Learn, unlearn, re-learn: Decoding the post-pandemic normal and future realities

Over two years ago, Covid ushered in a new set of life rules which we thought would be around for good. Now, with the world returning to (almost) normal, we are having to press the reset button all over again


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Fri 29 Jul 2022, 9:57 PM

One of my best friends, who lives in Kolkata, let’s call her Maya, has a boyfriend who lives in a different continent... let’s call him Stewart. So, Maya and Stewart had been in a long-distance relationship for four years till Covid struck.

Before that, both would visit each other whenever they could, and were working on a plan to relocate to a neutral, halfway zone. Dubai occupied one of the top spots on their relocation wish-list.

When the pandemic changed travel rules, they both decided to wait it out. It would be tough, they said gamely, “but love will find a way”.

And then, last year, when the second wave gobsmacked India, Maya called me one day to say, “Stewart and I have decided to split. Both of us are convinced that Covid will not go anywhere, travel will be a lost cause, and if we don’t get to see each other regularly, there’s no point really. Already one year has taken a toll on our relationship.”

The following weekend, she sent me an “It’s over” message, alongside a teary-eyed emoji. I called her to ask how it went. It took them three Skype calls to find closure. They both wept. But swore to remain friends.

More than a year passed.

A couple of months ago, Maya WhatsApped me early one morning to say she and Stewart were back together. “How wrong we were to imagine that Covid had changed our lives! So, we’re back to square one, he’s visiting in August, and then I’ll go over to him for Christmas.”

Covid had ushered in a new phrase. ‘The New Normal’. The past was being unlearnt. Many of us had already decided that the “old ways of the world” would be turned on their heads. Social media was full of advice and proclamations about how our futures would be different. We would be more introspective. More at ease in our own company. Would cut through the human clutter and see people for who they really are. And so on.

While these were intangibles, there were also tangible changes. Overnight, we became virtual travellers (a friend played Edith Piaf in the background while indulging in a virtual city tour of Paris). Work from home became a norm. Meetings — both professional and personal — moved onto platforms like Zoom. Web shopping got a life of its own (I’ve never in my life shopped for apparel online — but even I started buying FabIndia kurtis online and realised that perhaps — just perhaps — fitting rooms were overrated). Children were taking classes online, and there were concerns raised about their “social” skills. I know at least three people in my peer group who sold their cars.

A few of us quit our jobs. “I realise I can live off my savings, since my expenses have come down drastically — and things will be like this for a long time now,” someone I know told me, and I agreed with him whole-heartedly.

Real estate prices crashed, and those who had been eyeing properties but (pre-Covid) getting put off by year-on-year escalations, decided it was a great time to buy — and they secured some super deals. And then there were those who sold properties fearing the worst is yet to come.

Just as we thought our lives were being reinvented — for better or for worse, only time would tell — the axis started moving back, slowly but surely, towards where we were before the virus became a game-changer. Covid is still sneaking around, but it’s now more of an irritant rather than a lethal swipe. Yes, we have to be careful, but we need to hit the stride back — because the world is opening up. Take the case of Work From Home, which trended as #WFH for the better part of two years. In the post-Covid era, one study claimed that 65 per cent employees do not want to return to the workplace, whereas another stated that only around 7 per cent are still doing WFH. Basically, an overwhelming number are having to go to office without really wanting to.

It’s better to strategically adapt — than unlearn

Hussein Rifai — strategic adviser, global keynote speaker and chairman of SPC Global — notes that the process of unlearning and relearning is “something that should have already been a part of our everyday lives, but it’s something we often forget when life gets comfortable and stable”.

For instance, those “who began getting comfortable with remote working, will now need to relearn what it feels like to work from office spaces or in hybrid working environments.” But there was the accompanying realisation of putting your own interests first. So, those who “were put through the wringer at their previous jobs to survive, have quit to find better options elsewhere.”

The pandemic also involved tougher decisions than finding the right shirt-tie-shorts combination for a Zoom or Microsoft Teams call while working from home. “While the Covid era was about making ends meet, keeping businesses afloat, and ensuring we got paid sufficient salaries to survive, the post-Covid era has raised questions about whether the ends justified the means. Under pressure, a lot of business managers and company executives showed their true colours — whether good or bad. As a result, the post-Covid era has witnessed a ‘great awakening’ accompanied by the ‘great resignation’.”

Entrepreneur Tara Rose Kidd, founder of Tara Rose Salons and Training Academy, feels (going into the pandemic) no one ever anticipated life as we knew it then would be turned on its head in a matter of weeks. “Covid has been unlike anything any of us have experienced in our lifetimes… Change is scary, especially when it’s paired with such an event as a pandemic. But, in the process of experiencing such a life-altering event, I think many of us realised we could use the time to let the change impact us positively.” Tara believes we can all continue to learn from the ‘new normal’, even if it’s just learning more about who you are as a person.

“I know in many ways we are still learning, still coping — I think that will continue for some time because we are still dealing with Covid as a worldwide crisis. I feel that reflecting and questioning are critical to being able to cope well. We should be trying to learn and grow from our experiences, both as individuals and as organisations. There may be no better time than now. Just as we had to unlearn to adjust to life with Covid, we can adjust our lives and habits to reflect the world we live in now — we are incredibly resilient, it just takes embracing the fact that ‘normal’ is what you make of it.”

Maintaining the status quo — by design

If anything, Covid taught Mary Grothe — founder and CEO, House of Revenue — that more “flexibility” was needed in the workplace to foster her own health and her team’s. “I had to change the old normal by setting firm work hours from 9am to 4pm — instead of working all day and night — and offer a flexible hybrid work option and [enable my team] to take time off.” She also learned to only take on clients that “shared our values and energised us”.

Two years after, this “hasn’t changed for us because it’s working out so well and I don’t foresee any changes in the near future.” In fact, if there’s anything that needs to be unlearned, it’s the pre-Covid work mentality of always working, being the first in the office and the last out of office, “that work is only productive in a corporate office, and that we have to take on every single potential client that crosses our path”.

These habits and thought processes were not sustainable nor healthy and Mary is grateful that Covid revealed that to her — and many others. Since implementing their new work policies, she has seen an improvement in her own mental health, as well as that of her team’s. Additionally, productivity has actually gone up. “By first taking care of ourselves and setting work boundaries, our professional lives have improved for the better and that wellbeing has also spilled into our personal lives. Finally, being happier and healthier also means that we can serve our clients more successfully and have more quality time and energy for our families.”

Why it wasn’t even ‘normal’

It was a LOT more comfortable working in PJs, is how performing artist Lamya Tawfik laughingly sums up what worked well for her over the pandemic. “You know, the idea of a ‘new normal’ just didn’t make sense to me… for instance, when they said WFH is the new normal, I was thinking how can this be normal? But then you get used to it — realising it can’t be normal, but also realising that you need to adapt.”

It’s the fact that Lamya knew “deep down” it’s not normal that made her not get too entrenched emotionally in the ‘new normal’ routine. One new ‘learning’ she acquired was becoming a Netflix binge-watcher. “I may have been bingeing to keep myself sane — by getting a peek into other people’s lives on OTT shows instead of worrying about my own!” It was escapism, she admits, and she indulged in it a lot.

Now that she’s out of that zone, “bingeing is a guilty pleasure — not a norm. But whenever I binge, I say to myself ‘Oh, it’s like those days, not the good old days but those days…”

Lamya does have one regret though. A lot of folks she knew, in an attempt to extract some good out of the social isolation, worked hard to focus on their health. “They were working out, eating healthy — whereas all I did was try and remain sane… I did not take care of myself at all [sigh].”

Getting a new lease of life

WFH meant Do-It-All-Yourself, according to Neil Cabral, Managing Director and Head of Key Clients, Lighthouse Canton, who worked from home all through Covid — but is now back in office full-time. “I got tired and mentally exhausted of WFH as it glues you to a screen,” he says. “The in-person debate is always more effective. You can see the body language and gestures. Specifically, I missed secretarial support.” Plus, in the Covid era, with no domestic help, he was having to do all household chores himself.

So, Neil, for one, has embraced the reset with open arms — albeit powered with video as a supplement for those who still choose to WFH. Getting back to square one has actually been a huge relief. “You need discipline, a separate blocked-out area, while operating from home. At office, the ecosystem moves you with meeting after meeting. We speak to large teams more often now. Our stress levels have regularised — which is a good thing. And I maintain my mental balance by being busy!”

For kids, it was about trying to get over the ‘age of social awkwardness’

Primary schoolteacher Ranjeeta Kanwar wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact Covid brought in its wake — in her workspace. As teachers, being physically present, having eye contact with children, being able to gauge their body language — all that was taken away. “It was a shock, and really messed me up… nothing had prepared me for this change.”

Ranjeeta’s school had formulated a distant learning programme, where they would record lessons and put them out as videos, so there was a structure, so to say, but one that took a lot of adapting to. They would be working and recording lessons till late into the night, and “waking up at 11am”. “I had to get used it.” And when the time passed, and normalcy started getting restored, she had to unlearn it. But, she maintains, it was nothing compared to what the kids had to tackle.

“They [the kids] were going through a lot, they had to stay at home, couldn’t see their friends and teachers… post-Covid, coming back to a social setting was challenging for many kids because they had become socially awkward. We did Zoom calls with them every week but when a child is at home, their behaviour is completely different… Adjusting to coming back to a social setting, complete with rules, threw many of them off-kilter.”

Post Covid, Ranjeeta had to focus on getting them back to what was normal before: “To learn to share, to take turns, to realise you are not the only one in the room now — you have the whole class. I needed to undo all these blocks… Kids had also been mostly sedentary; there had been a lack of routine; there were sleep and eating disorders. They needed a lot of psychological support when they came back, needed a lot of reassurance… What I learnt is I have to make up for that lost time…”

For Ranjeeta, it’s not really been about going back to the old normal. Because, earlier, she had taken everything for granted. Not anymore. “Post Covid, when I saw children coming in to school, I thought it’s a blessing… I am now particularly keen to see that every child comes to class…

The stuff that we cannot unlearn

Covid became a new word in our life’s dictionary since 2020, although, unlike a dictionary, it is a word with different meanings for different people, points out yoga instructor Brinda Hora, who runs Happy Feet Yogi. “For some, it has been a learning, while some discovered skills they didn’t think they had… for some, it helped to follow their passion… What it did on a social and personal level was limit us from meeting friends in groups… One on one or smaller groups became the new norm or even online catch-ups watching Netflix series or movies together through sharing screens. All this may have altered our social skills, but, in the process, Covid actually helped us rebuild our relations, while moving on from the ones that didn’t feel real anymore.” And those tweaks are not going to change anytime soon — even as we go back to our pre-Covid routines.

Brinda started her yoga journey teaching hatha yoga to adults and kids full-time since 2020, post the lockdown (in Dubai) and while, initially, “I got some resistance to private or group classes, the base was set with online classes for some adults and in-person classes with the others and kids over four. Throughout the sessions, I would be wearing a mask and some of the others wore it too.”

Fast forward to 2022 — and ‘new normal’ now isn’t normal anymore, even though Covid hasn’t really “faded from our lives” and it has this way of returning unannounced. “While everything is back to where it was (almost), my ways of teaching have become more flexible: if a client is comfortable with online sessions, then we continue with the same.”

For Brinda, however, Covid has “closed us socially and mentally”. “Somewhere in the back of our heads, the past two years have affected our openness to life and new things… and the fear of the unknown remains.”

And that’s not going to go anywhere in a hurry.

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