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This too shall pass, but it will also change us for the better

There are certain books, movies, and songs that are timelier than ever today. There are scenes in both the novel and the movie Jaws, for instance, where Chief Brody is imploring a skeptical Mayor Vaughan to close down the beaches of Amity Island after a shark attack. The exchanges eerily parallel the ongoing battles between epidemiologists and politicians, some of whom have been so dismissive about the COVID-19 pandemic that they make Mayor Vaughan seem positively reasonable in comparison.

But it’s hard to imagine anything as freshly relevant as “Weathering the Storm: Leading Your Organization Through a Pandemic,” a paper that was published by the National Defense University in 2006, but whose warnings were so prescient that it feels like it could have been written last week. I highly recommend reading it in full.

It is, candidly, a sobering read in light of how ill-prepared the nation has found itself for the current moment. But it is full of useful advice for anyone who runs a business, and there is at least one part of the paper that offers a shot of encouragement—some of the adaptations that businesses are making in response to the pandemic will ultimately endure and make our workplaces healthier in the future.

The paper draws an analogy to preparations for the Y2K problem. (Remember that?) In the U.S. alone, the private and public sectors spent an estimated $114 billion preparing for a day that proved to be a sleepy non-event. But a funny thing happened: as companies began correcting their computer code for the Y2K problem, they found other unnecessary code that could be eliminated—resulting in substantial savings in data storage and processing costs, and an increase in the companies’ share prices.

So what changes are we making for COVID-19 that we can expect likely to endure long after the virus has been seen off? A few things come to mind.

Fewer meetings. Many law firms are currently being forced to discover how many in-person meetings could have, in fact, just been an email after all. As some of us have been protesting for years, large meetings are almost always an inefficient use of at least someone’s time. If videoconferencing proves to be an adequate replacement for some meetings—or even a noticeable improvement—you can expect to see a permanent uptick in the frequency of its use, and corresponding gains in efficiency.

Not that the in-person meeting will ever truly disappear, of course. When I made this point in a tweet recently, Matt Leerberg, managing partner of Fox Rothschild’s Raleigh office, noted that his firm was “actively considering exactly those questions. But human connections are irreplaceable. If you enjoy a great office culture, you don’t want to see it go away.” True enough. But in the future, these considerations will no doubt be balanced a little more thoughtfully.

A healthier workplace. Like many professionals, lawyers tend to embrace the philosophy that you still need to show up for work even when you’re sick. That impulse is understandable, but for the business or a law firm as a whole, having a sick employee come to the office and share their germs with the whole team is downright counterproductive. There is a valuable lesson to learn from all of this—if an employee is sick, whether it’s with a coronavirus or “just” the flu, for the sake of the team it’s best to issue them a stay-at-home order.

Many attorneys are also having to work extra hard to balance work with family, as those now have to coexist in the same space. (Some of you have gotten to meet my precocious three-year-old daughter as she joined us on our phone calls.) We’ve written extensively about how the legal profession is rapidly shifting from laggard to leader when it comes to providing parental leave. Hopefully, this experience only accelerates the trend toward family-friendly workplace policies that, in the long run, inculcate a happier and more productive workforce.

Less “key-person” risk. I wrote last April about the key-person risk that afflicts many businesses, in which their continued success becomes dependent on one or more crucial employees who may act as the linchpin of a firm’s relationship with an important client or have vital legal knowledge or experience that would be difficult for anyone else at the firm to replicate. Firms often don’t seriously think about how they would get by without these employees until they’re forced to, at which point it may be too late.

Often, this is simply because most people don’t like to contemplate worst-case scenarios. But our current experience drives home how important it is for companies to be prepared for the worst. And that leads to the final, and most important, culture change that is likely to be a lasting effect of this pandemic.

Have a plan. One of the main pieces of advice in “Weathering the Storm” is that all businesses should have a written plan for dealing with a pandemic, and one that’s not simply a reheated version of their hurricane plan, which addresses a very different set of challenges. Another report released in 2006 had found that most big companies were not ready for a pandemic, and that’s unlikely to have changed since then.

But it will change because of COVID-19. Quite simply, every firm now needs to have a pandemic plan in place. This is not the first pandemic the United States has endured—the report draws some uncomfortable parallels with the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic—and it won’t be the last. In fact, the medical name for this latest coronavirus is actually SARS-CoV-2, because of its close relation to severe acute respiratory syndrome, a coronavirus that troubled the world in 2002 but has had no reported cases since 2004.

Unfortunately, someday, somewhere, there will be a SARS-CoV-3. But next time, we can be ready for it, and quickly bring it to heel before it causes nearly so much trouble.

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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