The last year has seen the world change faster and more dramatically than any period in our lifetimes. Some of the changes we have seen will fade away as we emerge from the dark tunnel of COVID. Others will become permanent out of necessity or because the world was moving in that direction anyway. The pandemic just sped things up.
One of the big changes that will likely be permanent is working remotely. I am writing my column this month from Palm Springs where I have spent the last six weeks. Thanks to Slack, Zoom, and Trello, it no longer matters where I am sitting to do my job. I turn on my laptop and I am as connected with my staff and clients from here as I would be in Boulder.
Many of my neighbors are in the same boat. They are not retired snowbirds but still very much in work mode. Like me, they were in a traditional office environment until everything shut down. And like me, they took advantage of it. As I leave each morning at 6:15 a.m. for a quick hike with my dogs before work, I often see my neighbor on her patio doing a Zoom call with folks back in Chicago. I felt bad for her until I noticed that on some days she and her husband start their cocktail hour on the same patio at 3 p.m.
Palm Springs is not unique. The same scenario is playing out in Breckenridge, Scottsdale, Miami and countless other places, including Boulder. Remote working is the new normal for millions of us and it is not likely to go away even after it is safe to go back to the office.
Of course, there is still great value in water cooler conversations and the “creative collisions” that just cannot happen on Zoom. Many of us will go back to our offices in some fashion but the workplace will look very different. We will put fewer people in the same space or shrink our space and move to hybrid models of splitting time between home and office. Employees who want to spend their summer in the mountains or part of the winter in the desert will be able to do it with no one raising an eyebrow. Downtown landlords and restaurants who are hoping for a flood of returning workers are more likely to see a trickle.
Speaking of restaurants, what will we do with all of the new outdoor seating that sprang up in parking lots and streets last summer? Here in California the battle is on to make the changes permanent. That same debate will have to happen in Boulder and Denver as well. Do we go back to the way it was? Keep the expansions forever? Compromise and make them seasonal? Every city will have to decide but my guess is that many downtown streets will never look quite the same as they did before COVID.
What about travel? Most people have stayed close to home for the last year and they are itching to get out and make up for lost time. But many residents of tourist destinations are not eager to see the crowds return. There is a growing movement in Hawaii to limit visitation and diversify the economy away from tourism. The locals have had the islands to themselves for the last year and many are not eager to give them back to the tourists.
National parks and ski resorts that implemented reservation systems during COVID are under pressure from some guests to keep them in place. Once people got used to making reservations and enjoying a destination without the usual crowds, many wound up loving it. Without a doubt, some resorts will keep their systems in place and continue to offer a better experience to fewer guests. Of course, that will lead to more disruption and pain for ancillary businesses and higher prices for everything from your hotel room to your morning coffee.
COVID has been hugely disruptive and has affected every aspect of daily life for most of us. Obviously it has been devastating for many and we are all eager for life to return to what it was in 2019.
But that is not likely to happen. Many of the changes we have endured are going to be around for a long time. Some will be here forever. And honestly, they are not all bad. It is 3:15 p.m. on Friday afternoon and I think I’ll walk over and see if my neighbors will mix me a cocktail on their patio!
Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. You can email him at email@example.com to blog