Are you self-isolating? Observing social distancing? Elbow bumping or foot tapping instead of shaking hands or hugging? More importantly, with my futurist hat on, will you ever go back to behaving the way you did before?
This is the question I have been asked twice on air this week and I confess my answer was a little vague. I said that forming habits takes time. And so how much of a long-term impact coronavirus has on our behaviour will depend on how long it sticks around.
But how long does it take for new habits to form? This blog post has a very good concise answer with reference to real research. TLDR: while lots of self-help gurus might tell you it only takes 21 days, in fact it takes on average 66 days to form a new habit.
So, we might only see the end of (or a dramatic decline in) greetings that involve physical contact if the coronavirus remains a threat and in the news for over two months, and in that time we continue to practice these alternative behaviours.
Will coronavirus be the end of handshaking? I think that is unlikely. But there are other mechanisms by which coronavirus might trigger behaviour change.
Enforced flexible working
I have long been an advocate for more flexible working. The factory-like approach of everyone at their desks, 9-5 (or longer) is incredibly wasteful. It forces us to over-size roads and public transport. It binds everyone to a schedule that may not suit their body clock, childcare, parental care, or frankly, social needs. And it restricts our productivity.
Vital as face to face contact is for communication and collaboration, our focus on face time, all the time, is terrible for productivity. We waste enormous amounts of time on commuting. That’s even before we consider the carbon impact. And the simple reality is that most people would be more productive working remotely and flexibly, given the appropriate tools and training, and more importantly, a different set of expectations
In the UK, we are still too bound to the idea of work as somewhere you go rather than something you do. In a remote working context that translates into a sort of digital presenteeism, where we look for all sorts of ways to ensure other people are putting in the graft. Yes, live chat and shared video links can avoid issues of isolation and loneliness. But I’m always suspicious that the real motive is knowing that people aren’t bunking off for a nap or an hour on the X-Box.
Flexible working only really works when we stop thinking like that. When we schedule time for communication, face to face or remote, but let people manage their own time outside of those moments. As long as people are delivering on expectations, we should be a lot less concerned about how long they are sat staring at a screen.
Coronavirus is forcing many companies to consider more flexible approaches to work and perhaps giving managers and employees their first real experience of it. Given the prevalence of working from home tips across radio and social media, lots of people think they will struggle with it (my tip: everyone is different; be bold about doing what works for you and ignore anyone else’s prescriptions). But if they can overcome those challenges, it’s likely many companies may keep their pandemic policies in place and allow a greater level of flexibility in the long term.
In other words, the pandemic may be the trigger to changes in behaviour, but they can be embedded if that short experience proves to deliver other benefits.
A nation of germophobes
My concern if the pandemic procedures do last a long time is that we might gain a lot of habits that may not benefit us in the long term. Counter-intuitively, a nation of constant handwashers and gel sanitizers may not be more healthy.
As this study from the US suggests, early life exposure to allergens and bacteria may be one of the things that prevents us getting illnesses like asthma down the line, as we develop some level of resistance.
If we are all living like Howard Hughes, avoiding human contact and obsessively cleaning ourselves and our homes, we may well make ourselves more sick than healthy. Unless we plan to completely sterilise the rest of the earth.
There is also the issue of human contact and connection. While I don’t believe that technology is preventing young people from talking to each other, there has undoubtedly been a behavioural shift over the last few years in the way we interact. Dating, for example, is now primarily a digital phenomenon, with around 40% of heterosexual couples, and even higher proportion of same sex couples (65%), meeting online.
This digital-first interaction strips away many of the other pre-dating interactions we used to have in social environments. As a BBC producer once told me when I was reviewing dating apps for 5live: “Men just don’t approach me anymore. No-one even tries to chat me up in a bar or club. It’s all through an app.” Some might say this is for the better: fewer cheesy chat-up lines, or worse. Dating apps have perhaps given people a welcome amount of control. But it has also reduced our range of social interactions, particularly with strangers. The long-term effects of the virus may reduce them even more.
While it may not shut down large scale events beyond the next few weeks, the pandemic is likely to damage a lot of event organisers financially. And it is likely to leave a lot of people with a continuing fear of the health risk of such events. Combine this with our existing issues with loneliness, amongst young and old, and you have a fairly toxic recipe for mental health over the coming years.
All of this means that we need to think carefully about our own health and others, beyond direct effects to our health both physical and financial. We need to consider preventative measures carefully and ensure that they don’t create more health problems than they solve. If more of us are going to work remotely, we need to think less about how many hours people are putting in and more about how it is affecting their wellbeing. We need to create more opportunities for interaction, perhaps taking the opportunity to reinvent some old traditions away from our alcohol-centric past.