The commuter-less road ahead: reflections of the "New Normal"

by Justin Bailey | published on May 17, 2020

For about three years, I have met five friends for breakfast before work each Tuesday. The last seven weeks, however, we were forced to abandon the in-person greasy spoon meetup for virtual Zoom-and-eggs gatherings. Despite arguably better coffee at home than in the diner, we all agreed it just wasn’t the same. This week, with North Carolina cautiously relaxing shelter-in-place orders, we met in person once again, albeit in a parking lot, socially distanced, and in 38-degree May-vember weather. Not surprisingly, we didn’t have much to talk about, so conversation quickly turned to a discussion of what the next 12-18 months will look like.

As I stood bundled in my coat in the Chick-Fil-A parking lot listening to my friends discuss the backlog in court cases that will certainly cause issues when court is finally back in session, questions I’ve been pondering began resurfacing in my mind: What will the New Normal look like? What will remain from the way we previously lived, pre-COVID-19, and what will be different?

The five phases of a pandemic

My coworkers and I have been thinking about this quite a bit recently. We have concluded that there are at least five phases to this pandemic, all creating unalterable change that will move us from the Good Old Days to the New Normal. As doors begin to reopen over the next few months, we see it as a shift into Recover & Transition, which could be a turbulent time that sets the course for the New Normal. As a market intelligence company, we find it important to begin understanding the impact of the New Normal.

graph to show the progression of COVID-19 pandemic phases

For example, many experts on the subject have speculated that the workplace will look completely different in the future. In fact, the forced experiment over the last few months has demonstrated that, in many cases, employees are happy working from home and tend to be more productive and, more importantly, a remote workforce is cheaper for companies. So it’s not surprising that prominent CEOs such as Jack Dorsey, who recently said Twitter employees could work from home “forever,” are moving towards a long-term work from home model. We’ve previously discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an acceleration of the digital transformation, and this applies to the workplace as well.

So, if working from home really is here to stay, what are the potential implications? Here are a few possibilities:

The fall of the convenience store

Working from home could spell trouble for convenience stores, as the number of daily commuters will drop sharply. That stop for a cup of Joe and an apple fritter might not happen, nor will frequent gas fill-ups, so c-stores will need to get creative. Convenience will take on new meaning, and perhaps adoption of delivery services to home “offices” will become commonplace. Understanding the best approach for this model will be critical.

Complications in data security

Working from home is a valid short-term solution, but many companies who move towards permanent work from home policies will be forced to deal with updated security and privacy challenges. Extra precautions will need to be taken to ensure employees aren’t using their unsecure, easily-hackable home printer to create hard copies of confidential or personally identifiable information. Companies that prioritize data security in the New Normal could gain new business over those who fail to see its value.

Migration from big cities

People move to cities for more opportunities, and employers in the Good Old Days often looked for local hires to avoid having to pay moving expenses and to have a centralized team. With commutes now counted in the number of steps from your bed to your laptop, geography is removed from the hiring equation. The talent pool opens up and people can live anywhere. Thus, one outcome could be a move back into suburban and rural areas, where the cost of living is lower and the dollar goes farther. This potential migration could redefine city life and urban planning, as well as completely upend the customer journey and path to purchase. Urbanites used to a plethora of choices within walking distance will be confronted with limited options in the ‘burbs and could shift even further into the world of online shopping to meet their demands.

Changes to the ride-sharing business model

Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft have seen a huge impact in ridership since the pandemic began. While people will eventually begin venturing back to restaurants and bars after working hours, the long-term impact on ride-sharing could be devastating. Uber has already started its food delivery service with Uber Eats and is in talks to acquire GrubHub, signaling a left turn in their business model as they anticipate more future changes. Other ride-sharing services and public transportation systems will need to carefully plan similar next steps.

Strategically moving forward

Reflecting on these questions while I stood in that chilly parking lot six feet away from my breakfast friends, it became clear to me that no one definitively knows the long-term impacts of the New Normal. We have very little historical data to look back on to understand how the coronavirus pandemic will shape our futures. It’s likely that our post-pandemic New Normal will be better in some ways and have us pining for the Good Old Days in others. Working from home will be acclaimed by some and denounced by others. As companies, we can sit back and speculate what these changes will bring, waiting for others to make the first move, or we can do the hard work of conducting research and strategic planning in order to truly understand our customers as we all strive towards the New Normal.