Post-Covid Life, Part II

The Optimist Edition

Last week I wrote about what life will look like for educators in a Post-Covid world, admittedly taking an optimistic viewpoint. This week, I continue with that topic, turning to office work, travel, and specifically what it means for us in education. My crystal ball remains clouded, but maybe there are a few lines of clarity peeking through? I can hope.

What will happen to the office in acutely interesting to me, in part because it relates closely to lessons for us in education. Many businesses discovered in the last year that their employees could be productive while working from home, and their second biggest expense (real estate) could be substantially reduced and reconfigured. Based on that evidence, employees are asking for flex time, and have discovered the joys of not commuting - not only the time wasted, but also the environment improved.

I will say this: I would not want to be in the commercial real estate business in any major city right now. Major corporations, including Ford and Target, are giving up large swaths of their leased office space around the country. Spotify has told all of their employees they can work from wherever they want. Microsoft is giving their employees the option to be in the office, remote, or a mix of both. REI sold a new office building they had built just before the pandemic, having found benefits to remote working that they want to retain:

We saw teams coming together in a different way - really focused on the outcomes. They weren’t worried about finding a conference room. They weren’t worried about who could be where at different points in time. They were focused on what problem do we need to solve, and who needed to be there. And they would just gather virtually, and made incredible progress.

Recently, the NYTimes published an article about this, calling it a “tectonic shift:” Remote Work is Here to Stay. Manhattan May Never Be the Same. In that article there were two critical data points for the near future of my home town: 16.4% of office space is vacant in midtown and lower Manhattan right now - a much higher vacancy rate than after previous crises (including 9/11). This will likely result in a $2.5 Billion dollar tax receipt shortfall for the city. A large employer in the financial services industry in New York, J.P. Morgan Chase, has told their employees that the five-day office work week is a “relic.” The COO of that company said this in the Times article:

Going back to the office with 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time - I think there is zero chance of that.

But not everyone at every company will work from home indefinitely either. There are benefits to serendipitous interactions that do not happen over Zoom. So it seems clear that offices will (at the least) be smaller, more permeable, and flexible. In other words, a hybrid work world will emerge, different for different companies and their varied missions and needs. Employees will select companies to work for in part through the flexibility of the work options they allow. I believe that all of that is to the good - many employees will benefit from a more flexible work location schedule, not the least working mothers. And so again, Covid has helped us see some fundamental things more clearly: Did we really need to spend all that miserable part of our precious lives commuting? No. Did we need to burn all that fossil fuel to get there and back? No.

We will probably - many of us - still wear masks, at the very least on public transportation. And it will become a part of the culture to wear a mask when you are sick, as it has been in Asia for decades. Not everyone, unfortunately, but many of us will do this - for our own safety and those of others.

In education, the shifts in office use should - I hope - also be seen in how we operate. We will appreciate being together again, and leveraging the benefits of in-person instruction. But my hope is that we will not just go back to “normal” and instead think about what we learned in using technology more broadly than before in reaching our students. And that we will use what we learned to conduct hybrid teaching experiments, in courses and more broadly in curricula. I expect we will properly value the precious time when we are together - and use that when it is needed, and leverage technology when it is not. If we do this, I believe these experiences and experiments will reverberate throughout the educational sphere for a decade or more. As I have noted here, here, and here, our educational future is a hybrid one. But faculty meetings from a distance? Turns out that is not bad, and it is more efficient too.

My daughter is a freshman in college this year. But she never got to go to campus, to move into her dorm - to meet her roommates, to hang out and have fun with them. Instead, she has been attending the college she selected at what we call “The Kitchen Table Campus.” I am afraid that is a very old and tired joke in our house by now. And she has mostly not been at the kitchen table anyway, but rather at her desk in the basement. I wrote about the grief of lost opportunities and life milestones last week. I had both hoped for, and dreaded, the process of taking her to college, getting her settled in her dorm room, and the acute pain of saying goodbye. We will (we sure hope) be doing some form of that this August, but it won’t be quite the same. She’ll be a sophomore, after all.

She has been a good sport about spending her freshman year at home, keeping a level head and staying focused on her work. Hard work too - she is studying in the health sciences area - Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy, Calculus - to name a few. She has learned well through the technology. It works. The quality of the delivery has not been uniformly top notch, of course, but most of it has been quite effective. No, it is not the same as being in a physical classroom, but it had some benefits a classroom does not have, such as the comforts of home and a fully stocked refrigerator 30 feet away, and fewer distractions.

I think, when she does get to her campus, that she will be even more fully engaged than she would have been otherwise (which was likely high already - that’s just the way she is). But her loyalty for the place will be fearsome, and she will remember and treasure so much more than she might have otherwise. It will all be so much more precious for the year that was lost, hanging out at home with her parents. (We, on the other hand, will always treasure the extra year with her).

I believe we will see a version of this playing out in our students throughout education, for some time to come. The appreciation of the precious moments and events will be heightened. The engagement will be deeper. This is something for us to look forward to as educators, and we need to think carefully about how to nurture and treasure it.

I realize this is the optimist’s version of the post-Covid future. Many think we will just go back to the way we did things before, only worse. But that’s not what my crystal ball says, however cloudy it is. We have learned a lot from this, and the world - generally and overall - will be better for it.

Letters of Recommendation

Last week I offered my recommendation of “Cocktails with a Curator” of the Frick Collection in New York, as an example of how arts organizations have innovated to reach their audience in new ways during the pandemic. Here is another one: In London, Wigmore Hall opened in 1901, and has had an extraordinary stream of live concerts ever since. Those were interrupted by Covid, of course, but they decided to continue the recitals and make them available on the ‘net for free. Yes, you should probably contribute, but you do not have to, although you do have to register and give them your email address. Go here for the latest list of concerts available for viewing. Imogene Cooper playing Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is coming on April 12!

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week is a Quote, from Scott Hines, author of The Action Cookbook Newsletter:

[I have been] thinking about how much I’ve learned in the last year - how much we’ve all learned - how easily our daily lives can be disrupted, how tenuous our social safety net is, how some people can’t be bothered to do the bare minimum to look out for their neighbors while others will willingly upend their whole lives on the off chance that it’ll save a stranger’s.