What does an esoteric concept in evolutionary biology have to do with the speed of change we are seeing in the workplace, retail and entertainment?

Punctuated equilibrium is a theory that evolutionary change does not take place slowly and consistently. Rather, changes in the environment build up and progress happens in large jumps when some triggering event occurs. For example, mammals did not rise up the evolutionary ladder until an asteroid hit the earth and destroyed most of the larger dinosaurs. From that point, mammals grew in size and importance at a rapid speed.

As a metaphor, punctuated equilibrium can help explain some of the radical changes we have seen take place in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Here are a few examples:

Working from home. Knowledge workers have been working from home since the dawn of broadband about 20 years ago, but they were few and far between. As technology improved over those years, broadband was able to support more real-time uses such as Zoom. Still, a majority of employers required workers to go into the office, especially at headquarter campuses, out of habit and a fear of losing control over workers.

Now that COVID forced the floodgates open, many employers are allowing their workers to telecommute on an open-ended basis — and in some cases encouraging workers to relocate to lower cost-of-living areas at a slightly reduced salary.

Amazon vs. brick and mortar. Shopping malls have been declining gradually over the last several years. With the pandemic making home delivery a safer option — as well as more convenient — Amazon is truly is winning the industry.

Streaming vs. theaters. Theaters in many places are now open again, to sparse audiences. While they were closed, new digital releases — especially on Disney Plus, Netflix and Amazon Prime — became the norm, not the exception. Now re-engineered, how much power will the streaming services have vs. the old model?

As per the theory of punctuated equilibrium, these changes, once catalyzed by the pandemic’s impact, will pick up with a momentum that took decades to build up.


Twin Cities executive recruiter Isaac Cheifetz can be reached through catalytic1.com.