What we do not know about the surreal period we’re in—“Coronatide” is our King of the Hill name for it—would fill the proverbial book, or actually several. (My sources for what I say, for the record, range from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times to the other usual suspects: Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Bloomberg, PwC, Harvard Business Review, etc. I won’t presume to speak to medical/scientific issues, desperate as we all are to have some clarity; I’m sticking with the economic/business/strategic issues.)
What we don’t know, or don’t know with any material degree of confidence, are:
- When we can prudently begin to “restart” the parts of the economy that are shut down;
- How to stage/phase it regionally or by metro area;
- How to stage/phase it by industry sector or function;
- Even if it’s all green-lighted from a regulatory and public health perspective, when will people’s confidence to venture forth and be among others in groups return?
- Which sectors will take the longest to recover from the psychological anxiety hangover? Will we be able to simply walk down the sidewalk without tremendous self-consciousness of others’ distance? How “safe?” will a typical office feel? Elementary and secondary schools? Colleges and universities? Churches and synagogues? Retail stores? Bars and restaurants? Theaters, museums, libraries, performing arts? Sports stadiums? Mass transit?
- Will the return of confidence require a vaccine or would an effective (minimally, life-preserving) course of therapy be enough? (There’s some sort of rough precedent for the “therapy” approach, at least: There’s no HIV/AIDS vaccine, but it has morphed from a death sentence to a chronic condition people live with.)
- And…you get the picture.
But that’s not what we’re discussing today.
It’s actually not the case that we know nothing about how or when this will end or what the Post-Coronatide world will look like. Let’s examine a few more or less known known’s.
Real estate and office space
The office is dead, long live the office. The last great barrier to remote Working From Home—the psychological resistance premised on nothing other than, it turns out, habit and lack of imagination as to how it could possibly be different—has now fallen.
We have heard repeatedly that even the most stubborn opponents of remote and virtual working are now converts. Meanwhile, admit it, you’ve discovered a new pastime: Critiquing your colleagues’ chosen Zoom backgrounds: A bookcase? Can we identify any of the books by their spines? Does the stage set include a globe, a chessboard, model trains/trucks/airplanes, sports memorabilia, an astrolabe, family/pet photos, diplomas? Let’s not even get started on wallpapers and upholstery.
Seriously, why did we need those tens of thousands of square feet of Class A space? We didn’t and we don’t. Not all, not entirely by any means, but a surprisingly large proportion of the work we do requires computing power in the appropriate mix of form factors, high-speed broadband, and remind me what the third thing is?
Regular readers know that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool fan of world-class global metropolises and of course first and foremost of my own hometown, New York City. They are under zero existential threat. Human beings are among the most social of all species, and among many of us the yearning for connecting and congregating again is palpable. People have a profound need to connect in person; but we’ve learned it does not need to be five days a week with everyone at the center of our work orbit.
Dense cities obviously have virtues—far more efficient use of resources, assets, and time, and frequent serendipitous physical interactions—but they also have costs, including the requirements of coordination, greater reliance on centralized systems, and congestion. The challenging-to-do but obvious-to-recognize intersection has to combine technology (something like Zoom version 10.0 plus hoteling plus super-secure cloud storage and apps plus “presence awareness” for each individual) with the right public/private incentives to invest in finally, truly, 21st-Century infrastructure.
What a once-a-century opportunity!