Isolation: Love it or leave it? Place your bets!
This pandemic is a big, big deal. Many have opined that it has shifted the world to a "new normal." But me: not buying it. Sure, it's weird as all get out right now. However, I don't think much has changed permanently. If and whenever this pandemic ends, after a spinup period that varies by industry, our lives and our organizations will look much like they did at the start of 2020, for better or worse. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but even beards and shaggy hair will stop being acceptable again. (PJs were never cool.)
My research on the cognitive underpinnings, dynamics, and results associated with concepts like corporate social responsibility and corporate reputation suggests that people have short memories and the digital age has only enhanced this. We'll forget the current oddities in due course. Combining scholarship with personal experiences in the wake of September 11th, 2001, I proposed that we would quickly go "from me to we and back again," despite this major shock. And unfortunately, our national unity was indeed rather short-lived. I believe that such reversion (to the being mean? Trademark!) will hold after the virus, too. Though it's a much longer and broader shock, when it ends, we will return to the old normal, not a new normal. Our habits are hard to break. Our sense of normality is a heavy weight with a strong gravitational pull. The notion of normal drifts over time, but sudden and dramatic permanent shifts to new normals are few and far between.
Post-pandemic, we will return – mostly – to how we were pre-pandemic. I'm not saying that nothing will change, just as some things did dramatically change after Sept. 11th. The better question is, which things will change and by how much? Well, let's publicly place our bets! For bonus points, and to make this at least pseudo-academic, what theories can we draw from to make these predictions? And what theories are being tested right now by this pandemic?
I'll offer my predictions in a few germane areas and though ironically it might constitute a new normal here, I ask that you please respond with your predictions on these and any other areas that you deem germane. Maybe we can revisit in, say, 2025, and see how we fared.
End of the office?
We have involuntarily made a drastic shift to working from home since March 2020. Does this signal the demise of office space? (great movie, BTW; also, see Idiocracy). My bet: no.
In academia, we have long demanded office space that goes empty most of the time (well, empty of humans; not of paper – that paperless society we were supposed to be living in was a bit overstated, too). Ever the contrarian, I'd made a habit of going into the office every day. But forced to do otherwise now, I've gotten used to it. I've set up a more workable home office space, so maybe I'll go in less often in the future. Maybe administrators now have the ability to push hot desking and bullpen type setups, leading to less need for individual offices.
Countering this is the greater need for separate enclosed spaces. People don't want to be breathed on by other people from 9-5 anymore; we need more distance. Plus there's still a need to build and sustain community in organizations. I don't know how much it matters in academia, where many default to acting as independent contractors, but outside of our special little bubble, people need to interact in order to build and sustain cultures. Technology is a poor substitute, and open floor plans no longer feel comfortable. Thus, I see a broad need for office space returning.
End of the conference?
My first AOM conference was in 1998 in San Diego. This year's turn to a virtual format ended my annual streak, at 22, of sniffing out the finest of free food and booze. Is virtual the new normal for conferences? Woe is me, are the NYU social and the Wisconsin kegger relegated to history's dustbin? My bet: no, but conferences will be less frequent overall. No longer will you be able to readily find a vacation-worthy academic conference to fill any chosen weekend.
Out of environmental concern, many have been pushing for virtual conferences for years, though without much luck. With this additional shove, I think we have made it over the edge; virtual conferences are now acceptable to the masses. But they are not preferable. Many have adjusted and will accept them – within limits. I believe that the premier conferences will return to in person, but they will be augmented with remote access, allowing those who cannot or do not want to travel to participate. The lesser and specialty conferences will shift to a mostly online presence, though. This will allow them to bring in more big-name speakers, who will not face the burden of travel in order to attend. But as we have seen, the low cost of organizing will also produce a glut of webinars, leading to a shakeout. We can't take advantage of all the great online content that has been and will be created. Perhaps like journals, but hopefully without for-profit publishers somehow gaining the ability to hostage-take our free content, we will see curation of online content that directs attention along status hierarchies.
End of the classroom?
Zoom, Zoom, Zoom. WebEx. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Skype (how did they fumble their huge lead again?) Or whatever. We have learned video conference technology at the end of a firehose this year as we involuntarily shifted to online classrooms en masse (with the notable exception of some of my "red state" university comrades). Will our classrooms remain in the virtual world? My bet: no, though we may see the end of the large in-person lecture.
Allow me to explain. [ . . . . . . . . . . ] Oh, sorry – I was muted. Can you hear me now? Yes? OK, good. So, as I was saying kr gah spuh jaaa . . . Ugh. I froze up. I'm back now. OK, so . . . Come on, how much more of this can we take? Online has only proven that it is a poor substitute for in-person classrooms. People are clamoring to come back, even while the risks of infection remain significant. We want to be physically present in the classroom, and so we will be – in droves – when this pandemic ends. I surmise that there will be increased demand for in-person education, not less. Or at least at the high end of the academic spectrum. Overall, I think we'll see that this pandemic exacerbates status and wealth differences. The top universities will return to the way they were and see increased demand for their services. But at the bottom, tech may finally take its toll, with few being able to justify the costs of small in-person classes.