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Respond, Don’t React

I have always believed my ability to react to a particular situation or circumstance was a highly valuable skill. While I still think that, this past year has made me rethink the difference between reacting and responding to something, noticing when either of these things occurs.

Many people might see these two words as interchangeable. Indeed, they appear as synonyms in the thesaurus, although the subtle difference can make a significant impact on the outcome. My favorite definition of the difference between them was written in a blog by The Kaleidoscope Group, a diversity and inclusion consulting organization, on April 15, 2020, titled A Blueprint for Transforming Communication: Reacting vs. Responding. It stated that “Responding, while technically a reaction, takes into consideration the desired outcome of the interaction. A reaction may result in a positive or negative outcome, whereas a response is engineered to produce a positive or negative outcome. Reacting is emotional; responding is emotional intelligence.” My interpretation is that reactions are singular, immediate behaviors driven by instincts or beliefs from the unconscious mind, without long-term effects taken into consideration.  Responding takes time to analyze information and evaluate the long-term impact on you and others. Responses typically align with core beliefs and values and, therefore, become adopted behaviors.

Over the past year, I have kept a mental list of what people have done to react to the pandemic situation vs. respond to the situation.  In March 2020, I admit to spending over $1,200 within two hours at Costco, stocking my house for the perceived impending doom. Like everyone else, I spent the next six weeks at home listening to pandemic reports, with little or no physical contact with others. These behaviors were definitely a reaction to fear. However, as the situation evolved and more data became available, I slowly began to respond to the facts, choosing to implement the recommended behaviors that produced positive outcomes. I interpreted many of these behaviors as lessons I learned as a child – wash your hands often and appropriately, don’t put your fingers in your mouth or nose, give people space, and stay home and rest if you aren’t entirely well. Other recommended and then required behaviors were more foreign and took some getting used to, such as wearing a mask in public, limiting gathering sizes, and working remotely. These seemed to be responses based on data suggesting they would be highly effective in reducing transmission. In early 2021, when the first vaccine was approved through the FDA’s emergency use authorization process, many people perceived it to be a leap of faith due to the limited data conducted in an unconventional timeframe. After deliberate thought, I acted on the opportunity when those who were eligible refused it in early January, and wasting the vaccinations was the alternative.

Throughout this past year, my colleagues and I have been discussing the topic of reaction vs. response in order to make the appropriate design recommendations about the built environment in various marketplaces – manufacturing, office, teaching and learning, sports, healthcare, etc.  We collectively agreed that we did not want our strategy to be reactionary, but rather, responsive to the long-term consequences, which takes a bit of time. Collecting and interpreting the appropriate data is a massive feat in itself. So much was written in the first few months, primarily recommendations that reacted to the situation.  Recently, more comprehensive research became available, providing the ability for responses to be developed, especially if most of our population receives the vaccine. I believe we are at a point where we can make longer-term, informed hypotheses about behavioral responses that will impact our built environments. I am confident people will avoid touching many surfaces in public and wash or sanitize their hands more often. I also think that people will be more conscious of accommodating their own and others’ personal space. Greater work flexibility will continue to be prevalent, especially when individuals are not feeling entirely well. Finally, people will be more focused on holistic wellness. I am also sure that we will continue to rely on technological advances to connect, but people will always need some human contact as well.

While these behaviors may seem relatively obvious, they have implications for how our physical environments should align with them that may be quite significant. For example, if people expect more personal space for themselves and those around them, it would stand to reason that any space a person shares with others will be less dense than eighteen months ago.  How much is arguable at this point, but de-densifying any space on a college campus – instructional, food service, residence hall, athletic, etc. – means fewer participants or more space for these experiences. Both options negatively affect overall revenue, which is not feasible for many institutions. Moreover, funding will be required to create touchless access to buildings, spaces, services, and amenities as well as better air quality to respond to the need for improved physical wellness. Beyond physical health, emotional, psychological, and spiritual characteristics of wellness may impose additional changes to both the environment and operations to address work-life balance needs, relationship-building, reflection or meditation practices, etc.

Before engaging in substantial changes to the physical environment, is it possible to consider less invasive ways to accomplish the same outcome? A paradigm shift to respond to this situation to maintain long-term institutional health? Can Higher Education learn from other industries?  Would greater operational flexibility serve more people better and help with de-densification? For example, If daily operating hours were extended and provided year-round, perhaps with a hybrid delivery model, could the same number and profile of students be served without impacting outcomes? Could independent, focused activity and work be accomplished in more private locations with public spaces dedicated to interaction, collaboration, and ideation? For example, do we need the current quantity of independent offices on campuses for work that is primarily independent and instead create collaborative and focused shared individual and collaboration spaces? Can some of these offices or buildings be used to reduce the density of student residence halls? Can technology continue to evolve and support most transactional activity, allowing face-to-face human contact to be dedicated to relationship and community-building, intentional and serendipitous interaction, and growth and development? Can transactional student services be completed entirely online? For examples. transition lectures (which are similar to other one-way conversations students are used to viewing on YouTube) freeing up space on campus for face-to-face purposes?

I am not necessarily suggesting any of these responses are the appropriate solution for any institution. I intend only to present a perspective on responding, rather than, reacting to the current situation. The proper response requires more analytical and creative “next practice” solutions during these unprecedented times.

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