Thursday, March 19, 2020

What Will Never Be The Same?

When the virus (that's the way I'm going to talk about it now, casually calling it "the virus" without differentiating it from the thousands of other viruses there are, because you damn well know what I'm talking about) began to rage, and the American system of higher education decided to send our young folks home with vague promises of internet-based instruction with details to follow, I thought to myself that this could be the beginning of the end for the traditional Western university that has had a pretty decent 1200 year run. After all, if we can do this in an emergency (a bug), why couldn't we do it as a practice (feature). Yes, yes, I know, there are already all kinds of internet learning paths...but what I'm talking about here is the "push" that actually brings about the end of one paradigm and the flowering of others. 

So the purpose of this post is to ask, what else is on the chopping block? You can use the comment section if you like.

Here's one. Healthcare. Yes, I know. There's a lot of "distance medicine" going on right now. But think about a day where a small set of computer peripherals hook directly into a mediating software enabling a proper back and forth in real time between a patient and a provider. What percentage of physical visits could be avoided? How much more efficient could the system be? And as we become more accustomed to telemedicine, could whatever regulatory/rent-seeking barriers that continue to carve up the nation's health insurance markets within state lines begin to fall?

Obviously, Amazon has changed our world. But I need Shake and Bake for pork right now. I only have one packet remaining (crisis). A distribution system that brings it to me today, or a system where I could make an order, get in my car, and drive up to a delivery kiosk where my order would be available for pickup based on code I received?  Yes please.

I think the whole "tele-work" thing could explode after this, with more and more Americans working from home. Or--we could find that after studying this period, we all really did just "phone it in" and our productivity went through the floor. Or maybe we find that because people can and do work when they want throughout the day and life, that there is a productivity increase? I don't know...but it will be interesting to see.


Brian Haluska said...

This is the kind of thinking that has been filling my spare moments, especially in my line of work, where we're sort of supposed to be thinking about what's next and paving the way for it (or at least holding back some tree branches).

I think the first point is, the length of the disruption will matter. A two week pause won't yield many changes. Once we go past 30 days, routine changes become the new routine. I wonder how long before the "disruption" becomes the new normal.

One item I've wondered about for years is how the increase in efficiency in the workplace over the last generation has been captured or squandered. I work in government, and we've made a lot of strides toward moving customer service to online platforms, but we never seem to close off the old methods. The front desk is still open 8 to 5. The fax machine is still there.

Right now our office is only open to the public for 8 hours a week. If the walk-in traffic can be handled in 8 hours a week, is the extra convenience the customer gets from us being open 40 hours really worth the disruption to our work that the expectation of dropping everything when someone walks in?

On a broader level, I think there's a lot of workers that have been "working" 40 hour weeks that could accomplish all their tasks for the week in far less time. I wonder if a forced extended work from home period might cause the American white collar workers to re-examine the nature of work in this country. There's nothing scared about working 40 hours a week. Employers would be well served, in the interest of their workers quality of life, to move toward a model where you get paid your salary to do a task. How and when you accomplish that task is up to you. Are we working to live, or living to work?

In the land use field, we've been thinking for years about how the built environment changes as autonomous vehicles begin to enter the urban environment. Clearly, the logistics field would be an early adopter, and this event has forced people to see the potential. Imagine if delivery could be done without a person driving the car. The entire delivery process can be automated. How many restaurants could get rid of dine-in space? How many retailers wouldn't need highly visible storefronts?

For sports fans, I think this disruption could be the event that ends the super conferences in college sports. The system was always unsustainable, and this could be the shock that splinters it. How many casual fans will never come back? Will the disruption to the revenue stream cause the whole system to collapse, especially if like you say, the model of higher ed is about to go through a drastic overhaul.

Tom Comeau said...

I wonder about restaurants. The high-end places will likely come back, but the experience of Outback or Olive Garden frankly does not seem very different between curbside and table service. The one difference, of course, is alcohol, which could be solved a couple of ways.

Premix cocktails are already available at the bigger liquor stores, and wine is half the price if you open it yourself. "Aussie" branded cocktails are mostly a packaging problem. So perhaps enabling legislation could be written to allow sealed beverages in the big bag they deliver to your car.

If this event is over in one quarter, as the nice woman from BofA hopes, then I think restaurants come back. If they're down for 18 months, we may get out of the habit, and not go back for any but high-service places. Everything else will be pickup.

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