Will Pandemic Normal Become Just Plain Normal?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One feature of the Covid-19 Era is how much the standard ways of seeing and doing things have been remixed and turned upside down. The obvious question is then whether people will decide to make these new arrangements permanent or return to the old.
For example: I used to enjoy going to nouvelle-style slightly fancy restaurants, ordering 10 appetizers (and no main courses) and sharing them with a table of four. Many of those appetizers were composed of disparate ingredients, carefully placed on the plate and explained in loving detail by a friendly, well-informed waiter.
Today those same restaurants hold no appeal for me, assuming they are still open. Many of them have pared down their menus, as social distancing within kitchens has limited what cooks can accomplish. Nor do I want a waiter talking to me at any length. And since many of these places have such striking decor, some of the magic of the experience is lost when you sit outside.
My new favorite restaurants serve a lot of comfort food and stand-alone dishes. If it is the best pineapple fried rice around, that suffices. Sometimes I even dare to dine inside, albeit at 11 a.m. when no other customers are present. I finish my meal and am on my way.
What are the broader implications of my altered habits? If you are opening a restaurant, should you hire a chef who does fancy, creative work? Or one who specializes in comfort food?
Now consider another of my favorite pastimes, watching professional basketball. I have been following the NBA bubble with great interest. The Miami Heat are now favored to reach the NBA Finals, even though they were only the fifth-ranked team in the East at the end of the regular season. What happened? They have played with grit and determination, and their entire active roster showed up in first-rate physical shape. That’s not easy to do after a five-month layoff, as it required tremendous discipline.
In contrast, the Los Angeles Clippers were among the favorites to win the NBA title. They were recently eliminated by the Denver Nuggets, a very good team but not previously a top contender. In the final quarter of the last game of the series, the victorious Nuggets played with energy and verve, while the Clippers seemed to be gasping for air. After their defeat, some of the Clippers admitted that inferior conditioning was part of their problem.
So “staying in shape during a five-month layoff” is now a critical skill for a basketball player. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the Clippers need to revamp their roster. Maybe they should just wait for a return to normal times.
What about a more prosaic example: Zoom, which was already growing before the pandemic but has very rapidly become a huge and in some ways essential company. As it turns out, the company has the ability to respond to emergencies and scale up rapidly — but that was hardly considered a necessary skill in 2019, and it remains to be seen if it will matter much in 2022.
In a similar way, what makes a good worker or boss during a pandemic can be quite different than what makes a good worker or boss during normal times. Being able to work from a distance, for many months, is a skill rising in importance. Is that what companies should be looking for in new hires? Or is now the time to pick up talented but conformist “team players” who thrive on direct contact with their peers? Arguably those are the workers who are currently undervalued by the market.
Might these changes in quality affect your choices beyond work — such as your decisions about friends, family relations, romance, and much more? Should you buy a dog, knowing you probably won’t be homebound two years from now? How about dating? On a first date, presumably, looks should matter less and social carefulness more. But again, for how long? It would be very strange, and probably unwise, to form a lasting relationship based on how well your romantic interest wears a mask.
Sadly the world has entered a new paralysis, most of all because no one knows when things will return to normal, or what might become normal, or what might remain strange. When this pandemic ends, one thing we can all look forward to is making better plans.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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