As we approach the end of COVID - at least I hope that’s the case - it’s becoming increasingly obvious how the future is going to be weird and, well, somewhat different. I have toyed with the idea of an October trip to New York, so that I might swan around with and honk and hoot with my friends and contacts there, but I’m hesitant, because I’m just so used to being quarantined, and used to the idea of the future being theoretical and entirely based on whether things work out.
What Won’t Change
One thing that I don’t think will change is big conferences or any other events that involve lots of people getting together. There has been some general mumbling online about how people are going to be worried about getting together with people, but I feel like human nature is such that the moment that there’s enough vaccinations, the majority of people are going to return to rubbing shoulders and doing whatever it was they did before. Despite the fact that people are still getting and dying from COVID-19, the general mood seems to be that it’s all over because we’re getting vaccinations, and frankly I know far too many people who have decided that it’s all over and started going to restaurants. Over here in Vegas the strip looks like its own self, with people taking “outdoor transmission is rare” to mean “no need for a mask here!”
Conferences are one thing that cannot and will likely never be replaced with a virtual counterpart. Though many are loathed to admit it, there are plenty of people that don’t go to events for the events themselves but instead for the nexus of networking and the periphery of wherever the event is being held. I think that this is an underestimated casualty of the digital events industry - that they assume that the thing people really miss is being in a crowd and watching a person or group of people talk, versus the standing around at a booth or going to happy hour after said events and bumping into people. There’s also the excuse to go to particularly fun places - New York, Vegas, Austin, and so on - that comes with it. I just don’t think that conferences can be done digitally in a way that’s going to be substantial and apply to a lot of people.
The Bay (and California)
Apparently there was a 30% increase in people moving out of San Francisco year over year, which has caused a bunch of people to assume that the Bay Area is dying, and that California is headed for a massive crisis and brain drain. This is somewhat true in the sense that there are people that left San Francisco and the bay to move to Miami and Texas and wherever else they went, but also discounts the fact that the bay had got overcrowded and over-expensive, and that this was inevitable with or without a pandemic.
It also discounts the amount of people in the bay that were there for work and only for work. If your entire joy of an area is the capital that you can extract from it, you’re transient even if you live there for a decade, because you have no real ties to the things and people around you. I remember when I lived in San Francisco the way that some people I met actively sneered at living in Oakland, or San Leandro, or anywhere that wasn’t directly in the city, and were even more allergic to leaving SF than people were to visiting you in Hoboken if you lived in New York. While this may have changed in the last year, I have to wonder if those who are decamping San Francisco (and the bay at large) are doing so because they never really enjoyed the area to begin with, and were simply stuck there because of work.
The Bay actually kind of sucks if you are there just for work - if you don’t enjoy the periphery (by which I mean more than the stuff that’s near you and convenient) of the area, if you don’t venture out of the city, it’s an incredibly small and expensive place to live. People who truly love it are staying (and are insufferably smug about it), but those who are leaving I’d argue never really tried to love it to begin with. Hell, the reason I left (aside from the obvious income tax benefits) is because I’m a homebody, and thus I needed to live somewhere that was great for people who go out once a month.
I think that people will still flock to the Bay and work for Bay Area companies. The pandemic reduced everybody to loving that which was immediately around them, and I think likely brought home how little a great deal of people interacted with the world around them. California costs so much because it’s California - it’s got just about everything in driving distance, it’s got the variety you crave if you’re willing to travel for it, and if you don’t want all that variety, then it’s like buying a $8000 TV to watch DVDs.
The “exodus” in my mind is just people who were gonna leave anyway leaving. I think that the tax situation may come to a head at some point, but that’s not going to be because of the pandemic.
It’s cyclical rather than a “change.” This is the same old California.
I don’t think people are going to be more considerate while flying, and I’ll be surprised if tons of people are masking up past 2022. Flights and hotels are going to be cheap for a little bit, and then there’s going to be a huge spike as people decide to go completely nuts and fly everywhere. I, for one, am excited to see that happen. But I don’t think that people are going to be wary of travel past a certain point - I don’t think their habits are going to remarkably shift once they take their first flight and don’t get COVID.
What Will Change
I realize that I just spent several paragraphs talking about how California isn’t going to change, but I do think the requirements of someone being in a particular place (and the stigma related to it) are going to be reduced dramatically. I’ve been in Vegas coming up on a year and slowly told clients as time has gone on, and basically everyone has said “oh that rocks,” with one client saying I was “living the dream.”
It isn’t because people are suddenly moral paragons - it’s capitalism. There is simply no reason you’d hire someone in San Francisco versus someone in Kansas City if both of them can do the job just as well as each other (if not better). Now, there are going to be those who argue about “serendipity” or somesuch nonsense, but the reality is that is going to be cheaper to literally fly someone in for a day or two’s offsite and let them live and be happier in their own environment.
This will become a problem for those who require an office - either for the discipline of a work environment or because they don’t have their own home office space - and be another socioeconomic divide that will take years to truly understand. It will mean that people don’t automatically move to San Francisco (choosing to live in Oakland, or Richmond, or Fremont, and so on) to get a job in tech, seeking enough proximity that you’re able to meet people, but not so close that you’re paying as much. I imagine there will be a real estate shift toward bigger, cheaper places that have access to urban centers.
There are going to be jobs that require you to be in a certain place, but I think that the evaluation of how often you have to be in them will be part of the criteria. For my job, I assumed that being in the bay was something that I needed, but it really wasn’t - I can cram a few meetings into a few days and not need to be there for the rest of the month, and that’s even if I have to go every month. Conversely, if I was on the East Coast I’d probably feel more of a pull toward the city, simply because I can get so much done with some time in New York City because of the density of reporters. But, again, that can be done with one or two trips a year - networking with reporters can be done on Twitter.
I don’t think the office is dead, but I do not think that offices will be as big as they used to be, and I think there will be a shift as to what the office is seen as. Rather than being a place where everybody works and then disperses from at the end of the day, I can imagine a modern office being more of an apex that everybody meets at to discuss things that are truly important. We’ve had over a year of people proving that the same amount of work (if not more) can be done without everybody in an office, which means that any costs associated with an office officially switched to “optional.” As a result, I can imagine downsizing happening - the space still exists, but only for those who need it, and the requirement of being there will be relaxed if not entirely eliminated.
I think this is largely good, in that it weeds out people who go to the office simply to be seen working rather than actually do work. I also think it’s bad because it puts the pressure on the worker to find their own place to work, and without a dedicated home office space they’ll end up having to use a coffee shop or a co-working space, which…is basically just going to an office.
It’ll be interesting to see how permanent and pervasive the shift to remote work is - it could be overwhelming, it could be partial, and it could in some cases not really stick - but I think that most new companies have re-evaluated the reasons behind even having an office.
Work Meetings (and Business Travel)
Regardless of what happens with the office, I think that expectations around in-person meetings and pitches will be totally different going forward. The aesthetic qualities of meetings that were used to win deals without actual ability - big teams with glossy presentations - are going to feel over-the-top after a year of taking pitches remotely. While I think people will still grab informal drinks and have dinners, I also think that the allure of a face-to-face business meeting to close a deal is gone.
They’ll happen, but every physical meeting is going to be evaluated as to whether it could happen on Zoom, and I think it’ll most likely come down to the length of said meeting. If something is happening in person, it had best be long enough to justify an hour or two’s commute each way, and it had best not be something that could’ve happened over email.
It’s particularly funny for my industry, where agencies have a habit of winning over clients by showing up with a well-dressed squad to smooth over a problem or win a presentation. The (I’d hope previous) assumption that companies have had is that professionalism is how well you present in a meeting, and that professionalism can immediately be transmuted into results, when it’s often nothing more than a bait and switch.
It’s really just pragmatism - I don’t think anyone likes meetings, and as tired as people may be of Zoom, I don’t think it’s going to take more than one unnecessary in-person meeting to make them yearn for doing this from home.
I think it’ll also change the modality of meetings - people will meet for drinks, or for a nice dinner, and make sure that these are more meaningful events than just “let’s catch up,” or at least make them more fun.
Moreover, meetings are expensive. They take up time. They cost money. They require you to have a place to go - an office, a restaurant, a co-working space - and I think that people are aware of that cost only by having it removed.
While I think that conferences themselves might not change, I think that it’s going to be much harder to start a new conference somewhere that doesn’t have an audience at the location. It’s either going to be the case that people go to every event because their general purpose travel is reduced, or that every event that you go to will be evaluated both for the risk of visiting it and for the cost of doing so.
Now that they’re predominantly streamed online, why would someone go to them? Are people really going to pay for people to go to them for the non-specific networking and periphery? Are people going to admit that there are conferences they go to where they go to absolutely zero actual speeches, or that they’re on their phone through most of them?
In any case, I think that it’s going to open up a lot of business to a lot of people in a lot of industries that were traditionally beaten by having a New York or San Francisco office. I don’t think that winning clients will be as dependent on your ability to show up in person, as it’s blatantly obvious that the in-person demonstrations don’t actually prove anything.
Maybe I’m overthinking all of this. Who knows.