People are insatiable for a look at how we’ll live and work in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so is easy: Remember some of the most normal things you did until about mid-March of this year and then consider those behaviors as radical. Commuting to the office, getting your kid ready for their first year away at school, boarding a plane to meet with a client – even if we do partake in any of these activities again, surely it won’t be in the same way as we did before.   

Since there’s no turning back, it will be crucial in the months and years ahead to lose any remaining love of the status quo. If we learn nothing else from COVID-19, it’s to focus not just on the damage done by the wildfire but also – and much more so – on supporting the green shoots that emerge from it.

Reading, Writing and Zooming

Let’s start with higher education. With many colleges and universities scaling back the number of students allowed on campus and offering most if not all of their instruction online, we won’t see the great student migration season this September. While some small number of families might load the family car with the mini fridge and twin XL bedding, their biggest concern won’t be empty-nesting but quarantining once the semester ends (and whether the kids really will keep their mask on at bar night).

Even as higher ed institutions work hard to retain as much of “the norm” as they can, the forward-thinkers will break from their comfort zones and accelerate experimental models of educating kids. Innovative chancellors and deans will study the online course providers such as Udacity and Coursera as these educational upstarts move from the fringe to the mainstream. For the change-makers, rote classroom activities will give way to a fusion of lesson plans with videogame-like distance learning, galvanized by instructors with captivating online personalities that foster far better student engagement.

And with the world’s dire and immediate need for new skills to navigate the post-COVID landscape, educators will also need to rethink not just their curricula but also the whole four-year, high-ticket approach to earning a degree. It could make more sense to create a perpetual educational model that integrates learning into students’ entire lifetime of work so they can continuously refresh and upgrade their knowledge and skills as the situation demands. Such a model would introduce a whole new category of university-level jobs to coordinate lifelong learning – what we’ve termed a Uni4Life Coordinator.

Home Is Where the Work Is

And then there’s the office. Or lack thereof. Actually, office-based work won’t go away, but the idea of spending 40, 50 or 70 hours a week there will. White-collar workers, by and large, will move to the state of Remotopia, a place of well-supported and highly productive work-from-anywhere capabilities. Of course, we all crave human interaction of the flesh-and-blood type, beyond what our Zoom Rooms and Team times offer. But for that we’ll turn to ex-urban pod-like meeting spaces and use mixed-reality and even haptic technologies to create virtual workspaces that offer livestreaming, see-what-I-see, is-she-or-isn’t-she-really-there experiences.   

When we do go to the office, the physical space will look and feel quite different. To gain entrance, we’ll need to pass through the airlocked lobby, where health-screening infrastructure has been implemented, according to the standards of the newly formed Health Security Agency. This government entity will function like the Transportation Security Agency does to secure air travel except it will scan our temperatures and other physical signals to assess whether we’re virus-free. (To learn more, attend our on-demand webinar “Smarter & Safer Ways to Reopen and Manage a Healthy Workplace.”)

Office design will reflect the main point of these infrequent coworker gatherings, which are less about fulfilling the quotidian and more about pursuing creative endeavors or navigating complex situations that require full human connection.  We’ll encounter this HSA-approved infrastructure wherever we go – at concerts, sporting events and before we board a plane.

Frequent Flying: Not Cool

Not that we’ll be doing much of the latter. When business travel cooled off overnight during the first COVID lockdowns, the idea of jumping on a plane to cross the world for a conference or meeting shifted from “why not” to “not.” As we avoided infection, the carbon load also diminished, delivering a cosmic message that our previous travel behavior needed to change. Frequent business travel went from a high-status activity to an embarrassment and stayed there.

When business travel does occur, air travel will be replaced by more sustainable alternatives, supported by government incentives and business policy for longer leave allowances. The world will embrace the idea that our need for economic health must be balanced by our concern for the planet. The need to grow will be accompanied by a moral understanding of our need to grow sustainably.

Beyond business travel, physical travel to anywhere will become rare – even visits to the bank, the insurer, the doctor. As an outgrowth of the overnight move to video-based medical appointments, we’ll see home-based FitBit-like diagnostics, with the data routed intelligently and securely to specialists who triage from afar. Everything from AR-driven virtual phlebotomies and Shazam-like identification of heart murmurs will replace in-person testing. 

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

As we peer past the current economic and health devastation of today, and consider the new landscape of our post-pandemic future, the silver lining of COVID begins to emerge: There will be jobs. With the need for tech-driven solutions and vast behavioral change to combat the innumerable ways in which COVID has laid us low, the need will be great for innovative, digitally-minded and sharply-skilled thinkers and doers who can tame the algorithms, inform the policies, fix the supply chains, find the new food sources, augment the realities of our aging populations – the list goes on.

All this is possible if we let go of our love for “what was” and turn our eyes to “what could be.” There’s room enough in that future for the things we hold most dear, as new growth never completely displaces the strongest Sequoias. Amid the chaos of our current time, look for the green shoots, and nurture them.

To learn more, see our After the Virus report.

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a coauthor of the books What To Do When Machines... Read more