Remembering the Pandemic

COVID-19 Taught Us Lessons That Are Changing The Way America Works. 

By Thomas J. Roach

The pandemic of the 21st century may not be over, but in the United States we are seeing a distinctive ebb in its development, and we are provided with an opportunity to take in the scope of its impact. 

In 1999, a Gallup poll asked people what the most important events of the 20th century were. The top 10 list included several wars, the Civil Rights Act, and Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, but it did not include the pandemic of 1918. World War I took as estimated 16 million lives. The flu pandemic claimed more than four times that many. Why was it overlooked?

One possible answer is that all the events that made the list had an ongoing impact on the way we live and generated extensive news media coverage; when the 1918 pandemic ended, the world generally returned to business as usual. Today, most of us wouldn’t know about the flu pandemic of the 20th century if our own pandemic hadn’t forced us to revisit it.

It is likely the legacy of COVID-19 will be different. 

Personal Level
On the personal level, some of us experienced the loss of family and friends, and almost everyone had to deal with social isolation that intensified relationships with relatives and neighbors. 

Some of us maintained contact with our closest acquaintances by adding tents and patios to expand our potential for outdoor gatherings. Digitally we adapted to wine with friends using conferencing software on laptop computers. All were social adjustments that were challenging and felt significant; yet, it seems likely that our personal relationships will return to pre-COVID normal without much lingering impact.

Work Environments
Not so with our work environments. Some work-related adjustments are industry specific. Many aggregate producers found that COVID-19 led them to refocus on safety issues like frequency of team meetings and cleanliness of machines and equipment.

Other adjustments were seen across almost all work environments. 

Internal communication professionals in all fields became more involved in decision-making during what has amounted to a sustained two-year cycle of crisis communication. 

Normally individual intuition guides us through corporate culture networks, but when broad cultural changes are required, it takes special communication skills to establish new procedures and work habits and to navigate everyone through new processes of interaction. Daily and weekly updates, training, and storytelling in digital and printed publications have redefined much of our official and unofficial interaction. 

If they weren’t apparent before the pandemic, some communication lessons are abundantly apparent now and will guide us in the future: It is better to over communicate than to under communicate. 

Management needs to be the first to make things known and not let the grapevine beat them to the punch. And scrutiny of our actions is greater not lesser in a crisis: we have to make it clear at all times that we are living up to our stated values. 

Different Going Forward
Upper and midlevel management will also look different going forward. Working from home has changed our perceptions of productivity and the appearance of productivity. Physical work in industries like mining may not have seen much change, but office work everywhere may never be the same. 

Many of us worked from home and were as productive or more productive than we were in the office. All manner of companies across the globe have recognized that quality and quantity of effort can be managed remotely as well as in person, and that opens up a broad range of work environment adaptations that include outsourcing work, hiring workers with specialized talents regardless of where they live, and flexibility for scheduling workers with family obligations. 

What will we remember about the COVID-19 pandemic? Probably a lot. Coverage of the crisis has saturated print, broadcast and digital media in ways that far exceed the capacity to spread news a century ago, and, more importantly, COVID-19 taught us lessons that are changing the way America works. 

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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