Trying Times

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Video call, zoom. Icons of a group of people on laptop screen, app for video online communication. Female hands on the keyboard

Much has been written about how the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it has changed our everyday lives. We could all name things that were either unheard of or perceived to be unnecessary services and technology before COVID that are now commonplace, and in some cases, indispensable parts of our daily routine.

Zoom meetings were seen not so long ago as cutting-edge technology, and now they are part of everyone’s daily lives, from our youngest students to grandparents and everyone in between. In addition to countless Zoom meetings for work, I’ve attended family gatherings, meetings with friends, wine tastings, cooking classes and job interviews via Zoom in the past 18 months. While there remains no substitute for real-life, face-to-face human interaction, Zoom (or Hangouts or Facebook Live or whatever form virtual get-togethers may take) will now be a standard tool that has fundamentally changed business interactions, education, and social interactions forever.

Attitudes about grocery shopping, as another example, seem to fall into two categories. There are those who dread grocery shopping and view it as a necessary evil to feed one’s family and those of us who actually enjoy the process of selecting produce, comparing different varieties of olives, pickles, salad dressings and the like, and picking what looks like the very best steak, chicken or shrimp available.

Regardless of which outlook is yours, odds are that prior to the pandemic, very few of us utilized “order ahead” or “curbside” grocery delivery. In the early days of 2020, when so much uncertainty existed around the virus and its transmission and virulence, what may have once been a typical relaxed Saturday morning visit to the grocery store felt like a search and rescue exercise that needed to be executed with pinpoint accuracy and maximum speed, followed by a shower and dousing every inch of oneself in hand sanitizer. With so much stress in the experience, ordering online and selecting the time when one could pull up, open the trunk, and wait for the items we’d ordered to be deposited into our car without any need for human contact felt like a relief.

Some of this change is positive. More robust technology that makes everyday life easier is a wonderful thing. Personally, while I do miss meeting my colleagues and customers face to face and would prefer that to more impersonal virtual meetings, I don’t miss 4 a.m. wakeup calls to catch 6 a.m. flights or sleeping in so many different hotel rooms in a week that waking up and having to remember what city I was in was normal, as was trying to remember what kind of rental car I had been assigned the night before when I was trying to find it in the parking lot the next morning. My dry-cleaning bills have all but evaporated, and so have pet boarding costs. I definitely don’t miss complicated expense reports and travel planning challenges.

By these measures, it seems like everyday life should be greatly improved. It’s easier! It’s less hassle! My dogs love having us home all day, every day!

No doubt, those of us who have been able to remain employed, our incomes largely unchanged, and able to work remotely should consider ourselves extremely fortunate. I’m endlessly appreciative of those who have been deemed essential and the services they have provided to us without interruption since all of this started.

Cable and utility technicians, grocery stockers and clerks, healthcare workers, and tradespeople of all kinds have continued providing their services to us, masked up and uncomfortable. They have brought light, heat, air conditioning and, more critical than ever, reliable internet and cable connectivity to the rest of us. They haven’t had the luxury of living in yoga pants for the past year and a half. They haven’t had the luxury of choosing which places were comfortable to work and which places to avoid.  

Knowing this, it’s been easy to be grateful for them and appreciative of the services they have provided, particularly when there have been others in their positions who no doubt have chosen to stay home and collect the benefits afforded them by the U.S. taxpayer rather than continuing to provide the services otherwise expected from them. In turn, their workload has been transferred to the folks who have chosen to show up.  

Most of the time, in these conditions, it’s been easy to be more forgiving, to try to extend grace or to choose not to be bothered by inconveniences or behavior that might have otherwise been seen as unacceptable or unpleasant in the times before Covid-19. There are longer wait times, supply shortages, and service in restaurants or stores is harder or nonexistent because fewer people are working and more people are consuming all of it. Most of us have just been doing the best we can.

At a certain point, though, is all of this going to result in lowering the overall bar for service in our country? Will supply chain disruptions and fewer choices of products because of those disruptions result in fewer choices and lower expectations overall? I sure hope not, but it’s hard to see how it turns around.

The fact is, getting anyone to show up for a job interview, much less to then show up (almost) on time and ready to stand behind a cash register or stock shelves, is harder and harder to do. Workers are scarce, wages for workers are rising, and anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of economics knows that this is not a situation that is going to result in better service or lower prices. It’s hard to focus on quality when what is most urgent is finding someone who is alive enough to fog a mirror being available to semi-reliably answer the phone or help keep the doors to your business open.

It’s a difficult place to be. It’s frustrating to be a business owner, and it’s frustrating to be a paying customer. We all know how things used to be, and we want to just go back. But, like anything in life, looking back longingly at anything doesn’t bring it back today.

So, what to do? I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on endless hold for various service providers, and I’ve lost my temper more than once at delivery times that have been pushed back multiple times. The ubiquitous excuse for everything these days is “covid, covid, covid.” Sometimes, I’m sure that’s valid. But more and more, I’m thinking it’s becoming just that — an excuse.

Despite all of the challenges of the past year and a half, there are still people who are showing up, on time, with a smile on their faces and a determination to do their best every day. There are business owners who have worked tirelessly to create a welcoming and friendly environment for customers, even if it means that in addition to signing checks and managing staff, they find themselves cleaning bathrooms and sweeping floors rather than making excuses for why these things can’t be done.

We can only look to those shining stars and try to be and follow similar good examples, not just for our own happiness but for the future of our young people — many of whom, let’s face it, have seen their parents at home in their workout clothes all day, taking advantage of a crisis. Whether it’s collecting enhanced unemployment benefits when they are perfectly able to work or, even more insidious, “working from home” without really giving things the same rigor and dignity of “normal times” that used to include daily showers, coiffed hair, clean collared shirts and pants that didn’t have elastic waistbands.

At some point this “new” normal is going to be, simply, the normal. We live with and accept what we allow, and we will be treated as we allow ourselves to be treated. It’s time to stop making and accepting excuses for why things can’t and don’t need to be done better, and just do them.

The ripple effect of that might not extend beyond our own family, community or team at work, but it needs to start with us. Praise those people who are showing up for you, support the businesses that you know are doing far more than just what’s necessary. Wake up 30 minutes earlier, get a workout in, and put on the “hard pants,” as one of my colleagues calls them.

We can’t expect more of others if we don’t expect more of ourselves.

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