Recovering from Social Distancing in the Post-COVID Economy

August, 2020

By Alberto Parolo, Avasant Sr. Distinguished Fellow

The current coronavirus pandemic has disrupted business operations worldwide. In response, most organizations have taken steps to mitigate risks in order to maintain some level of production. In cases where workers must be physically present, one of the key measures is social distancing, that is, keeping some level of distance between workers, so as to lessen the spread of the virus. Although necessary during pandemic conditions, the practice of social distancing may have unintended consequences in the post-COVID recovery. This Research Byte outlines the problem and provides an example for one industry in particular.

Changing Norms for our Personal Space

social distancing - Recovering from Social Distancing in the Post-COVID Economy

Social distancing keeps people apart by design, but that necessary distance can impact business relationships and disrupt an organization. In addition to preventing the coronavirus from travelling as far, one reason why a face mask is effective is that, for some, there is an instinctive reaction to stay away from someone with a mask.

But as economies in Europe and North America open up (with varying rules and levels of success), we will have to re-establish our social relationships without necessarily changing our social distance. This will be a challenge, but successful companies and leaders will need to navigate it.

We tend to automatically set our “interpersonal distance” according to our level of intimacy with the person we are interacting with and what we are doing. Eric Hall’s theory of proxemics identified typical interpersonal distances as follows (although these can vary across cultures):

    • Intimate distance for embracing, touching, or whispering: less than 50 centimeters (intimate space)
    • Personal distance for interactions among good friends or family: 50 centimeters to 1 meter (personal space)
    • Social distance for interactions among acquaintances: 1 to 4 meters (social space)
    • Public distance used for public speaking: over 4 meters (public space)

We should perhaps add “web-conferencing distance” to this list, as that is how many of us have interacted with colleagues and clients for some time now.

In social situations, we instinctively choose the right interpersonal distance according to the level of intimacy and our actions.  But if we are forced to keep what we perceive to be a “wrong” distance, we become instinctively annoyed. We are uncomfortable with strangers talking very close to us and whispering in our ears. And equally, being forced to keep excessive interpersonal distance for a long time could impact negatively on our personal relationships.

Recalibrating Social Distancing

Although necessary to combat the pandemic, we need to recognize that social distancing has disrupted our normal behavior, forcing us to adopt unnatural interpersonal distances.  We stay away from people we communicate with more than we normally would – or should.  Some of this is because we are just following the rules of good social distancing, but understandably, our attitude toward other people has slightly changed. There is a risk of unconsciously considering each person as somehow a potential danger, an enemy, someone who could infect us.

As a consequence, an irrational and unconscious bias affects personal and business relationships. Teamwork is disrupted. Our trust in partners is eroded. The natural space between us has grown to an uncomfortable level. And we’re not always consciously aware of the issue. But months of social distancing play an indirect role in discouraging individuals and companies from approaching and meeting partners and from re-establishing the tight relationships required to build the future together.

Launching new projects is a challenge: Establishing trust with new partners, understanding the actual needs, thoughts and doubts of people is difficult without the opportunity of small informal chats.  A casual post-meeting debrief, a coffee or lunchbreak together are hardly replaceable by videoconferences: The interpersonal distances are very different.

In areas where the virus is coming under control, but we are not yet recovering, we may not be able stop social distancing. But we can no longer let physical distance affect our personal distance. That is the challenge.

Restarting the Automotive Industry

The automobile industry provides an example of how the current need for social distancing may have longer-term effects on the ability to return to normal operations. The automotive industry is among the most severely impacted by the pandemic, and its difficulties serve to illustrate the problem.

The economic impact is great. With few exceptions, the only vehicles sold in recent months are those ordered before the lockdown. The lockdown during just two months (March and April 2020) caused lost sales that would have generated $2.6 billion in profits to US car dealers. Similar situations have been reported in Europe and other regions severely impacted by the virus. For example, car sales in Italy dropped 98% in April and 50% in May. The loss of jobs, reduced need to travel during partial lockdown, and increased working from home are all going to produce long-term reductions to automobile demand.

Production of vehicles is a labor-intensive activity. It is highly dependent on the physical presence of workers at production sites, and it relies on a supply chain geographically distributed across multiple regions. It is therefore extremely vulnerable to the pandemic and can be disrupted by any event in any of the sites involved in the process. Typical production sites include campuses of tens of thousands people (up to 60,000 in VW Wolfsburg, Germany, for example). As a consequence, monitoring and management of epidemic risks is difficult and crucial.

Ensuring proper physical distance between workers in plants and employees in offices is not the only problem: Another problem is irrational voluntary distancing. On June 25 some workers refused to work at an FCA plant in the Detroit area, although no infection had been reported. FCA declared that, “The company has implemented a comprehensive, multi-layered program of enhanced safety measures designed to safeguard our employees. While there is no confirmed case at Jefferson North, some employees have stopped working over concerns about the virus.

This is just one example of many uncontrolled and unpredictable actions of voluntary distancing from the workplace. This leads directly back to the issue of unusual social distance. After many weeks of abnormal interpersonal distancing, behavior can be distorted. We can begin to perceive other people as sources of danger: “enemies” to stay away from. This unconscious rejection is quite visible in large manufacturing firms, such as car producers. Smaller work environments experience less of this unconscious reaction, because personal relationships are tighter and workers often view the company is their own.

Of course, there are understandable reasons to refuse to work during a pandemic, regardless of the precautions a company takes. Employees with certain risk factors or family situations may be making the choice for other reasons. But this is not only a problem during the pandemic. Even if a vaccine becomes available tomorrow and the virus is eradicated, the habit of maintaining abnormal personal distance will persist at least temporarily as employees return to normal working conditions. It is much like what happens if you haven’t driven in some time and attempt to drive on a fast and crowded highway. You simply aren’t used to it, and other cars will seem too close.

Act Professionally and Ethically

We are still in the middle of difficulties and uncertainty, because we are still at risk of COVID-19.  What we can do in the meantime is act professionally and ethically, and to be consciously aware of the problem of unnatural social distancing. We must not be afraid of teaming together. The damaged trust between partners and co-workers comes from circumstances beyond everyone’s control, not from specific actions. Awareness is key to combat the effect. So is your attitude. As Gandhi said,

“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”

Gandhi definitely knew how to lead in the middle of difficulties. Rebuilding our business and personal relationships in the middle of this uncertainty will show that we know how to lead in the middle of difficulties as well.