The universal greeting of the handshake was not always just a symbolic gesture. Its origins were utilitarian. By extending the hand and showing the open palm, you demonstrated to the person approaching, you were not brandishing a weapon. The same purpose applied for the act of waving at a passerby. However, with the advent of weaponry which could inflict harm from a distance, the handshake evolved into the benign tradition we know of today. That was until COVID-19 came along and a different kind of killer now prevents us from saying hello to each other through physical contact.
On March 11, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health pandemic, most of us in America thought, “Yeah, yeah, like Ebola, H1N1, and SARS, we will get through this one too,” because that is how most Americans think. Yet, within a week everything changed. At first, I treated this pandemic as a setback. Now, I have come terms with the fact that we are not going back to our previous way of life. This is a pivot. Most of us can remember a time when we could walk our loved ones to the gate of a departing flight, hug and wave them good-bye as they headed down the gangway, and fewer of us remember when ashtrays in the armrests of automobiles was a standard feature, either of which are never coming back. For worse and for better, our norms and mores are going to change. Society, through peer pressure and laws is going force us to alter our behavior.
The way we interact with each other personally, socially, and in business is going to be permanently different than it was before March 11. For instance, the doctor’s waiting room is going to morph into more of a catch-and-release. You will be asked to fill out the tomes of personal information electronically before you ever enter the building and you will no longer be expected to sit next to the infirm with the hacking cough, gurgling at his spouse through his cellphone because he forgot his insurance card. (Not that that has ever happened.) Same goes for restaurants, mass transit, sports arenas, elevators, etc. It is all going to be utilized differently than before.
That said, as workplace guidelines are released and you are required or expected to make adaptations with how and where your employees work and interact with customers, take them seriously and implement them as if this were not a temporary arrangement, but an opportunity to transform the way we conduct business. Some of the changes are going to be burdensome, like modern airport security. There is nothing about that experience that gives me solace, regardless of any upgrades to the system. Yet, some of these changes will be positive. They will not only improve the health and productivity of your human capital, but it will protect your business from those who seek to take advantage of this pandemic for their own personal gain. If for no other reason, it is not the government regulator you should concern yourself with, but the private interest with a litigious mind.
I cannot profess to know all the changes which will occur and those that will be lasting, but it is going to be interesting to see some of the innovative ideas which emerge from this pivot. When you see them, embrace them, but by the same token, it will also be okay to mourn those traditions we cherished and took for granted. Is the handshake dead? If so, I will mourn that loss with you.