What changes to our work-life balance can we expect after COVID-19

COVID-19 is having a drastic effect on people (especially the sick and vulnerable), healthcare systems and economies. It has forced changes to how we think and live now, and will change how we think and live in future. It has also caused businesses to assess their core values and assets. Hopefully, they conclude that the latter are their people.

Some changes will be temporary.

Some changes will linger and re-shape how we work, live and play in the future.

Some changes will be positive.

Some changes will be negative.

Some changes will introduce new fears and prejudices and re-shape generations’ view on life, as happened after the 1929 crash, the 1987 crash and the 2008/09 Global Financial Crisis.

Many changes will take years to materialise or become apparent.

One example of change is that many New Zealanders, because the country is in full lockdown, have been forced to work from home. This has resulted in some compromises to work productivity, family dynamics and work-life balances, in elevated stress levels and in new approaches to old problems.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, many New Zealand businesses did not allow staff to work from home, or discouraged staff from working from home because many business managers considered working from home to be unproductive or inefficient or just an excuse to skive off.

Under full lockdown, many New Zealand businesses not only have had to accommodate staff working from home but also have had to facilitate it, support it and adjust for it. In the process, weaknesses in WiFi and broadband coverage and speed have been exposed.

The majority of businesses’ previous objections to reservations about staff working from home have proven to be erroneous, or the product of businesses managers’ prejudices or the desire to wield control over subordinates or another example of many business managers’ incompetence, lack of imagination or inability to think laterally.

Solutions to weaknesses in WiFi and broadband coverage must be found (more cell towers and more fibre optic cables perhaps?). Two arguably important and influential politicians in New Zealand, Simon Bridges (Leader of the Opposition) and Phil Goff (Mayor of Auckland), have been without adequate internet service in their homes. Their circumstances may be the trigger for improving internet services.

The recent and unplanned change to New Zealand’s business environment and work-life balance need not be temporary. It is an opportunity to try a different approach to the work-life-home balance, to try to do something different (and better).

Sure, there are a number of businesses that will always require face to face interaction between the business and its customers, such as in the tourism and hospitality industries, and hairdressing. The retail sector has been undergoing an evolutionary change in recent years with the rise in on-line shopping. COVID-19 has forced tourism and hospitality sectors into a revolutionary change, but there is only so much that can be done.

It is imperative that economies dependent on international tourism, such as New Zealand, Pacific Islands, the Caribbean must find alternative sources of lost export earnings.

A positive from COVID-19 has been environmental benefits, specifically clean air (especially in smog-ridden cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi and Mumbai) and clean waters (Venice). Air and water pollution are unwanted consequences of industrialisation and, to some extent, globalisation. The world has seen clean air and water in places where they have not been seen for decades but the newly clean air and water have been at the cost of economic activity and jobs.

It may take years for businesses, workers and governments to recover from the effects of, responses to and consequences of COVID-19. The environment though will take a very short time to return to its previous polluted state unless action is taken now. But I doubt there will be any actions to improve the environment will be as timely and extensive as those to restore economic growth and jobs in industrialised nations.

The tourism and hospitality sectors, among others, and their influences on and contribution to the New Zealand economy may never be anything like they were before COVID-19. Equally, this is an opportunity to examine not only how and why businesses operate but also the businesses’ and societies’ core values, assets and long term goals. This applies to all industries and in all countries.

Leadership needed in this crisis

Governments have shown leadership by announcing or implementing strong fiscal measures, many at an unprecedented scale and speed. Almost all nations have shut borders and put arrivals in quarantine but a (brave) few have locked down a city, region or the entire country. Effective strong government leadership, which I define as setting and implementing informed fiscal and public health goals with the compliance of the general population, has generally been achieved through open communication and either imposed (China) or compassionate (New Zealand) leadership.

China is an example of an enforced leadership that imposed drastic measures on a section of its population but openly communicated its actions, progress and results locally and globally. The leadership in New Zealand, on the other hand, showed compassion and openly communicated its reasoning, priorities and actions in response to the coronavirus threat and has earned the respect and co-operation of almost all the population in locking down the entire country.

Both China and New Zealand made mistakes along the way but admitted and learned from those mistakes. Having accepted and openly communicated the strategy of accepting short term pain for long term gain, they made hard decisions and look set to be among those emerging soonest and healthiest from the social, economic and fiscal storm in which the world finds itself. Yet, the leaders of some nations refuse to admit the size of the threat or in some cases, its very existence.

Many countries’ leaders, governments, media and people are still debating what to do or are openly in denial of the inevitable breaching of their border(s) by this unprecedented health and social threat. Most of those nations (both industrialised and emerging) are run by leaders who are no more than poster boys with egos and spin doctors, who think, speak and act out of self-interest and/or for political (or personal) gains and who seek only to reinforce or retain their power. They are leaders of nations in name only. They are not true leaders of their people, which is what the world needs now. They risk their nation and people suffering not only huge health, social and economic damage during and after the coronavirus pandemic but also isolation and loss of international prestige afterwards. One, in particular falls far short of his predecessors’ self-proclaimed title of leader of the free world.

To be a leader in the world, those at the top of the power pyramid in each country must show leadership in their own country, which means that they must seek informed advice to implement social and fiscal policies, and must view and interact with the world with an open mind and an open heart. And they must do it now!