By: Stuart Wihte 13-03-2020

Categories:HRMC Articles written by Managing Director, Stuart White,

When and why does a temporary fad or craze subtly become the norm? And what of emergency measures which live on long after the problem has ceased to exist?


As an example of the former, think of television, once a novelty for the very wealthy and something that traditionalists claimed would never last nor replace the reliable radio?  So much for that theory!  As to the latter, look no further than the 1970s oil crisis.  In the early part of the decade there was a massive hike in oil prices by  OPEC which sent alarm bells ringing in the Western World.  As a counter fuel-saving measure, the  USA introduced a law allowing right-turning traffic at red robots to turn if the road was clear and in Britain a 70mph speed limit was imposed on the country’s motorways.  And guess what?  Nearly 50 years on and both those traffic laws are still in place!


History is full of similar instances. . On the serious side, income tax is one classic example:  First introduced as a temporary tythe in Britain to fund the Napoleonic Wars,  now it’s a fixture of life;  the post-war German constitution was written only for West Germany, and specifically stipulated that it would be dissolved upon reunification with the East. In the end, the West simply absorbed the East and the constitution stood.  On a lighter note, the Eiffel Tower was expected to last only 20 years and now it’s  one of Paris’s most iconic landmark, whilst over the Channel the London Eye had initial planning permission for just five years and restrictive British pub opening hours, introduced by the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 to last for the duration of World War I, have remained in place till the present day,  much to the bewilderment of the rest of Europe!


Cultures and behaviours also evolve.  As a man you would think twice before pinching a woman’s bottom today, or at least I hope so.  Yet this was an all too common ‘naughty’ behaviour of the 1970s and 1980s when women were over-sexualised and a pinch on the backside would hardly get a mention, indeed in Italy it was more or less de rigeur!  While it still wasn’t okay to touch people inappropriately then, just like now, the benchmark of appropriateness has been moved as societal change, beliefs about men’s attitude and behaviour towards women have evolved and values have gradually changed. 


This week Harvey Weinstein, the 67-year-old disgraced movie mogul, has been sentenced to 23 years in jail after being convicted of rape and sexual assault. Since the Weinstein story broke, sexual harassment and its definition have been catapulted onto the world stage. .  Suddenly women were coming forward telling their experiences and the results were that men were being ousted, famous anchor-men taken off TV, employees being dismissed for sexual harassment and even in the UK's Parliament, politicians are being forced to answer allegations of their own behaviour.  It has been critically examined, given titles like “#me too” and finally the old casting couch and the concept of the exchange of sexual favours for career advancement have been shot down as taboo.  There has been nothing gradual about this – it is culture change so swift that it is contagious.


Talking of contagious, nothing is quite as so ‘now’ as coronavirus and how that is affecting our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Last night I watched as President Macron welcomed the King and Queen of Spain to his country not with a handshake but a bow and a touch on the arm.  In Italy people are standing one metre apart and in restaurants people dine at a distance from the other patrons.  At home too we can see changes. In nearly all the meetings which I had this week people refused to shake hands. Interviewing panels greeted candidates with a nod and an apologetic withdrawal of their hands “under the circumstances”. Its’ right to be cautious and regardless of criticism that we may have towards our handling so far I think we are doing a far better job here than in Europe which in large part has been slow to respond. In Iran a country with one of the highest affected people, the cheek kiss, also an Arab custom among men, is said to have been the main reason that the disease spread so quickly.  As the world starts to recognise the scale of the challenge posed by the outbreak I am left wondering if this might not be the end of handshakes and the Continental cheek kiss greeting? Could this be the start of a societal change about how we interact as a species? The feeling I have is that this might be a moment that grows in importance.


So, you might think that the decision to be less touchy is only temporary, but as we have seen, history has shown that temporary often proves the most permanent. The permanent presupposes human foresight while the temporary is usually nothing more than a stop gap or fad.


Thus, the question is not about our intention to return to pre-coronavirus rules, but whether it will be possible to unlearn what has been learned through these “temporary” measures. Hand sanitiser, excessive hand washing, wearing of protective gloves and masks, watching sports from a distance or remotely, the end of large gatherings, remote education – who knows where all this will go? This is how change can come about.  Governments’ advice and directives may come into law and remain in place on a ‘just in case’ basis.  No more will we be encouraged to be ‘hands on’ at work; ‘hot ‘desking’ will be viewed as a hotbed of disease spreading;  touchscreen technology might become obsolete overnight;   thumbprint access, still in its infancy, may never reach maturity; smartphones may have to be completely re-designed to operate  with gloved fingers; ATM’s may have to be similarly re-jigged  to not function by human finger.


The potential implications, technological, financial and mind re-set, are vast.  Right now we are seeing temporary fixes and emergency measures but if we have a lesson to learn from history, it is that it tends to repeat itself and the only way to prevent  just such another pandemic eventuality may be those seismic life changes.   It’s fair to say that it’s touch and go as to whether we’ll ever be allowed to touch and go again…..