Reflections in crisis

How the lockdown is helping us rediscover what’s important

The New Possible is a series of human stories and perspectives on how COVID-19 is challenging and changing our lives and livelihoods. In this installment, we explore how the crisis is shaping our values.

Ashley used to spend a lot of time on the road. In any given month before the outbreak, the 35-year-old healthcare-benefits adviser might make a four-hour drive for a one-hour client meeting or hop a four-hour flight for a one-day industry event. The time away from her life and partner in Chicago wore on her.

But on March 12, the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Ashley’s office officially closed, and she began working from home. Now, she meets clients and connects with colleagues virtually. The change has given her more time to think but also to worry. Her best friend’s husband works as a nurse on the front lines, and she feels that both her and her partner’s jobs are at risk. “I would not be surprised if one of us gets laid off in the next six months,” she said.

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There have been positives, too. Ashley spends more time cooking and improving her home, and she feels closer to loved ones than ever, as family videocalls have become a fixture of her life. This shift, she told us, has re-calibrated her priorities. Ashley now wants to find a way to dedicate more time and energy to activities beyond her job. “This experience has really confirmed my desire to change careers,” she said, “so that I can work fewer hours and spend more time with friends and family.”

COVID is changing all our lives and forcing us to look at what’s essential and what’s not.

Candice, 33; England

Dozens of people we’ve heard from across eight countries said similar things. The idea of having the time we spend align with our values, as Ashley describes, is not new. Behavioral scientists study it (and Clay Christensen wrote about it) as the idea of congruence—of one’s personal values, actions, and work environment.

What is novel during this period of disruption, however, is how globally universal the emphasis on personal reflection and re-evaluation seems to be. Candice, a 33-year-old user-experience designer living in England perhaps put it best. “COVID is changing all our lives,” she said, “and forcing us to look at what’s essential and what’s not.”

As people the world over grapple with that issue, here are a few trends we’ve observed in our conversations.

Miles, 38, is happy to have more time at home with his wife and newborn son.

Deepening personal relationships. People said that their highest priority has always been family and their loved ones, but it hasn’t always translated into the way they spend time. The pandemic is changing that. Giuseppe, 49, told us that despite the challenges facing his auto-parts business in Rome, the lockdown has brought him “pleasure and comfort” as he’s spent more time with family and rediscovered his passion for traditional Italian cooking. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Charlotte, a 33-year old science teacher, said that “focusing on family rather than materialism”—in particular, spending more time with her elderly parents—is a change she wants to make coming out of the crisis.

Parag, 33, has re-evaluated where to spend his time and money.

Re-assessing what’s essential for happiness. For those not struggling with the day-to-day cost of living, the pandemic has created a welcome decelerated pace of life and work that finds people re-evaluating how much income and professional achievement they need to be happy. Clara, who works in Germany as a freelancer and sets her own hours, said that she’s “thinking about working less because I now see you can get by with less.” And Faith, 48, who balances two jobs with two teenage sons and caring for her elderly mother, says her work is less rewarding. “[Professional] goals feel less important for me now,” she said. “I just feel like there isn’t any joy in it for me anymore.”

Embracing a health-first mindset. Good health matters to people across every country, socioeconomic level, and age group in our research. One of our respondents from India, a 30-year-old HR manager named Davya, might well have spoken for everyone when she said: “The positive long-term changes to my life are: health, health and only health. No matter how busy we are, or whatever we are packed with, I see how important it is to take some time off for our physical and mental health.”

Whether these priority shifts will solidify into new behaviors, let alone new behaviors that stick, is hard to know right now. But we can look at these shifts and start to get a sense of the factors that may shape the choices people will make when the next normal arrives. Based on what we’re hearing, it’s unlikely that we’ll return fully to the way things were before.

Reflections in crisis
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So, what does all this mean for leaders?

The new trade-off. Employers need to be aware that their existing notions about how to motivate and inspire people may not survive the pandemic. As workers’ personal career goals change, so might their willingness to trade things like salary for flexibility, a shorter commute, or a slower pace of work. Elsewhere, more people may choose to work for non-profits than corporations. Work-life balance has been a staple of corporate rhetoric for some time; the companies unable to make it a staple of corporate reality could soon be left behind.

The new boss. From a business perspective, the lesson is perhaps even starker. Walmart founder Sam Walton once said: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” In that sense, at least from a behavioral perspective, companies are perhaps about to get a bunch of new bosses. The customer behavior businesses thought they understood has perhaps left the building for good, to be replaced by something new that will need to be assessed—and responded to—very quickly.


Benjamin, a 42-year-old married father of two, summed it up in a colorful way. He works as an IT manager in Singapore and told us that living through the pandemic for the past two months has completely changed his outlook on work, life, and what really matters to him.

“I used to think: I can make big money and live the lavish lifestyle I want,” he said. “I learned that health is the most important. Stay strong and healthy like a stray cat; it doesn’t need a nice home or big salary, but it can eat and sleep well at any place it likes.”

Thanks for reading. For more stories about how this crisis is shaping the way we live and work, please check out The New Possible collection page. Have your own story to share? Email us at new_possible@mckinsey.com.