The Rubber Band Theory: What Lasting Impact Will COVID-19 Have?

The Rubber Band Theory: What Lasting Impact Will COVID-19 Have?

Right now, there is a lot of conjecture about the lasting impact COVID-19 will have on the way we work, love, and live.

With the sweeping changes that COVID-19 restrictions have brought, from mass transitions to working from home, studying online, to increases in government allowances and free childcare, many are predicting that these will create long term shifts.

Part of this is inspired by the currently unfulfilled promise that has existed for the last 20 years that both the internet and technology more broadly would disrupt work, education and family life.

While it’s certainly changed our lives considerably, it is arguable that it has fallen well short of its disruptive potential. We have as a species remained over the last 20 years, fairly obstinate in our habits and behaviours.

For example, as a majority, we have continued to work in offices and prefer in-person learning at a school or a university campus, despite the promise of technology.

It could be argued that a lot of this societal resistance to such a transition has due to the significant inertia in system-wide policies and decision making as opposed to individual preference.

  • I would love to work from home more often, but my work didn’t encourage this policy.
  • I would love to complete more of my university studies online, but the university I attend doesn’t offer this.
  • I would love to consult with my doctor and psychologist over the phone, but I can’t access the Medicare rebate for this.

That’s why the impact COVID-19 will have long term will be very interesting, because the change has come at a system level, as opposed to at a grassroots level. People have had no choice – we’ve been required to make changes.

Will these changes stick?

I think it’s without a doubt that a significant amount of things will change.

Companies will become more flexible with work from home arrangements because they’ve been able to see how it can work, and they can trust their team to be productive contributors despite not being physically on-site in the office.

Universities will become more flexible with delivering learning online for those students who prefer to access it this way, especially as they are increasingly also working while simultaneously studying.

Telehealth is (finally) here to stay.

In saying this, how many people will take up these modes of working, living and learning on an ongoing basis after COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed remains unclear. Will these finally ‘cross the chasm’ into mainstream adoption?

If the last 20 years of uptake is any indication, things *may* not change as much as people predict.

The Rubber Band Theory of Change

I have a theory about how much change we can expect to see as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.

It’s called the Rubber Band Theory of Change.

When you stretch a rubber band and then release it, it snaps back very quickly to roughly the same shape.

If you, however, stretch a rubber band and hold it in this extended stretch for a significant time, when you release it, it doesn’t snap back the same. The elastic is not as responsive, and often, the rubber band has now irrevocably changed shape.

I think this is a metaphor for the degree of permanent change we might see as a result of COVID-19 – all of it depends on the breadth and length the restrictions remain in place for.

As humans, we have a bias for whatever is default and already in existence. If we are given the choice of something new or the default situation, more often than not, we choose the default.

The question then on the degree of change COVID-19 will bring depends on whether the ‘default’ changes and becomes updated with a ‘new’ default.

The longer the restrictions are in place for, the more existing habits and modes of living change to form new habits – and the more likely we will see long term impacts of COVID-19 due to the habit changes it has created.

There is a historical case for this if we look at World War I and II and the Great Depression. These were all reasonably sudden onset events that last for multiple years that radically altered behaviours and life for generations.

If however, restrictions are scaled back relatively quickly due to getting transmissions under control, I hypothesise that we will see a relatively quick snap back to existing habits and modes of working, living and learning.

What time frame will it take to create lasting change?

If we look at prior precedents in World Wars and Great Depressions, these were all multi-year events.

World War I stretched from 1914 – 1918.
The Great Depression stretched from 1929 – 1933.
World War II was from 1939 – 1945.

The average is approximately five years.

That’s not to say for COVID-19 to create lasting change it’s going to take that long. Since these events, the pace of change has accelerated, and it’s likely that as a result, we’ll see lasting change in a much shorter period of time.

My sense right now is that it will take at least nine months of broad restrictions around social distancing and ongoing business closures for us to see our defaults as a society change.

From speaking with students, the overwhelming feedback is they prefer in-person learning at their school or university campus.

From speaking with friends and colleagues, while they enjoy working a day or two from home, overall, their preference has been to return to their physical offices.

Of course, in both cases, there a few exceptions that prefer the current working and learning arrangements.

For these defaults to change, I think it’s going to take many months for people to develop new habits, routines, and rituals in their day, and acclimatise so that when their ability to make a choice returns, they continue to choose the new modes created during COVID-19.

I think this is also the position of Scott Morrison and the Australian government at present. Their current goal is to ‘hibernate’ the economy for six months and then kickstart it again. The implication here is that they believe that they can support everyone financially for this period of time who have lost their jobs. Ways of living and working won’t materially change in this time, enabling most businesses to be able to successfully ‘re-boot’.

How long do you think it will take?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how long you think it will take for lasting change to occur.

Do you think there are particular things we do, and industries that will be impacted for the long term faster than others?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Written by
Rowan Kunz
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1 comment
  • Posting here too in case you wanted to keep records of comments on your articles.
    Nice article! I agree that there needs to be a certain duration before new habits become formed. I think the areas where changes (across all of society) will ‘stick’ depend on a few factors. 1) Is it related to economics and does it provide an economic benefit (e.g. businesses cutting real estate costs by allowing ppl to work from home), 2) The extent to which the covid experience has changed your life. Professionals working from home have had very minor changes to their lives, whereas others, such as healthcare workers, those who are now unable to work, etc., have seen significant changes to their lives, 3) In who’s interest is it to sustain the changes. Similar to 1), but pointing out that those in leadership/power have a big influence on our lives, and that if they change their perspective/view, then this is much more likely to influence our lives than if a normal citizen changes their view (in most domains anyway).
    Based on these three factors, I don’t think we will see significant change at this point, with a key reason being that those with influence, money and power have not yet really been affected by Covid materially. They are still working hard and thus don’t have time for reflection (unless perhaps Boris with his admittance to hospital!). Business owners, even their businesses are in trouble, for the most part still have huge private assets and wealth. Politicians, similarly, have no fears for their livelihood.
    If you are interested in getting more into understanding how changes are driven at a societal level, check out the theory/concepts of adaptive cycles, panarchy and resilience. These theories have been adapted and applied in business contexts to promote desirable change and ensure businesses don’t get ‘rigid’ in their approach, so you may have already come across them.

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