It is never easy to adapt to change. We are creatures of habit, and tend to get comfortable with “what is” over time. We rarely welcome disruptions. Occasional change can offer us some relief, but nothing more than to break monotony or to keep us relatively dynamic, or to fend off stagnation. However, little change over a long time can also mean little growth.
COVID-19 is the biggest game-changer I have so far seen in my half a century. I have witnessed and lived through a few political and economic disruptions, but nothing as significant and as fluid — and as deadly — as the latest coronavirus. For many of us, this is our first global pandemic. And its negative impact on the global economy and society in general has truly been catastrophic.
But this does not mean that we cannot survive it. However, I am also sure that it will leave us forever changed as well, especially now that COVID-19 seems to be here for the long haul. No vaccine can offer 100% immunity or protection. At some point, we had practically eradicated polio, but now it is back. We have had to restart a new round of polio vaccinations for children.
We had gotten rid of smallpox and yellow fever decades ago, and we continue to vaccinate our young against mumps and chickenpox, among other diseases. But year in year out, we still have children — and some adults — getting sick of them. Flu shots and pneumonia vaccines are also now widely available, but people still die from pneumonia.
We need to accept the fact that we have to co-exist with COVID-19 — or any other virus, for that matter — because that is just the way things are. It was Spanish Flu in 1918, it is COVID-19 in 2020, and it can be some other virus next year or maybe 10 years down the road. We need to adapt to change, and accept that change, whatever it may be, may be permanent.
I usually work from home, like many other people now. But I have been doing so since 2011, so this particular change has not been very disruptive for me. But I can just imagine how big a change it has been for millions of workers worldwide who for years have been used to reporting for work at the office daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Google has just announced a decision to keep a big chunk of its workforce at home until mid-2021. Earlier, it said the work-from-home (WFH) arrangement will last until the end of 2020. We can only assume that recent developments regarding COVID-19 particularly in the United States prompted the decision to sustain WFH for a longer period of time. A consideration is the uncertainty of school opening and how this affects parents among the employees.
My decision in 2011 to work from home was prompted mainly by the birth of my son the year before. And realizing that the kind of work I do does not require a physical office outside the home, I opted for WFH so I can spend more time with him during his growing up years. I adapted to the change, thinking it was to be a “temporary” thing until he started elementary school.
But while I was doing WFH then, I still attended a lot of business meetings outside. Business lunches were fairly common. I still did interviews face to face, and occasionally via phone calls or e-mails. I never did video calls. Also, like many others, I was out most weekends, for out of town trips or to attend lunches and dinners with family.
And while I have been doing online shopping since 2011, this was limited to maybe twice a year on Amazon for items that can be shipped directly to the Philippines. I was in the supermarket or in the mall at least three times a week to get stuff. We went to the movies and ate out, and would travel locally or abroad at least once every year.
However, all that changed four months ago. I have rarely been out of my city of residence since mid-March. I go out of the house only to get supplies. I have also learned to buy more things online, and have more items or food delivered to the house. Going to the movies and eating out is now a thing of the past. We have not visited relatives since mid-March as well.
Nine years since I started WFH, I am still doing WFH. And I am back where I started in 2011, practically. School has been disrupted, so my son is also now at home again, doing online/distance learning. Even my wife now works from home every other week. And looking at how things are going with COVID, what I used to think was a “temporary” WFH and school-from-home (SFH) arrangement for the family is obviously here to stay until the next “disruption.”
In the last few months, I have had to go beyond Viber and regular text messaging and phone calls and learn to use Zoom, Google Meet, Messenger video call, and Webex. I have had to do interviews on Zoom and Viber, aside from receiving most work-related documents and utility bills via e-mail. Most of my banking is also done electronically as well. Even food take-out counters and deliveries are paid via electronic channels. I hold and use cash sparingly nowadays.
I have accepted the fact that this will be the business norm from now on, at least for me. And it doesn’t seem like there will be any going back from this. Pre-COVID days are done, as far as I am concerned. The work and home environments are evolving and will continue to evolve just as technology and tools also evolve. And change is affecting not only how we do business but how we do every day things in general. It is not a welcome disruption, but change never is. But I have to learn to live with it. For with or without COVID, life will have to go on.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council