Back to the Future: The New Normal After COVID-19

August 06, 2020
In the feature article of this issue of InvestorView, BBH Chief Investment Strategist Scott Clemons reflects on lessons we are learning during the COVID-19 crisis, what aspects will have a lasting effect on our homes, offices and schools and what life after COVID-19 may look like.

It seems odd to write about life after COVID-19 when we are still very much in the daily midst of dealing with the health, economic and financial implications of the pandemic. As we go to press, cases continue to rise – rapidly, in some parts of the country – while families, students, managers, educators, policymakers, business owners, doctors and politicians wrestle with creating some sense of normal life while wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and washing their hands every 15 minutes.

Hope springs eternal that a vaccine is developed and distributed so that life can genuinely get back to normal, but the sobering reality is that many infectious diseases do not have a vaccine (such as AIDS) or mutate often enough to require repeat vaccinations (such as the flu). Whereas a vaccination is the clearest path to the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, another solution might take the form of treatment protocols that reduce the effects and mortality of the disease to a manageable level.

Barrels of ink and billions of bytes have been spilled on the topics of life during COVID-19 and progress toward curing or treating the disease. In the pages that follow, we look a little further down the road and broadly consider what life might look like on the other side of this crisis. What lasting effects will this pandemic have on the way we live, work and learn? The implications of technological or societal disruption are almost always overstated in the short run but understated in the long run. Keep this in mind when you read breathless and sweeping predictions that “people will never go to a restaurant again,” or “never again will crowds gather to watch a live sporting event or performance.” We are a herd species. We delight in the company of other people, and we delight in shared experiences. We will do so again.

At the same time, the expectation that we will simply resume our normal pre-COVID-19 lives once a vaccine is available succumbs to the same cognitive error. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the inventions made necessary by remote living, working and learning will carry over into the post-COVID-19 world. Many of these developments are not new. The close reader will notice an abundance of comparative words in this commentary, such as more, faster, slower, greater and so forth. In other words, COVID-19 will likely amplify and accelerate many trends that were in motion prior to the pandemic.

So, what lessons are we learning? What aspects of this crisis will have a lasting effect on our homes, offices and schools? And when we finally get back to normal, what will we find there?

The Future of Home

As vast swaths of the American economy shut down in March and April to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the health crisis quickly became an economic crisis. Businesses closed – some for good – and millions of people lost jobs and income. Although swift action by Washington, D.C., and the Federal Reserve prevented the economic crisis from metastasizing into a full-blown financial crisis (at least so far), widespread damage to household finances was already done.

We’ve seen this dynamic unfold before, albeit not as rapidly. People responded to the global financial crisis of 2008-09 by shoring up their personal balance sheets, paying down debt and increasing their savings, and we expect this trend to continue and even accelerate in the wake of the pandemic. It is human nature to become more risk averse after risks have materialized – demand for flood insurance always rises after a hurricane. Households are likely to react to the impairment of jobs and income in this crisis by saving more while borrowing and spending less. 

Chart illustrating household debt to disposable income, highlighting a peak in 2008 at 133.9%, before dropping down to 97.3% in Q1 2020.

Regular readers of our research will recognize the nearby graph of household debt to disposable income, as we have relied on this dynamic of deleveraging to explain the abnormally weak pace of economic growth over the past decade. Total household debt (of which about 70% is mortgages) peaked at 133.6% of disposable income just prior to the onset of the last economic cycle. Even as the economic pain receded and the economy started to expand again in 2009, consumers were reluctant to return to borrowing and spending at the same pace, and the debt-to-income ratio fell sharply to 97.3% as of the first quarter of 2020. This is likely to continue, even once the current economic crisis passes. There is no magic number for an appropriate level of household debt, although we would not be surprised to see the debt-to-income ratio continue to fall back toward the 80% level of 40 years ago.

The savings rate shows the same trend, for the same behavioral reasons. From a low of 2.2% in 2005, the savings rate (savings as a percentage of take-home pay) rose to 7.7% by the end of last year as households built up their rainy-day funds. Note that household savings is measured as a residual: The Bureau of Economic Analysis directly measures income and spending, and assumes indirectly that the difference between the two is saved. This can create wild volatility in the saving rates, particularly in an environment (such as a global pandemic) where consumers literally can’t leave their homes to spend money.

Due to enhanced unemployment insurance and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), incomes throughout the pandemic have remained relatively robust, at least at the macroeconomic level. Personal income in April rose 11.9% year over year, waning only slightly to a 7.0% pace in May, even as overall economic activity contracted at an annualized pace of 33% in the second quarter. As income went up and spending went down, the residual measure of savings skyrocketed, as the nearby graph illustrates.

Chart showing household savings as a percentage of disposable income, with a massive spike in 2020 to about 33%.

Although accurately calculated, these levels of savings reflect the extraordinary economic disruption that we’re living through, along with the extraordinary support offered by government programs. These levels are not sustainable, and the data will reflect a fair bit of noise for some months or even quarters to come. As economies reopen and pent-up demand is met, the savings rate will fall back to a more normal level, but we expect that the debt and savings trends that started over a decade ago will accelerate. Households have now suffered two major economic crises in a dozen years, and the lessons of these shocks will reverberate for some time to come.

This is both good news and bad news. Whereas we welcome healthier and more resilient household finances, the price of this fiscal rectitude is less spending, and therefore slower economic growth. As businesses reopen and consumers wander out for the first time in months to spend money, we may very well see a sharp, but short-lived, rebound in activity in the second half of 2020. Following that, however, the underlying pace of economic growth will likely be slower than before the COVID-19 crisis. Real gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 2.3% throughout the decade-long expansion from 2009 to 2019. Even once the economy recovers from the pandemic-induced recession, it will be difficult to return to this modest pace of growth if household savings continue to rise, and debt levels continue to fall.

Many employees who had the ability to work remotely, and could leave dense urban areas during the pandemic, did so. The question is, will they come back? For many workers, escaping the daily commute and improving their work-life balance makes them more efficient outside of a traditional office. The search for a lower cost of living, coupled with the freedom afforded by remote working, will likely tempt many households to seek cheaper, less-crowded pastures outside of major urban areas on a more permanent basis.

This will not spell the end of the American city. Cities have survived previous pandemics, recessions, wars and terrorist attacks. We are an urban nation and will likely remain so. As the drivers of the U.S. economy shifted from agriculture to industry and factories, and then to information and finance, workers flocked to cities in search of jobs. According to the 2010 census, 80.7% of the population lived in urban areas, up slightly from 79.0% in 2000.

Chart illustrating U.S. rural and urban population from 1790 to 2010, with rural over urban until early 1900s, and then a switch (looks like an x).

Yet, just as an economic shift toward technology drove workers into cities, so technology is allowing them to leave. This is new. Recessions usually reduce internal migration. In periods of economic stress, people are generally unwilling to move without a firm job offer in hand, and if you’ve lost your job, the search for a new one is easier in a community that you know and a social network you already have. This unintended experiment in remote working, however, will allow many employees to move without needing to find a new job, and we anticipate that this trend will persist even after the pandemic recedes.

Data on remote working is frustratingly hard to obtain. The most reliable series is found in the American Time Use Survey, conducted annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, where one set of questions asks about the frequency and duration of work at home. This is an oblique insight into remote working, as the data captures full-time office workers who bring work home in the evenings and weekends, in addition to people who regularly work from home. In 2019, 23.7% of employees worked remotely at least some of the time, putting in an average of 3.3 hours of remote work per day. These figures have risen over time and will likely rise sharply in the future as the pandemic has increased the comfort and familiarity with working outside of a traditional office.

Chart illustrating percentage of employees working remotely at least some of the time, which has been trending upward from 2003 through 2019.

There are broad implications of a shift in American urbanization, even if the shift is marginal. Housing markets outside of major cities are likely to benefit as dense urban real estate suffers from reduced demand. Furthermore, real estate brokers are anecdotally reporting rising demand for larger houses in the suburbs as workers contemplate the need for a dedicated home office as opposed to commandeering one side of the kitchen table. Low mortgage rates provide an additional tailwind for those seeking to upgrade to a larger house.

This shifting demand isn’t yet reflected in nationwide housing prices, which have held up well amid the economic crisis. As of June, the average price of a home in the United States was up 3.5% year over year and 7.6% since the beginning of 2020. Regional housing data is lagged, so the most recent information we have is from April 2020. People usually don’t decide to sell a house or buy a new one on the spur of the moment, particularly when jobs and kids’ schools inform the decision, so the macroeconomic data may not reflect these trends for some time. As of April, nine major metropolitan areas were at all-time highs for home prices, but this will likely change as people take advantage of the ability to work remotely and leave denser urban areas.

This unintended experiment in remote working, however, will allow many employees to move without needing to find a new job, and we anticipate that this tend will persist even after the pandemic recedes.  

As with so many other national trends, California is the bellwether of this demographic dynamic. Sixteen of the 20 densest population centers in the United States are in California, where the dominance of technology companies makes remote working even easier. The densest urban area in the nation is the greater Los Angeles metroplex, with 7,000 people per square mile. (For reference, the density of the whole country is 87 people per square mile.) San Jose (No. 3 on the density graph, with 5,820 people per square mile) is home to the headquarters of Google, Apple and Facebook, all of which have encouraged employees to work remotely at least for the balance of 2020, and Google has even extended that return-to-office date to July 2021. California real estate will be the canary in the coal mine as these trends develop.

Chart showing people per square mile in selected metropolitan areas; top four: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and New York. 

This internal migration would have lasting implications for the tax bases of major cities and even whole states. People have long moved from one state to another to reduce their tax burdens, often when they retire from full-time work. Technology enables and even accelerates this trend while people are still working. To make matters worse, cities and states are already reeling from the twin blows of lost tax revenues and higher spending due to the pandemic. New York City, for example, anticipates a $5.2 billion drop in tax revenue in the fiscal year that began on July 1. Enhanced worker mobility may turn this cyclical economic challenge into a secular one, requiring federal support. Investors in municipal bonds need to include demographic trends in their credit analysis.

The Future of Work

Just as many employees are finding silver linings in remote work, so, too, are employers. Technology firms have long led the way in remote working, for the simple reason that technology is precisely what enables people to work efficiently and effectively while away from a central office. Old habits die hard in more traditional industries, but the experience of the past few months is highlighting the corporate benefits of a flexible work environment throughout all economic sectors. This has enormous implications for demand for commercial real estate and the structure of the traditional office environment.

The large commercial real estate firm CBRE recently conducted a survey of its clients’ thoughts on the future of the workplace. The survey posed the question, “Compared with pre-COVID, what is the future of full-time remote work in your company?” Prior to the onset of the pandemic, 63% of the 126 clients in the CBRE survey had no remote workers, with 37% allowing for some workplace flexibility. The nearby graph captures the radical shift expected for the future, with only 10% of survey respondents envisioning a future in which all their workers are regularly in an office. Seventy percent of companies surveyed intend to make remote work part of their usual business practice, and 61% reported that all employees would be allowed to work outside of the office at least part time.

Chart illustrating the shift to remote work following COVID-19, with a drop from 63% to 10% of companies saying they will offer no remote work.

These trends will redefine the concept of a corporate office. Instead of being a physical location to which everyone travels every day to conduct every aspect of their jobs, the corporate office will morph into a sort of corporate central nervous system, where some functions take place, while other work happens remotely. The CBRE report referenced earlier concludes: “As they quickly evolve to meet this new demand, physical workplaces will act as the hub that works in concert with remote nodes (employee homes, field and branch locations, etc.) to orchestrate a hybrid effort that most effectively supports the pursuit of cultural and business goals.”

This raises the prospect of significant cost savings. Companies will likely need less office space – particularly in dense urban areas – while using remaining space more efficiently. Flexible space is not a new thing, but more and more companies will likely embrace hoteling, hot desking and space on demand to meet the needs of colleagues who work remotely at least part of the time, and companies will therefore get more out of the real estate they have. Remote work increases corporate resiliency, as functions are not concentrated in a single physical location that is subject to disruption. Freedom from geographic constraints enables corporate recruiters to cast a wider net when hiring, allowing companies to attract better and more diverse talent. Finally, remote workers, when resourced properly, are happier and more productive, to the ultimate benefit of a company’s bottom line.

Future generations may look back with amusement on the propensity of office workers in the early 21st century to spend hours each week burning fossil fuels to travel every day to a common location and sit and look at computer screens in close company with each other.

This greater flexibility comes with challenges. Assuring data integrity and security is more difficult when workers are decentralized and using personal devices. Cybersecurity in a remote model will require not only technological solutions, but an evolution of regulatory frameworks as well. It is furthermore harder to capture the “lightning in the bottle” of good ideas that naturally arise when people are thrown into close proximity to each other. Here, too, technology will need to create the so-called “virtual water coolers” that allow for unstructured creative thinking.

Perhaps the most substantial challenge lies in managing a remote workforce: The basics of leading and managing become more difficult when teams are scattered. Hiring, onboarding, mentoring, measuring performance, coaching and promoting are all harder when your team members don’t share a common office. The time-honored ritual of corporate offsites might evolve into corporate onsites, as remote teams come together from time to time to assess progress, nurture team dynamics or simply enjoy the company of their colleagues. Once again, these challenges are not new, and some industries have been working this way for years or decades. This is an evolution that heightens the importance of the human resource function, not just as a means of managing people, but also a repository of best practices and strategic insight.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the absence of certain goods on grocery store shelves offered an object lesson on the importance of supply chains. Companies analyze the details of their customers’ needs and build supply chains to meet that demand as precisely and efficiently as possible. When the timing or level of demand shifts quickly – as happened in March – supply chains simply can’t keep up. Hence the desperate search for toilet paper in the early days of the economic shutdown.

Indeed, even before anyone in this country donned their first mask, companies who relied on Chinese suppliers were affected by economic disruption halfway around the world. For example, a hypothetical American company that relied on a single supplier in Hubei province for a critical input to its manufacturing process likely closed production in early January. A global pandemic quickly rippled through the global marketplace, leaving no supply chain intact.

Companies have spent decades globalizing their supply chains, often preferring China’s lower labor costs, seemingly boundless manufacturing capacity and rapid production. Progress in logistics has enabled companies to adopt just-in-time inventory practices on a global scale. These gains in efficiency and profitability come at the expense of resilience and durability, as the last few months have shown. A study conducted by McKinsey & Co. in late July found that 73% of companies surveyed experienced problems with supply chains during the COVID-19 crisis. In the critical food and consumer goods industries, 100% of companies surveyed had encountered production and distribution problems, and 91% had problems with suppliers.

At present, many companies are dealing with the immediate threats posed by a pandemic that continues to disrupt global trade and transit. Yet even once the current crisis passes, the McKinsey study found that 93% of companies intend to invest in increasing the resilience of their supply chains, whether by duplicating sources, holding more inventory, bringing supply chains closer to home or regionalizing them to locate supplies closer to end markets.

Chart illustrating new initiatives companies intend to invest in; study shows companies are increasing investments into supply chains.

This is happening at the same time that there is rising awareness of the environmental footprint of trade and growing pressure to do something about it. The desire to be more sustainable, while addressing the fragility revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, leads us to conclude that supply chain trends of the past few decades will reverse, at least to some degree. The pendulum of outsourcing and offshoring is about to swing back.

All of these initiatives cost money. Multiple suppliers, onshore manufacturing, higher inventory levels, better logistics and shorter supply chains will require investments. Redundancy is expensive, but companies will increasingly decide to trade a few margin points for greater resiliency and durability.

The Future of School

For families with children, the future of home and the future of work, at least in the near term, will be dictated by the future of school, which remains frustratingly uncertain even as the summer draws to a close. The need for younger children to return to school in person is unequivocally clear. Particularly at the elementary and secondary levels, the importance of social interaction and adult supervision is paramount, not to mention the need to liberate parents to return to work, even if their work remains at home. A functional school environment is essential to a functional home and work environment. (For this reason, we do not expect a sustained rise in homeschooling once the risk of the pandemic ebbs. For better or worse, school plays the role of caretaker for younger children for many working parents.)

Schools are struggling to solve this conundrum on a case-by-case basis. How to preserve social distancing in a classroom? How to convince young children to wear masks properly? How to move students safely throughout a building during the day? How to transport them to and from school? How to monitor the health of the school community, and how to respond when a member of the community tests positive? Any one of these obstacles is tough, and administrators are dealing with all of them without a national or even (in many cases) a statewide framework. The real work is taking place district by district.

Chart showing reopening plans for 50 largest K-12 U.S. school districts; 50% are planning a virtual reopening, and 30% a delayed start/considering options.

n order to mitigate the “cruise ship” risk, colleges are experimenting with staggered returns to campus (for example, freshmen and juniors in the fall, sophomores and seniors in the spring), truncated terms (to avoid students leaving campus for breaks and returning with potential infections) and remote learning even for students on campus. Universities will try to accommodate students who need access to laboratories or specific research facilities or who for personal reasons cannot study remotely. Schools are trying to salvage parts of athletic seasons, in many cases for financial reasons. As with primary schools, all of these plans will necessarily change when they collide with reality over the next weeks and months.

Every university president, provost and dean is lying awake at night wondering how much will students and parents be willing to pay for the new normal?

This will not be the college experience that young people anticipated, and many students will opt out and work (if they can find a job), travel (as and when that is allowed), pursue mission trips or work on political campaigns until the college experience returns to normal. A so-called “gap year” is popular in some countries, and we will likely see a greater adoption of it here in the U.S. as well. This helps colleges manage in-person attendance, albeit at the cost of tuition revenue.

Technological solutions to remote learning at the higher education level is a well-trodden road. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as those provided by Coursera, Udacity and edX, allow students around the world to study a wide variety of topics in multiple languages, in courses often taught by professors at leading universities. Classes are both synchronous and asynchronous, interactive and graded. Coursera, the largest MOOC, had 45 million learners (worldwide) in 2019, in 3,800 courses offering 420 microcredentials and 16 degrees.

Coursera is not going to put Dartmouth out of business. But when some aspects of traditional higher education can be replicated or even improved online, the role of the university necessarily shifts. Students will see this evolution as soon as the upcoming academic year, and the lessons learned from responding to COVID-19 will alter the college experience going forward. Every university president, provost and dean is lying awake at night wondering how much will students and parents be willing to pay for the new normal?

The financial stresses are already extant. Some colleges have reduced tuition for the next academic year, but not all institutions have the financial strength to follow suit. After all, physical plant still requires maintenance, and faculty are still teaching, even if remotely. The difficulty of foreign travel will rob some colleges of full tuition-paying international students this fall, further impairing revenues. Average tuition costs have risen faster than inflation for decades, and student loans mirror that rise. Outstanding student loans have doubled just since the end of the global financial crisis to $1.5 trillion. Student loan delinquencies have risen as well, with 11% of student loans over 90 days delinquent even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Chart illustrating outstanding student loans, which are trending up; also shows percentage over 90 days delinquent, which is relatively flat at around 11% in the past few years.

This is a dangerous landscape. Tuition inflation has led to a surge in student debt, while a weak job market implies that loan delinquencies are likely to worsen. At the same time, a greater adoption of technology and reliance on remote learning threatens to devalue the traditional campus experience, potentially preventing colleges from raising tuition at historical paces. This combination of crises poses an existential threat to many colleges and universities.

Scott Galloway, a professor at New York University, has explored how these trends affect specific colleges. On one spectrum he assesses a school’s value proposition by analyzing (among other things) rankings, selectivity, student life and graduate employment and income, all compared to tuition. This leads to an objective (while admittedly debatable) answer to the question “Is the tuition worth it?” A second spectrum analyzes financial strength – endowment size, alumni engagement and generosity, and reliance on full-tuition students.

Galloway concludes that schools with a solid value proposition and deep fiscal strength will endure, despite the challenges of COVID-19 and technological disruption. Indeed, well-positioned schools with the ability to invest in technology and embrace disruption will likely even thrive. A strong value proposition will enable schools to survive, even if they don’t have the financial strength of their richer competitors.

Chart illustrating how colleges will survive this pandemic; of 441, 132 will struggle, and 129 will survive.

On the other hand, schools without a compelling value proposition will likely struggle, as the competitive threat of technology erodes their ability to attract students and raise tuitions. Finally, those colleges with neither the value proposition nor deep pockets will be challenged by (in Galloway’s colorful phrase) the “sodium pentothal cocktail of high admit rates, high tuition, low endowments, dependence on international students, and weak brand equity.”

Of 441 colleges in his survey, Galloway finds that roughly half will thrive or at least survive the headwinds of technological disruption, but another half will struggle at best. (Galloway’s research is freely available online for those readers who are curious how their own alma mater fares in his analysis.)

Higher education will be ground zero for technological disruption, and, thanks to COVID-19, it's coming faster than before.  

Colleges faced competitive and financial pressures long before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted an academic establishment that reaches back to the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088. Higher education will be ground zero for technological disruption, and, thanks to COVID-19, it’s coming faster than before.

The Future of the Future

The coronavirus pandemic has imposed on us a global experiment in rethinking business as usual. The ways we live, work and learn have all been disrupted by COVID-19, and some of the lessons learned and experiences gained in this crisis will enable us to emerge on the other side better equipped to do all three. COVID-19 seems to have slowed down time, as efforts to stop the spread of the disease curtailed so many aspects of normal life. Its real effect on the future may be to accelerate the timing of developments already underway. Our present challenge is to get to that future – to arrive at a day when the immediate threat of the virus recedes and we get a better picture of what the new normal holds in store.

May that day come quickly.

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