The most overused phrase of the last 18 months has to be ‘unprecedented times’. And yes, it was accurate, for a while. But after that while, the times had precedent.
Sure, we were still figuring out how to take ourselves off mute, and whether to wear one mask or two in the supermarket, and if shaking hands was okay when greeting someone we’d not seen in the flesh for several months. But we were, in a nutshell, going about our business as usual. It’s just that the usual was somehow different. We had arrived in the new normal.
We’re remarkably adaptable creatures, and to now try to return to a world as it was before COVID-19 is both disrespectful and impossible. Disrespectful because it’s not giving us enough credit for what we can do, and impossible because everything is different now.
This isn’t coming back to the office after maternity leave and trying to figure out on your own which cupboard you can express milk in without interrupting your colleagues’ meetings; we were all in it together. And together, we changed the world.
As author Steven Johnson has written, the best way to guarantee new ideas is to interrupt the routine. A broken treadmill stops us in our tracks; it gives us the opportunity to see what we’ve become accustomed to for custom’s sake, not because there’s anything inherently good about what we’ve been doing. This global interruption allowed us to discard useless and even destructive practices in favour of something that could be better.
It would be accurate, then, to say that the last few months are unprecedented too. We’ve had to learn how to use a photocopier again, we’ve rediscovered the ‘delights’ of commuting, and frankly we’ve had to decide if we have the stomach to return to the office.
Personally, I can’t stand the office. There are too many people wanting to talk about things that distract me from getting more pressing things done. And yet, for the sake of a misplaced nostalgia that ignores the terrible lighting, the recycled air, the eyeballs over your shoulder and the productivity-destroying open-plan setup, many of us have been compelled to return.
What we found there, amid the husks of deserted snacks left behind in March 2020, was a few moments of novelty and a quick return to a grind that eradicated our autonomy and placed us in the cage again. We don’t need to do that. There are a few precious months in which we are feeling our way around again. It’s now that we can do something new. Must we have an office Christmas party? Or can we just give the people who want to participate a login to a live-streamed Zoom party?
The pandemic gave us liberty to eradicate our expectations. Think for a moment about why you might be rushing back to the things you did before. Are they really the best you can do? Or do we continue taking the next steps that define our new world, unfettered by the things that came before? Now that would truly be unprecedented.
- This article first appeared in issue 370 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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