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After COVID-19, We Can Go Back to Normal, or Move Forward

By John Friedman

The COVID-19 pandemic will long be a defining event for younger generations - much as the Great Depression, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landings and the housing market crash of 2008 affected society for years. People lament missed graduation ceremonies (mostly those who remember their own fondly) but there are other lessons that may be even more compelling. Rather than seeking to turn back the clock a few months, let us do so thoughtfully, carefully and fully implementing the lessons we can take from this unintended and unexpected experience we find ourselves facing.

Environmental stewardship won’t go away after COVID-19

Over the decades, the gradual increase in air pollution has lowered visibility in many of our cities. Even with reductions due to lower-polluting vehicles and the shift away from coal-fired power plants, it is still stunning to see vistas that most of us never remembered before. The swiftness with which the cleaner air has revealed the natural beauty of clearer skies has been remarkable. Will we lament the loss when, inevitably, locales reopen as the threat from the novel coronavirus fades? Or will we seek to ‘hang on’ to what we had forgotten we had lost and seek to maintain the benefit even as the economy comes back online? The bottom line: will we seek to hang on to what we have forgotten we had lost?

Social justice disparities have been magnified

COVID-19 has demonstrated the foresight of those who built the Internet; they demonstrated the importance of building a redundant and resilient system that handled the increased traffic and dependency. It also demonstrated the need to make sure that access to this critical infrastructure reaches to every community and every home. Some counties in North Carolina, for example, made the decision not to reopen schools and offer distance-based learning because a high percentage of their students would have been left behind.

Rather than creating disparities, they chose to offer only review for the balance of the school year. That is not a sustainable solution, as those disparities exist all the time. Now that COVID-19 has made that lesson clear, will we learn? What will we do differently? Or will we simply accept going back to what has been exposed as being unfair?

Similarly, the great economic boom of the last decade has left all too many behind. After missing one or two paychecks, millions of people were desperate for economic relief and assistance, whether through unemployment benefits or checks. Some countries offered a substantial portion of salary, tax relief and payments. Clearly the soaring stock markets and political rhetoric did not match the experience of many people and their families. Now that such a stark reality has been exposed, do we accept going back to the way it was?

Another social aspect from sheltering in place: will some choose to continue to telework and will companies be more receptive, especially if they maintained productivity and costs were reduced? What does this portend to the dual-income-family and issues like child care? What will the long-term impact be on our roads and public transit, if fewer people use them? Will people be inspired to travel themselves, if fearing potential exposure and backlash on social media? The answers will emerge after a long time, only for more questions to arise.

Sound corporate governance still matters

COVID-19 has revealed to many companies that team spirit does not rely on proximity to be created; nor does proximity offer enough of it. Leaders who never, or rarely met with their subordinates may have felt, or been compelled, by these circumstances to communicate and check in more often via conference calls and videoconferencing). Will they go back to their old management style, or move forward?

Finally, the importance of being able to influence without authority has been demonstrated. That is something sustainability professionals have had to do for years – how do you build productive relationships with those whom you need to be on board, when you don’t have the authority to do anything by lacking the opportunities to ask, discuss and persuade?

We have learned that in order to thrive, we must have established relationships so that the first time you reach out to someone, you’re not asking a stranger for a favor. Building credibility by demonstrating a shared purpose as well as an understanding of their goals and situation are lessons that politicians will need to have learned sooner rather than later. After all, reopening “for business” is going to take collaboration, cooperation and coordination. And that starts with mutual respect and trust.

In the words of Thomas Paine; “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” To do otherwise would only compound this ongoing tragedy.

Image credit: Victor He/Unsplash

John Friedman headshot

John Friedman is an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies live their values and engage in authentic conversations by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices. He's the author of Managing Sustainability: First Steps to First Class.

John Friedman is Managing Director, ESG & Sustainability Services for Grant Thornton, LLP.

On digital media, Friedman is recognized as a thought leader; on TriplePundit’s List of the Top 30 Sustainability Bloggers on Twitter, #3 on GreenBiz list of most influential 'Twitterati', #14 on Guardian Business’ 30 most influential sustainability voices in America, was voted #4 of the "100 leading voices in CSR" by Global CEO Magazine readers, and has regularly been included among the top voices in CSR by Forbes.

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