A year ago today, people in America started taking the pandemic seriously I’d argue because the NBA shut down. I had sent my dad a worried email on March 6 2020 telling him to cancel my parents’ flights to America, telling them that, and I quote, “I think things are going to get a lot worse due to the abominable medical care in this country, and the CDC's not even approving tests for tons of people.” It turns out I was completely right.
I sent a message on our internal Slack channel, and I remember thinking I was overreacting, but also wanted to be 100% sure that nobody got sick from the virus.
It was such a peculiar time a year ago for me. My family and I had made the decision to move from California to Nevada toward the end of last year, quietly making a few trips to Las Vegas to find our new home, falling in love with it, and at the time I sent the message sitting in my wife’s grandmother’s house as we found ourselves in a limbo state while we sold one home and bought another, while also dealing with a mortgage industry that constantly (quite literally each week) changed their standards to protect themselves. I cannot think of a worse time that I’ve moved in my life, including moving to America in September 2008.
Don’t feel sorry for me because other than anxious and tired, I was totally fine. I had been remote since about 2011.
The Remote Adjustment
I keep writing I “took my company remote” as if I ever had a non-remote company. I think we had a brief flirtation with one physical office space in 2017 or 2018, where I had another guy in San Francisco and we would, very occasionally, go there when we both happened to be around at the same time. When I was moving, I split time between an apartment rental (as the internet in Central CA had a habit of going down every two hours or so, which made the now-constant Zoom calls impossible to deal with) about an hour away, and was already in crisis mode after January took 30% of our revenue - the hand of dread was already around my throat, and thankfully the business didn’t really have costs to cut.
I’d say March was the worst, if only because I was regularly in an apartment, on my own, not seeing a single person other than on Zoom calls, dealing with the financials of a move, and dealing with a business that had taken a severe beating in January and February, all the while actually doing my job.
Joe Berkowitz at FastCompany had a great quote about the truth, though:
They used to say it’s a recession when your neighbor loses their job, and it’s a depression when you lose yours. Now they say the pandemic is the great equalizer, and we’re all on the same boat, despite the fact that everyone is clearly on their own boats, and some of those boats are shipwrecked kayaks while others are actual yachts.
I am lucky. Any pain and anxiety and worry I had I should have been and should be grateful for in comparison to the great majority of people. Things were tough, but I am lucky not just because I had a company that had already totally adapted to remote work, but because I had a job that seemed disconnected from the grander world. Public Relations kept on puttering along during the pandemic, with maybe a month-and-a-half’s “what the fuck is going on here?” where work still happened.
It’s also been weird being already totally remote while everybody else discusses it. I had always assumed, mentally, that everybody was already kind of remote - I was already on Zoom calls all the time, I was already at home, I was already doing everything digitally. My EZPR people had always been used to talking to me via Zoom, so the idea that we were now doing so but everybody else was doing so was weird but never really changed. That being said, Trevor, Kevin and Johan all worked their asses off while we all went a little bit insane not seeing our friends and family, and when things got difficult when I got the Coronavirus in November, they worked even harder than usual. But it’s been weird having the “how have you adjusted?” conversation repeatedly and mostly just saying “oh you know, it’s hard, everybody’s been indoors, ha ha” and avoiding any specific details because my working life for nearly 10 years has been “at home on the computer” hiring people to do the same.
I think the pandemic in the working sense has really broadened a divide between those who were capable of doing their job online and those who needed an office to survive. There’s a large part of knowledge work that’s made up of people who used the office as a marketing channel, physically being there to show how hard they work and how late they work and claim the work of others in a way that just doesn’t transition well to digital. The ones I feel bad for, which also partially includes myself, are those who don’t want to be on camera all day. I don’t know about you but I feel extremely self-conscious at all times. I miss when phone calls could just be on the phone rather than on camera, and I do not believe that seeing people on screens necessarily adds the personal touch like people think it does.
What’s funny is that I was always so shy about being remote. I haven’t lived in San Francisco since 2015, living either in Oakland or out in Contra Costa County, and vaguely referred to “being in the bay” because I was terrified that it would preclude me from business. There were definitely a few times it did - not many, but enough to annoy me that people who “had a team in San Francisco” were more attractive because of where their computers were, and because they could have more in-person meetings.
What’s funny is that in a pandemic and post-pandemic world it’s so obvious which agencies succeeded on a model of placating clients by turning up in force and giving presentations. All of the ways in which people have manufactured physical presence into something resembling but not having the material goods of actual work are much harder to do over the internet.
I’m also lucky that these are the problems I face - they’re nothing compared to many people’s struggles both pre and post-pandemic. I’m really lucky and really grateful.
But When Does The Future Actually Begin?
With Biden directing states to open up vaccines to everyone by May 1, I am seeing people suggest that will be when people return to normal, as if normal still exists and the equilibrium we had before is reachable again. I joked about setting up a trip to New York in October, but I have no idea if by October people will be ready to go out and shake hands and clap and yell at each other. The pandemic has shortened every mental horizon possible - even with my first vaccine shot, it’s hard to imagine seeing…people. And even if it’s possible, I do have this weird anxiety around going back to normal - what is normal? Do I just go out and do stuff again? Will people be out? How will that work? People are absolutely getting vaccinated, with nearly 20% of the population with at least one dose and 10% fully vaccinated.
Will people go back to normal? Do they really want to go back to the office? Is that gnawing feeling they have about wanting to go back to meetings really about going back to meetings, or just feeling normal again?
Let’s be honest - what is normal anymore? Who, after all this, really wants to go back to how things were before, and do any of us actually remember what that’s like?
I can imagine the rest of the year post-vaccine is going to be a bit crazy - tons of travel, tons of parties, and I think we’re going to see something close to an economic boom that will likely end with a terrible hangover as the extended unemployment and funding ends and we officially “return to normal.” The pandemic laid bare the deep unfairness of our society and how little that our stewards seem to give a shit about us, and the flippancy that companies have with people’s lives and futures. I don’t think a stimulus can fix those issues, and I don’t know if returning to the real world will defuse the tensions that have grown as a result.
Personally it’s made me a lot more aware of the disparity of fairness in this country and has made me more grateful for everything I’ve had, and the people around me both professionally and personally. I don’t know what will change long term, and I will probably still be on the computer every day like I am right now. But hey. I’m alive, healthy, and I have a roof over my head and a job. Can’t ask for more than that.