I recently took my first business trip since the pandemic began. It was just a short overnight trip, from London to Düsseldorf and back. But the logistics, combined with the emotions, of the trip were as complicated as they were revelatory. I realise now that one of the biggest misnomers of this moment is the term ‘post-pandemic’, which everyone seems eager to discuss, for obvious reasons. But I think what most of us are keen to return to, is life pre-pandemic. We are ‘reopening’ the economy, schools, office spaces, pubs, and shops. We are ‘going back’ to traveling, socialising, even shaking hands (well, maybe).
But my trip to Germany revealed to me that there will be differences in life post-pandemic — some small, some more noticeable. Some will be for the short-to-medium term, some will likely be for years to come. Some of these changes are legally required and we will adhere to them immediately if we want to participate in certain sectors of society. For example, in New York City, proof of vaccination is required to eat in a restaurant, go to the cinema or attend a sporting event (among many other things). Other changes will be personal choices, and will possibly distinguish us from others around us, signaling everything from our politics to our level of hypochondria. For example, in America choosing to wear a mask (in most places they are not mandatory) has become a division along political lines as much as risk factor ones. And then there will be changes in ourselves, not visible to others, maybe not even always known to ourselves. Anxiety, fear, depression, fatigue, will all inform how and when we fully enter ‘post-pandemic’ life. That will come down to – like so many things – our individual experiences during this time, and our personal pre-disposition towards certain reactions to those experiences. Some people have suffered enormous personal losses and are in the various stages of grief. Others have had primarily a large amount of inconvenience and a shared level of somewhat abstract fear. But even amongst those two extremes, our own levels of empathy, support networks, prior stress events, and a host of other things, impact our way of moving forward.
For me, I had already traveled several times from London to Florida, where the rules about the pandemic — and the attitudes towards those rules — were distinctly different. But I also was there for personal reasons, and for an extended stay. This business trip was very different. First, there was a certain weirdness to preparing for a business trip. My always stocked Dopp kit hadn’t been refreshed in 18 months, and now I added hand sanitiser and a couple of alcohol wipes. My suit still fit, which was a relief, but dress shoes were far more uncomfortable than I remembered. Some of the small rituals of professional life that I’ve done for more than 25 years seemed almost novel. Subconsciously, there was probably more anxiety than a personal trip, where I could speak frankly with my parents and my daughter about whether I wanted to go out to eat or shop in a grocery store. Now I was losing some autonomy as professional etiquette would dictate some decisions – as it always has. But now, that felt more consequential.
Also, I was struck by the amount of documentation and testing. My mental mindset (previously) was that I could do a return trip to Germany within a single day. Now, in order to enter Germany (and any country, for that matter) the prerequisites to travel are much more extensive. The testing plus the accompanying paperwork took days of planning – and I was abruptly aware that there would be no unexpected business trips, no last-minute weekend jaunts to the Continent, no unplanned anything that crossed a national border. All of this extra paperwork also meant I had to arrive earlier at the airport, and it took longer to be processed upon arrival. The security lines were shorter, as fewer people are traveling, but that was offset by the longer time to get through the checks.
Once I was in Düsseldrof, at first glance, life looked the same as the last (pre-pandemic) trip I took there. Shops, bars, and cafes were open. City busses were operating. People were walking or cycling. But, upon closer look, the differences were clear. I was required to show proof of vaccination to enter the office and restaurants. Masks and social distancing were required, including only one person in the elevator at a time. So, same…but different. For some, the constant reminders of the pandemic could have justifiably created anxiety. Having just been in Florida where there were far fewer masks, I found this environment more reassuring. I still prefer to wear a mask indoors, especially if it is a crowded location, and here (unlike in Florida) I didn’t have to worry what others would say or think about my caution. I ate in a restaurant for the first time in 18 months. I was socialising with my business colleagues there – relative strangers, as opposed to the tight circle of friends and family that had become my entire world since early last year. Logistically, and emotionally, I was navigating post-pandemic life, trying to engage in the healthy, fulfilling activities of connecting with the world, with an awareness of the mental toll it has taken for such connections to be the very thing that threatens our survival.
Sadly, the best metaphor I can relate this time to is the months after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. We got on planes again, but we had to take our shoes off first and we couldn’t bring a bottle of water. In the early months, every new security check was a reminder of a devastating event, but also a reassurance against future attacks. The new normal allowed us to resume living our lives but prevented a return to an exact replica of before. We moved forward with the happy sanity that familiarity brings but accommodating a fear of outcomes we’d never before entertained. In the balance, it’s a good thing to be doing things like business travel, uncomfortable shoes notwithstanding. For me, the German approach was a softer landing than Florida’s – though I recognise the opposite will be true for many. Either way, it’s critical to engage in things that provide a robust life – interpersonal connections, enjoying the arts, a professionally cooked meal. But it’s important to realise that those things will not just look a bit different; they will feel different. Because they are. And we’re not going back.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams, and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career, I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.