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Navigating the New Normal

As we transition back into our "normal" routines after COVID-19, what changes can we expect to stick around?

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — COVID-19 has transformed what our daily lives look like; whether that's our office space, how we get groceries or greet friends.

As we transition back into our "normal" routines after COVID-19, you might be wondering what changes can we expect to stick around. And how can we be better prepared to navigate the new normal.

The Workplace

During this pandemic, many people have transitioned from an office space environment to working from home, maybe that means the kitchen table or guest room.

While many businesses are now re-opening their doors and phasing employees back in, the past few weeks have given us a taste of how jobs could be going virtual in the future.

University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox says virtual work was already something we were headed towards.

"My thinking is that what COVID-19 has done is accelerate a bunch of trends that were already underway in the US economy," Fox explained. "It's not that this wasn't already happening, it's that it accelerates the people doing it and the company's motivation to find lower cost ways to do that."

While pandemic forced companies to quickly make adjustments, it has provided opportunities for both employees and employers to give it a try.

RELATED: Working from home: steps to a more comfortable workspace

"This experience has allowed people to test it and see how well it works, lots of people like it because the commute is from the bedroom and it didn't take me 20-30 minutes to get in this morning," said Fox. "Individuals are learning what they like to do, companies are learning about the use of Zoom as ways to allow us to do jobs remotely, but they are learning they can do things in new ways and with fewer workers."

If they stayed on this path, companies wouldn't need to pay for space, and workers would have a limited commute. Fox says we will likely see more people utilizing the virtual office.

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"Technology is getting flexible and we are getting used to it. Do I think that will alter the way firms operate? Absolutely," Fox said.

However, we also know how important human interaction is.

"There will still be places where they get together and there are still reasons to see each other," Fox said. "There also is this desire to get to know each other and spend time. For the foreseeable future we will blend it with shared office spaces and a limited number of people working remotely."

Not all companies can go virtual, there are many jobs that require boots on the ground every day. 

We will also so the layout of office spaces change, more barriers for less interaction and extra safety precautions.


COVID-19's affects have been felt all across the world and have drawn great attention to our healthcare systems; their preparedness and actions.

Healthcare workers are being touted as heroes for their long hours of work and risk working on the front lines of the virus. Even our personal health and healthcare system will see changes because of the virus.

One thing doctor's know is that the virus affects people who are unhealthy in more ways than people who are healthy. Will this act as a wake-up call for people to change their lifestyles?

"I do think that there's the potential that this has led to some increased awareness of how people's underlying health problems can make them more susceptible to something completely unrelated," Dr. James Shamiyeh, Chief Quality Officer at UT Medical Center explained.

But every person is different and will make different decisions. Dr. Shamiyeh says we are learning lessons about how to take care of ourselves better and are building better habits for future illnesses.

RELATED: Knox County Health Department: 'Very, very low' risk of dying from COVID-19 in East Tennessee

"COVID-19 is not the only heath condition that is impacted by crowds, really any viral illness, the flu, are lessened in a period of time when people are distanced from each other," Dr. Shamiyeh said, "The society at large may pick up some habits like hand washing, keeping hands away from face and may be longer lasting and lead to health improvement in the community."

Mask wearing has become the norm when at the grocery store or in public places, but as things start to return to "normal" will people stop wearing the masks?

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"Only time will tell if those recommendations are relaxed and how much people continue to wear masks," Dr. Shamiyeh said. "What I expect is if there is a second wave of COVID in fall and winter, and people have been relaxed the mask wearing, I would hope they would quickly get back in to practice because of this."

Dr. Shamiyeh says there is something positive that has come from COVID-19, the acceleration of telemedicine. With many doctor's offices restricting visits for safety, technology has given us a rise in telemedicine and virtual doctor's visits.

RELATED: Knox area hospitals talk about plans to ease into resuming services

"There are a lot of benefits out of telehealth much more so than social distancing, it could be travel issue if a person has a barrier to get to a doctors office. There are so many things that technology has to offer these days, the hope is if there are a few positive things that come out of us having to deal with COVID-19 is that it truly has accelerated the progression of telehealth."

Dr. Shamiyeh says not everything will become virtual. There will always be things where you have to be there face to face, but telehealth will continue to be an accessible avenue for those who need it. He says technology is rapidly evolving and new methods to connect with patients virtual will expand.


From the classroom to the computer, school has looked different these last few weeks as districts across the country had to close their doors. However, the changes have given insight into online learning and it's use in the future.

Jodi Marshall works for K12, an online schooling company that offers a variety of learning services for individuals and school districts. This year, she's seen a growing interest in online schooling.

"Right now we are definitely seeing an increased interest in online programs. Last years February to now, definitely the situation with COVID," Marshall said.

While COVID-19 forced many students to learn from home, turning to a virtual classroom part or full time might be a good fit for some students.

"There are a lot of different reasons people would choose to take online school, and they are all good for a variety of reasons, all different depend on learner," Marshall said. "Maybe you're accelerated or need more time, or you are training to be a professional athlete, or you just work better in online environment, and you can work faster or slower."

K12's program isn't just staring at a computer screen each day.

"Sometimes it's interactive. We have cool science class you do online with things in your kitchen, there are interactive videos, student to student collaborations, all different scenarios if its a good course," Marshall explained.

Even if your child's school isn't geared towards any online learning currently, it's important for students to get a little exposure.

"Most people need to know how to do this, communicate online, work on projects together, do things as a team from a distance, it's an important life skill," Marshall said.

Even after school doors reopen, Marshall says that won't be the end of virtual classrooms.

RELATED: East Tennessee school districts take different approaches to at-home distance learning

"Do I think we will see people choose to take everything online? Maybe, but I don't think it will be because of this," Marshall said. "You would have a type of student that wants this experience based on their history, what kind of learner they are and what they want in their future."

"We will see interest at school and district level because folks will want to be prepared if this ever happens again."

RELATED: Knox County Board of Education votes in favor of providing every student with electronic devices for learning

Several schools in East Tennessee already have equipment allowing students to do their work online and at home, but COVID-19 has caused many others to seriously think about how to make that opportunity available to all students.


Some of the changes we feel the most from COVID-19 are in our daily routines; getting groceries and seeing friends. 

Instacart and grocery pickup is on the rise as people look for no-contact options for getting their necessities, but as things shift to a new normal what happens to those trips for food?

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"With regards to the grocery patterns, the deliveries. These were already happening before, but suddenly we have a moment where this becomes a necessity for people when you can't leave your home or shouldn't," Dr. Tricia Bruce, a sociologist, explained.

Dr. Bruce says that the changes we will see in our lifestyles will be dependent on each person.

"I think for a lot of people there's been a recognition of convenience and accessibility to new options they haven't considered before. Maybe people have tried this grocery delivery service for the first time and think 'hey this makes life better', Bruce said. "On the other hand, I think people are missing how we can control our experiences ourselves rather than outsourcing them to other essential workers. Some people will want to take some of that agency back and get back in the store."

While there are things we can replicate, like getting groceries, that doesn't involve getting outside, there are moments we can't. This will affect our readiness and desire to incorporate those activities back in.

"What we can't replicate is being around friends and a party environment," Bruce said, "Being in a bar or movie theater. We can't do these things on our own or from home. This is an area where people will start to think when cautiously 'Can I do that because I miss that.' There are many people for whom this is a key part of their livelihood being around others, energy in large groups. So I think with caution this is something we will see people eager to come back into and get involved in."

And for those other activities we've been missing such as concerts and sports, it's a little too soon to know exactly how they might operate.

We do know that some movie theaters are cutting their seating capacity in an attempt at "social distancing."

RELATED: NCAA's chief medical officer "can't imagine" 100K fans in a stadium this fall

And what happens to that common greeting, the handshake. Will it survive now that the public is more health conscious? 

"I'm actually most curious about this one. As a sociologist we think about what are the social norms, the informal rules that guide or behavior with one another," Dr. Bruce said. "Something like a handshake has a bit of symbolism. It doesn't mean anything on its own. Is there a way to bring through social norm a new rule, a new way to great that minimizes the health risk. And in time we might see something totally different."

As we move into the uncharted waters of the new normal of interaction, .Dr. Bruce says there will be some tension. Some people will show caution, others are ready for more freedom.

"As we move into this re-entry of maybe not the old normal but new normal, use it as an opportunity to think about how can we help each other. We want to help local businesses survive, neighbors and loved ones in at risk categories. Some people may be more ready to go to the party the restaurant others may not. It exposes a lot of inequality, lack of privilege. We can think what opportunities do I have, how can I help others since we are all in this together."

A good step to your decision making as you transition back is to think about the best decisions for yourself and your family, but also remember what it means to impact someone else's health risk.

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