life

Keeping
our distance

We will recover from the coronavirus outbreak and as we do so some aspects of our world – and how we move around it – will be changed forever. Hopefully for the better…

Home life Keeping
our distance
Keeping
our distance

Government efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic have cracked down on our free movement. Many of us are confined to a highly limited area, with our homes at the centre, and we are being asked to maintain a distance of two metres from anyone we encounter outside our household.

We don’t yet know how our freedom to travel will be returned over the months – or even years – to come. But our experiences under lockdown are certain to shape our attitudes to how mobility works best in the future.

Time for a reset

For professor of management practice Lynda Gratton of London Business School, this period provides a “mass experiment” that could shine a light on behaviour that has become unsustainable in society – and give us a chance to reframe it.

“We have got into bad habits in terms of too many meetings, long commutes and not enough time with our kids,” she explains. “Our carbon footprint, our mental health and the wear and tear have all warned us that this was wrong, but for all sorts of reasons we haven’t been able to stop it. This gives us the opportunity to reset that.”

In Gratton’s list, the personal toll of pressured work practices and over-committed lives collides with the planetary toll of climate change and pollution. She’s not the only observer who thinks the coronavirus emergency will expose these deepening cracks in the way we live, work and behave – and also, hopefully, give us a chance to create better methods. 

The new journey to work

Take commuting. Gratton believes that the experience of so many people working virtually, for several months, all at the same time, will fundamentally shift our attitude towards working from home. Particularly as it comes at a moment when technology has become good enough for effortless video-conferencing and communication.

For many professions it’s possible and desirable that working from home increases in the post-virus world, at least for some of the week. This would also relieve the pressure on public transport at a time when people are likely to be less willing to share crowded carriages. The return to freer movement in China, for example, saw a rise in private car use, according to The Economist, as people sought to limit their contact with others and use of the underground systems in big cities was down by around two-thirds. Perhaps we will also be more flexible about the times at which people travel to and from work if they are still heading into an office, in order to minimise crowding.

For short distances of around 2km or less, it’s likely that more people will want to take freedom of movement into their own hands. The obvious solutions are walking, cycling, e-bikes and compact electric cars – trends that were already rolling out in many cities. In the UK, the bicycle industry saw a surge in business in the weeks before government advice to stay at home as people sought to avoid public transport. Bicycle repair shops were particularly busy as old bikes were brought back into action.

Moving online

Until the virus is totally eliminated, we are also likely to re-evaluate the need for personal contact in all our activities. “Instead of asking, ‘Is there a reason to do this online?’ we’ll be asking, ‘Is there any good reason to do this in person?’” writes Georgetown University professor of linguistics Deborah Tannen in Politico Magazine. That shift in mentality is likely to prompt a rethink of countless activities that have so far resisted a full-scale move online, from doctors’ appointments to teaching to voting.

Business travel could be rethought, too. Gratton quotes a Chinese businessman who used to fly between Beijing and Shanghai every week for two meetings. He’s found he can do the same meetings through video-conferencing, fits in three extra meetings in the time he saves and has no plans to return to flying.

We don’t yet know how we will emerge from Covid-19, but it may be that this crisis changes some of our more destructive embedded habits. And the glimmer of hope is that those changes will bring a healthier, more sustainable and more human world.

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