Saturday, March 28, 2020

The COVID-19 “Upshift”

A graphical way to think about coming changes

As I write this in late March of 2020, we are living through a global pandemic. It’s difficult to see our way past the terrible daily news of rapidly mounting cases of COVID-19 and loss of life. Here in the northeastern US, we are on a lockdown in our homes. Schools are closed, and only essential businesses are operating. More than 3 million new unemployment claims were filed in the last week. The loss of life and the impact on people trying to manage huge economic disruption is tragic, and all of this seems likely to get worse before it starts to get better. In the United States, a $2-Trillion aid and stimulus package, much larger than we’ve ever seen, was just written and agreed to rapidly in a bipartisan way by congress and signed by the president. In so many ways, these are extraordinary times.

All of this considered, though, I’m optimistic for the long term. I believe that we are in this for the long haul, but I think we will come through and when we do I think there will be some things about the way we live our lives that will change. Some things will become more common, and some things less. As I think about the changes that may come, there’s a graph shape that keeps popping into my head that I think of as the “upshift.”
Upshift Curve - D.Kassabian March 2020 -

The Upshift Curve charts a behavior or activity (the y-axis) over time (the x-axis). It’s not intended to be an actual graph of hard data, but rather a rough trend shape that real data could eventually be compared with. The shape describes a steady state, an inflection point causing a rise, another inflection point as the initial change conditions are relaxed, and then a new steady state prevailing that is different (in this case, higher) than the earlier steady state.

Let’s talk through an example.

When people were sent home from work and from school earlier this month, there was a sudden and massive growth in remote work and in online teaching and learning. Neither of these things are new, but we went from some lower steady state level to a temporary level involving the majority of workers and students. Eventually, when we get past the worst of the pandemic, students will go back to college campuses and district schools and workers will go back to the office, but I believe that attitudes about remote work and online education will be changed, possibly drastically and possibly for the long term.

Let’s talk about working from home, a practice that is possible for some jobs (such as office desk workers) and not for others (first responders, for example). Many companies allowed for the remote work concept in limited ways while some companies and some staff supervisors were not comfortable with the idea. Thrust into remote work at scale as a necessity, though, I think many companies will find that it can work, that their workers appreciate the flexibility and lack of onerous commute and are able to be productive. Additionally, over time the practice could be cost effective for many businesses through reduction of office costs. While remote work is clearly not suitable for every job, and while some people may prefer full time in-office work surrounded by co-workers, this recent emergency is demonstrating that remote work is viable for many businesses and has some benefits. With that considered, I think the practice of work from home will level off post-pandemic at a level that’s higher (and possibly much higher) than before the pandemic struck. So let’s look at the upshift curve again.
Upshift Curve - D.Kassabian March 2020 -

As we think about this idea, the upshift could well apply for a great many things. How many of the following things that were already done at low levels before the pandemic might level off at substantially higher levels after? Consider the following list:

  1. Remote-work and work from home (described above)
  2. Online schooling, both K-12 and Higher Education
  3. Telemedicine/Telehealth (rather than visiting doctors and hospitals)
  4. Online ordering of most household groceries
  5. Online commerce (already big, but perhaps now growing faster)
  6. Use of online apps and payment systems for goods and services
For each of the above, what is your own sense of the likelihood that they will be in more common use post-pandemic than before? What would you add to that list?

I think of most of the above as primary or first order effects, and that for many of them there are cascading second order effects. For example, if more people work from home then the upshift curve might also describe the frequency with which we see our neighbors or the amount of weekday business that local neighborhood shops and restaurants get. 

These secondary effects suggest that there might be another kind of secondary effect, a kind of inverse or Downshift. The downshift curve is just the Upshift flipped on its head. These are things that I think experience the same kind of change but from a higher steady state pre-pandemic to a lower steady state post-pandemic. One obvious example might be handshaking and hugging in business and social settings, which probably won’t disappear but may well become less common.  I would bet that contact among family and very close friends will not experience this same Downshift (I certainly hope not), but in settings where it was a mere social pleasantry before it may become less common.

The Downshift curve looks like this:
Downshift Curve - D.Kassabian March 2020 -

As with the upshift, there’s a drastic change at an inflection point and then eventually a return to something closer to normal, but now at a lower steady state. Here are some possibilities I’ve thought of.

  1. Handshaking at work
  2. Full-day 5-days-a-week, in-office work
  3. Rush hour traffic, subway ridership, and urban congestion
  4. Walk-in traffic to food establishments and retail shops near large offices

Even if only some of these changes take hold, what do you think the impact will be on personal interactions? How will these things play through in the economy?

The Upshift and Downshift Curves have been a useful way for me to frame my thinking about what might change in our world in the coming months and years and how. What do you think? Is this a useful framing, and why or why not? Where would you apply an idea like the Upshift Curve to things that you think will change?

Please leave a comment and share your thinking with all of us.

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[RapidGroove blog posts are my own and are in no way 
intended to represent the views of my employer]


  1. Great analysis Deke. I have been trying to think of how the pandemic will alter our lives going forward and this will help me to crystallize some of my thoughts. Now how about some sushi?

    1. Ummm. Maybe no raw fish lovingly cradled by human hands for a little while. :-)

  2. Deke. I tried this before and lost my entire response. I like your thoughts regarding the economic and educational shifts that are occurring and whether they will sustain. I also have some thoughts regarding the social fallout that may become the new normal. I have heard many, and perhaps you have too, people say hey have never worked harder this in recent
    weeks. I think business and corporations may look to take the financial upside of reducing overhead costs if so many can be productive at home. But is this the end goal of how we should treat the work force? Will they continue to be as productive when heir is no emergency declaration? Regarding education, there likely will be a knee jerk up shift as many ( mostly uninformed) reason that home schooling and remote Lear omg wasn’t all that bad. Here same folks believe that’s an education is just the sum of its curricular parts.
    Lastly, and most important to me will be the effect of quarantine, SD etc on the social habits of our society. From the handshake and casual touching to the holding of doors and other customs that tend to close the distance between people I fear a sharp reduction in those. Personally I rely on many of them to help humanize me on a regular basis. At the same time, many don’t and so I anticipate this will only serve as motivation and give rise to a certain social shaming should one get too close or handle objects incorrectly. Let’s hope the “new normal” doesn’t become just that.
    PS this was a somewhat shortened version of a previous effort.

  3. Great post Deke - I think the main shifts - the pandora's box that has been opened if you will - will be in remote / online learning, working remotely and home delivery of foods. While these shifts may all seem to be moving away from human (social) contact, I think and hope that there will be a revised appreciation of how wonderful it is to spend time with family and friends about which we had perhaps grown somewhat blasé. Fewer but more appreciated. I think that hand washing will persist at a higher level which will not be a bad thing. Thought-provoking - thanks.