Coronavirus lockdown has forced us into an economic trial and error experiment: Don Pittis

From the trite to the sublime, the world is being coerced into a grudging socioeconomic beta test. Not all will make it to the final product release but some changes are here to stay, Don Pittis writes.

Crisis prompts us to do things differently but some changes will stick around

Working from home during the pandemic may be a boon or a curse, but people caught up in the economic experiment are predicting the world will not be the same when the current crisis is over. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

If necessity really is the mother of invention, the coronavirus lockdown may thrust us into the mother of all socioeconomic transformations.

And while many commentators have weighed in on whether things like working from home are a boon or a curse, people caught up in the economic experiment tell me the world will not be the same when it is over.

From the trite — a young relative who only drank barista coffee switching to an Aeropress and loving it — to changes as momentous as the redefinition of the gig economy, people who study innovation and economic change say we are at a point of flux.

In ways big and small, no one I spoke to said their lives had been unchanged. And almost all said new things that they had reluctantly tried had taught them and their colleagues things that will remain useful after the crisis is over.

For Barbara Grant, owner and founder of the exercise studio Retrofit Pilates, there is little question that the lockdown has been bad for the bottom line.

"I have to pay rent," said Grant. "Four thousand square feet in downtown Toronto."

After its Toronto studio shut down, Retrofit Pilates went virtual. (Retrofit Pilates)

After being forced to shut her studio last month, Grant tried an experiment. Like many churches, mosques and temples, she moved her gatherings online, organizing group and private classes where homebound customers can interact with instructors and each other.Grant said it has been a hit and on Wednesday, she opened up the service to others who want to join.

Not only that, but she also sees the service continuing after the lockdown, offering classes to her clientele on business trips or on vacation.

Inevitably, the rush to transform her business model means Grant says she may have got some things wrong.

Make do, then improve

According to Terri Griffith, a longtime expert in remote working, educators and doctors and office workers suddenly thrown into communicating using unfamiliar tools must cut themselves some slack.

"This is not good online learning, this is not good remote work, it's just making do," said Griffith, a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University who has been researching virtual work since 1984.

But Griffith says flaws can be fixed if people using these new systems are given the power to alter things that clearly aren't working. When trying something new, especially in a rush, errors are inevitable.

For now, the most radical change is that after years of hesitancy, people are actually being forced by circumstances to do things in a new way that a month or so ago might have seemed too risky.

That is certainly the experience of Andrew Monkhouse who runs a boutique law firm in Toronto specializing in employment and human rights.

Monkhouse says in the past, when trying to arrange online meetings, there was often one member of the group who insisted on face-to-face. Suddenly, holdouts who were technically uncomfortable or averse to change are being forced to give it a try. Some are finding it's not so bad.

But Monkhouse says the current employment crunch may force a far more consequential innovation in the treatment of people in precarious work. He says the change will be a direct effect of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, created by the federal government to replace some of the income of people thrown out of their jobs by the emergency

Things you couldn't imagine happening are now happening.- Peter Victor

Under the plan, the government recognizes that people who are self-employed or labelled "independent contractors" are actually employees who need support.

"We're going to provide this benefit for everyone," says Monkhouse.

While not a legal precedent, it is an administrative one, demonstrating that if workers are due benefits for emergency unemployment, they and their employers should be contributing to the fund that pays for it.

Monkhouse says not just Uber drivers but tech workers at the big five banks are currently designated independent contractors, providing the employer with tax advantages. He says the economic meltdown has been a wakeup call likely to bring about a change in the rules.

"They've let this two-tier system continue for some time where employers have had a benefit by what we would consider misclassifying their employees," said Monkhouse.

One such group often declared to be self-employed are delivery workers, currently being run off their feet by stay-at-homes like economist Peter Victor, who for the first time has tried an online grocery service.

'Kind of a pain'

"I never used one before now," says Victor, a professor emeritus and author who is sticking close to home in Toronto. "I think there's a very good chance I'll make continued use of them because actually I've always found going to the supermarket kind of a pain."

As an advocate of the idea that we would all be happier if we spent less time chasing the conventional goals of economic growth — doing less work but spreading it around among more people — he sees the COVID-19 shutdown as a living experiment.

As people bake bread, hang out with family, give each other or themselves haircuts, offer generosity toward neighbours and strangers, experience cleaner air, share online entertainments and be generally more creative, he expects our current experience to have a lasting impact, reminding people there is a lot more to life than rushing off to the rat race.

Certainly in my own case, saving 80 minutes a day of commuting time and writing in a sunny room without the cacophony in the open-plan office of reporters bellowing down telephone lines compensates for other losses.

But as Victor was careful to remember, not everyone, and especially those suffering on reduced incomes, will feel the same way.

Only some parts of the experiment will be adopted. But whether people love or hate being shut up in their homes, like Monkhouse, he thinks the COVID-19 is changing our values.

As someone who grew up after the Second World War, Victor wonders if, like then, we will be more open to governments playing a larger role in the economy. Some have suggested that the current crisis could demonstrate the need for a minimum basic income system.

Not everyone will think that is a good idea. But the economist says in such a time of turmoil, and with the possible erosion of civil rights, we must be ready to defend ourselves against less salubrious results.

"Things you couldn't imagine happening are now happening," said Victor. "More surveillance, and all sorts of things which would be troubling if they were to continue afterwards."

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.