer, if not physically.”

Cities won’t die, but will continue to evolve, said William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, a think tank at Rice University in Houston.

“There is likely to be lasting structural change in the way cities and suburbs work,” Fulton said. “As people work at home more, this will only amp up the bar and restaurant scene in places like Brooklyn and West Queens.”

“But it’s also an opportunity for suburbs like Long Island, especially Nassau County,” Fulton said. “Long Island does have the ability in some places to provide an enhanced walking experience near people’s houses — in the old villages and near the old train stations, where there is potential to build newer, higher-density housing. And for those who are in auto-bound suburbs all day, they’ll want to get out more."

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, can see that.

“Will they find single-family homes with yards and more rooms — including a home office for telecommuting — more appealing than a cramped apartment?” he asked. “You might also see more millennials decide that the suburbs where they grew up aren’t so bad after all.”

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