Post COVID-19 Normal? Part 2 - Reopening

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Welcome to Part 2, the cabin fever edition of this series. Let me digress for a moment. Our firm went virtual several years ago. We went through the transition from office-centric to remote-centric work and all that goes with that. However, nothing in our remote-centric experience prepared us for our current and very strange existence. Because coupled with remote work for ourselves, we have partners who are adjusting to the shift, children being taught remotely (by parents and teachers) and various restrictions on going out into the community.

I enjoy frequent walks to exercise and provide thinking time. I note that there are a great many similarly minded individuals – many with certain routines – the morning walkers, the mid-day walkers and the after-dinner walkers. Some walkers listen to headsets, some focus on their phones, some tune in to nature and others focus on each other; yet all remain friendly and spatially conscious to those around them. Recently I began to notice a difference. It is hard to precisely describe. The walkers seem to be in a trance – “zombie” walking – repeating over and over a ritual mindlessly with today patterning yesterday and tomorrow repeating today. The friendly wave or gesture are still there, but there is an auto-response character to it that was not there several weeks ago. This digression does have a purpose because it sets up what I believe could be challenges to reengaging the work force for the next stage.

COVID-19 Part 1 ended with Chapter Four discussing longer term thinking necessary to prepare a law firm for what comes after COVID-19. We are going pick up on that theme later, but today I thought it timely to set out a shorter-term set of issues – how do we reopen our offices?

Chapter Five.

Let’s use this chapter to set some expectations. First, whatever a leader decides is going to be questioned if not outright criticized. If you are overly cautious and no adverse effects arise from reopening offices, you will have inflicted needless economic harm by waiting. If you move quickly and the infections/deaths rise, you will have endangered your employees, clients, and the like. I tell you this so you are prepared for it and are steadied to ignore the criticism. You have to make decisions in real time with limited information. Make the best science-based decisions that you can and adjust quickly as new information comes in. Accept that mistakes will happen and course corrections will occur. Your decisions will be informed by national public health experts and driven by their state and local counterparts. Thus, larger firms will likely reopen offices at different times in different locations. Local reopening teams will be needed to create and implement local solutions based on a global approach (See Chapter 6).

Second, restarting an economy is not the reverse of shutting it down. Down happens fast once the decision is made. Restarting is slow. My analogy harkens back to the old stadium lighting systems that if accidentally shut off (light to dark instantly), had to go through a 20-minute reset as a slow glow would emerge. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the lighting levels increased. It would take nearly 20 more minutes for those old lights to regain their designed illumination. In the timeline of a football game, such a 40-minute delay is agonizingly slow. That agonizing slowness is what to expect from an economic re-start. This will be complicated by global supply chains and regional/state/county/local differences in the virus effects on the population and the partisan nature of our politics. Also consider the likelihood of what some call the “W” restart. Under this scenario, there is a reopening and the economy begins a recovery, but then that recovery is interrupted. This could be caused by a re-emergence of COVID-19, possibly concurrent with the Fall flu season or next Spring if that is its particular form of seasonality. Your planning should have contingency plans and messaging to prepare for these possibilities.

Third, there is much talk about a vaccine. Naturally all are hopeful that researchers can discover something that is effective and can be produced quickly and in sufficient quantity to protect the population. Vaccines take time to develop, test, validate, produce and distribute – easily a 2021 to 2022 proposition. And not all viruses have vaccines. The common cold does not, and it is a member of the Coronavirus family. COVID-19 is highly infectious, with transmission by asymptomatic carriers, no previous immunity, no current treatment and no current vaccine. So, we must consider the probability of a short-term world in which we live and work differently than we did at the start of 2020, and even prepare for the possibility that such differences could be permanent. Perhaps there will be some hybrid of rolling, extended periods of self-isolation with breaks to keep the economy going in between. Contingency plans and messaging are required for these possibilities.

Remember my prior counsel – plan for a siege and hope for a skirmish. It is easier to lighten up on the reins than to pull back dramatically.

Chapter Six.

Decide on a global decision framework for responding to this crisis. I believe that taking care of your people and your communities should be the foundation for that framework. This is unlike any recession or event we have experience with. The head of Marriott corporation said that COVID-19 is worse than 9/11 and the Great Recession combined. Our actions must reflect the severity, global nature and challenges this represents. A March 2020 Accounting Today article1 by Tim Ryan, US Chair of PwC, discusses his/their thinking on how to approach this crisis. 

Although multi-office firms will need local teams to craft and implement office re-opening plans that take into consideration local conditions, you can anticipate that any reopening will include these basic conditions. Hopefully local public health experts will create best practices, policies and guidelines to assist re-opening efforts.

1. Health pre-screening and facility admission screening. The pre-screen will likely be a series of questions about recent health, travel and the like. Admission screening will likely be a temporal temperature test. You or your landlord will need to staff and resources for this. Also consider the additional time facility check-in may require. Significant additional time may be required for elevator use if distancing guidelines are enforced.

2. Face masks in public and while at work. This may be simple face coverings that cover the nose and mouth or something a bit more robust, but short of medical grade PPE. PPE designed for medical workers should be avoided as it is in short supply and high demand by those on the front lines. Having a supply of appropriate face coverings on hand for employees and visitors as a back-up might be prudent. Particularly if a building owner or your firm requires a higher level of caution than local officials.

3. Enhanced cleaning requirements. This will likely require frequent cleaning of high contact areas, possibly even after every use. Again, this may fall to the landlord, but a protocol and monitoring for compliance will be needed. Under this broad umbrella of cleanliness comes hand sanitation stations located through-out your offices – particularly where high touch areas are located – conference rooms, libraries, copy and file rooms, break areas, restrooms, lobbies and the like.

4. Physical separation and protection. Expect social distancing requirements to be in place, if not demanded by employees. This means reconfiguring your open space plans and office sharing protocols. Elevator and lobby use may be altered. There may also be a need for plexiglass shields to protect individuals where high personal interaction is required.

5. Directional flow control. Our grocery stores have implemented directional controls for aisles as it is easier to maintain safe social distancing if all are moving in the same direction. I have watched video and listened to discussion regarding similar techniques being designed for offices.

6. Quick and inexpensive work force reconfiguration options include dividing your work force into teams. Team one goes in to the office while team two works remotely. They alternate between office and remote routines either daily or weekly. Test this for efficacy and worker preference. If you need to drop to roughly 30% occupancy then divide your workforce into three teams.

7. Consider rolling start and stop times to allow employees to avoid rush hour crowding of transit systems, facility check-in and elevator use requirements.

8. Employee fears. Employees have a reasonable expectation of a safe environment at work2.  Understandably, they may be concerned about their safety and the safety of their co-workers. Consider having a means for input from the workforce to determine concerns, needs and expectations. This can help tailor your specific responses and messaging to assist in the transition.

9. “Zombie” walking. Earlier I described a noted difference today in my community’s engagement during walks. It made me question how profound the aggregate effects of long-term isolation, reduced work, reduced compensation, furloughs, home schooling and the like are having on worker engagement. This is not an area of expertise. I raise this for consideration and possible discussion with experts as to what to look for and how to mitigate such effects.

10. Childcare barriers. From my vantage point, schools and day care appear to be set for remote learning and severe limitations for the balance of the school term. Summer education and recreational programs may be offered in some limited fashion, or more likely, will not be available this summer. This may create very real challenges for any re-opening efforts. Younger workers who may feel more secure returning to work are also more likely to have child care concerns. One paper I read posited3, “…11 percent of the workforce (or 17.5 million workers) [are] facing major barriers to work if schools and daycares remain closed.” I suspect that a number of these workers could continue to work from home, but others may not and special consideration about how to mitigate these barriers should be undertaken.

Chapter Seven.

Can we go back to operating as usual, even with the health and safety measures outlined above? Are you freakin’ kidding me? (Ok, this is why I called this the cabin fever edition!) This terrible crisis has taught us several things. What have we or should we have learned?

1. We now have the technology tools we need to work effectively outside a traditional office setting – strong secure internet connections (not foolproof, but strong and reliable), video conferencing, digital document signing, electronic filing. Yes, many of these capabilities existed long before COVID-19, but we have not fully integrated them. It is about time that we do.

2. Judges are adapting to remote work. In May, the US Supreme Court is going to have remote oral arguments – and it will be live for the public to witness. If that procedure/precedent bound group can adapt, certainly the rest of the justice system can. Jordan Furlong states4, “What this crisis has revealed is the central operating assumption of our justice institutions, which has now become our stumbling block: Everybody comes to the courthouse.”  Richard Susskind muses, “We have to decide if court is a place or a service5.”
 
3. Business travel is expensive, costly and incurs risks that maybe we no longer need to incur. I have traveled for business most of my adult life. This period of COVID-19 isolation is the longest I have been away from airports and hotels since 1985. This forced diversion from my normal routine has given me time to consider if all of that travel remains necessary. Now I admit to being a bit old school in preferring face to face interaction with my clients – but is that what I wish to return to? My current thinking is that I might be able to reduce travel by half and still interact with my clients in an effective manner. Possibly more, if I were to get more comfortable with electronic interactions.

4. Telemedicine works. Does anyone think this will go away? And if doctors can do it are lawyers willing to sit back and say they cannot?

After little more than six weeks into the pivot to remote work, we find ourselves in a new (or emerging) post COVID-19 normal.  We have the ability to radically redesign our operating model. How much can be done remotely? We will not know how far we can push this if we don’t capitalize on the initial steps forced upon us out of necessity. There are huge corollary benefits to this – less commuting and less stress on mass transit/roadways, less pollution, less wasted time and expense for both employers and employees. And for that remaining office space you need to retain – far more bargaining power as rising vacancy rates create a renters’ market.

Take advantage of what necessity has laid in front of you. Now is the time to push bold initiatives when it would not have been possible just two months ago.

Stay well and safe – there will surely be more chapters to come as this saga continues.


James D. Cotterman is a principal with Altman Weil, Inc. He advises law firms on compensation, capital structure and other economic issues, governance, management and law firm merger assessments. 

Contact him at jdcotterman@altmanweil.com

End Notes
1. Accounting Today, We Can Help Protect the Economy if We Protect our People, by Tim Ryan, March 24, 2020.   

2. MPs should have their L&E counsel advise on legal implications and that may vary by jurisdiction.

3. Pro-Market, Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, The Childcare Barriers to Putting America Back to Work, by Jonathan Dingel, Christina Patterson and Joseph Vavra, March 22, 2020.

4. Law21, Pandemic II: Justice System Down, by Jordan Furlong, April 2, 2020.

5. Online Courts and the Future of Justice, by Richard Susskind, Oxford University Press, 2019.

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