Return to the office with an active pandemic

COVID-19 has saturated your reading. You aren’t sure you want to read any kind of story about it anymore. Everything has been written about it you could ever hope to read. Who is this guy writing and what is his expertise? Sam is not an epidemiologist, medical doctor, or specialist. He is not a politician. He suggests let the writing stand on its own. Agree, disagree, use or not use, what follows is free. The following is meant to lead to some actionable items to help leaders not only survive but so they can flourish. 

If we had had great leadership at the onset of the pandemic it would never have happened.

We’re talking constantly about returning to the office in the media and around the virtual pubs. There are many things to be taken into consideration. We should understand that a pandemic is a localized event with world-wide implications. Age, race, socio-economic standing, availability of healthcare and protective equipment, density of staff, commuting capabilities, weather, health of staff, and so much more must be considered in a “return to office” scenario. Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems in even thinking about returning to office. There is a significant amount of doubt and decision paralysis because of parasitic losses in the process of thinking about the pandemic. 

The specific menu of decisions that may have to be made include:

  1. Personnel “Social distance” guidelines (space between people)
  2. Personnel “Social density” guidelines (number of people in a space)
  3. Personnel work shift, structure, location guidelines
  4. Personal protective equipment (masks, gowns, gloves) who, when and where in the workplace and what is available to your business under scarcity laws
  5. Differing workforce resilience measures such as work from home, work shift reassignment, job sharing, etc. 
  6. Preeminence of local, state, and federal guidelines in specific work situation
  7. Cultural, health, and wellness concerns of your organization and company
  8. Health insurer requirements and response to virus
  9. Weather, fire, flood, and other disaster multipliers during pandemic
  10. School, daycare, and other dependent care availability or changes
  11. Commuting density, and distance for work force and other stakeholders
  12. Commuting challenges of public, personal, or restrictions on commuting. 
  13. Age and generational skew of workforce, customers, and vendors
  14. Political and regulatory differences at the local, state, federal, and inter-national level
  15. How to strategically and operationally communicate your corporate vision of resilience

I’ll say this a few times but to model your efforts one way (not the only way) is to think of the pandemic as severe weather. Each of the items listed above, and likely much more, become part of the decision calculus for returning to office within a company. Politics is important to understand in a larger context. It may come to pass that companies with multinational presence could be held accountable in the United States for protecting their personnel the same as expectations in Europe. If you immediately discount that though, consider the legal morass of GDPR. Similarly, if you have people travelling internationally, you must create “what if” plans in the event they are quarantined going somewhere, at a job location, or returning to the home office. 

You are going to have a bunch of external criteria and a taxonomy of linear decisions that must be made at a local level based on global trends. Since the pantheon of regulatory structures will start at the local level and work their way towards the top of the heap at a national level. Each business is not going to need one disaster recovery program but a multitude of them. The opening phases will likely involve events like the following that trigger the return to office scenario.

  1. Reduction of COVID-19 cases over some period
  2. Local, county, state, federal declarations expire or are amended
  3. Daycare, schools, colleges, universities return to in person operation
  4. Laborer agreements, social contracts, and regulatory guidelines such as social density and social distance met.
  5. Workforce acquiesce to return to the office is achieved

Authoritarian company leaders might say “if my labor force is not queued at the door when I say return to office, I will just fire them.”  If those same leaders have been lauding on the fact their companies have not had a reduction in performance, if they have been keeping their brand recognition and value high, and now they fire employees for being scared of a pandemic, they deserve the pain and wrath society will throw upon them. You must start making significant decisions that in retrospect are likely existential decisions for many businesses. 

The future is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous

All of these decision points are confounded by a series of dynamic issues that must be considered in the absence of significant evidence. People will look back from the future on historical events and critique decisions, but they can only be made today with the knowledge, skills and abilities of today. Hindsight may be 20-20, but we must relentlessly move forward. Every decision will have to be revisited again and again creating a certain level of hysteria within the business. Corporate boards and senior business leadership have moved in the last few decades from evidence-based decisions to demanding answers on what to decide. When dealing with what will likely be a constant harassment, much like severe weather, decisions are made locally based on broader trends and needs. 

The way I explain these confounding variables toward deciding on. course of action:

1) All models are wrong, but some may appear to be useful. Models are based on current information using a variety of projection techniques into what we might expect in the future. I have suggested we need to create a new catch phrase, “Your Virus May Vary” when looking at models. That said, a blind squirrel can still find a nut. We are in the first few months of a phenomenon that will, if we are lucky, only last a decade. We only understand very few variables and the list of unknowns is vast. Models in general about a current pandemic are going to be highly speculative for making decisions. 

2) A pandemic is a wooden match. The fuel is every social issue. Every social concern from politics to racism (pdf) to economic inequality to generational issues will be a bonfire. The first order economic woes were self-inflicted. The social dystopian second and third order issues are who we are as flawed people. Societies by their choices create and enable specific forms of epidemics and illnesses. There are specific ethical issues on how planning, preparation, and response to epidemics occur that are often ignored until it is too late. The social issues were here before the pandemic and will be here after the pandemic. What we will see is a significant set of negative outcomes around those issues due to the pressures of, and mitigations caused by, the pandemic. 

3) Think of the infection spreading from city to city, then to suburbia and then rural. As population density decreases, the infection may slow. We have a lot of cities still that have minimal symptomatic patients. This may mean they only had asymptomatic or are still highly susceptible to infection. Rural areas with minimal health care and little preparation could be the worst affected on a per capita basis. An effective way to respond to an ongoing pandemic is to treat it as weather. There are trends, and you can look to the west to a storm marching across North America. You can prepare and react. As surveillance of the pandemic becomes better, seeing an infection coming should be as easy as knowing if it is going to rain. Social distancing slows the spread and allows it to burn out, but the high sustain rate of the virus does not mean it won’t be here for years. Entitled, aggressive, irresponsible populations and social groups will not adhere and will doubt the death toll. Policy and political planning assumes too much adherence, and a population in general that is egalitarian.

4) The spikes, peaks, increase etc. on the numbers of sick and dead are variation by day for something measured in months or years. All sampling methods are generalizable only to a specific geography and attempts to do otherwise are futile. A virus moves by close contact and there are anomalies like super spreaders. The asymptomatic spreaders confound analyses absent antibody tests. Above, we tried to use weather as a metaphor; let’s try a different one to describe variations in models: The tide at the seashore is not one steady wave up then down. There are many smaller ripples rising, water disturbed by boats, the wind, and weather. The measure of each ripple gives little indication of a trend over hours of time. Similarly, the tide in Maine trends the same as in Florida but Maine tides are up to 5 or more times the magnitude of Florida.

5) Everybody wants to predict a second wave but nobody wants to have one. People have been saying second wave since January 2020, but that will only be defined with accuracy by historians. Every resurgence in case counts may spur panic while only being part of a larger pattern. It will likely be denied by politicians until it is abundantly apparent, making it worse. How badIt may be an order of magnitude or worse. When will it happen?  It will only happen when least convenient because that is the nature of bad news. I’d figure this will be Election Day 2020. 

6) Health professionals, politicians, economists, and business leaders are all equally unsuited to the task of dealing with this. NOBODY alive has led through something like this. You can only make the best decisions of the moment. The population broadly is not prepared to deal with a pandemic. We live in a world where it is socially acceptable to claim the earth is flat, science is bad, god will protect you from a virus, climate change is not a thing, and that 5G has caused the epidemic. The acceptance of ignorance without social stigma is likely to bite us badly.

7) It is not like any war unless you have fought invisible zombie ninjas that make 4-6 people per contact drown in their own snot. Drop the war metaphors, as it trivializes war and worse, does not come close to explaining the scope of a pandemic, which may include war as an element of the actual problem. War, plague, famine, and death were peers but evoke each other. They ride out together.

8) The scope of the epidemic is not known. Immunity post-infection is not guaranteed, antibody tests are not doing well in finding the virus accurately, some patients reported as recovered have tested positive again, politics of expediency have injected noise into the testing process, and a vaccine may never happen. We worked for decades to get a vaccine for HIV,and decades to come up with a treatment protocol. It took courage and luck to change the population’s mind that HIV was a disease and not the wrath of god. The politics slowed the process.

9) The actual death toll is unknown. The younger generation apparently immune may have actually gotten life altering lung and heart damage (the jury is still out). Post “recovery” prognosis is largely unknown. There are still many factors in post covid recovery for youngsters and adults that have not been studied yet. The post covid-19 world is an unknown. The death due to famine. The death due to surgery suspension. The death due to suspending cancer treatment. The death due to emergency room capacity short fall. Triage death. It will take time on the order of decades to see the full scope. 

10) The toughest decisions will have to be made in organizations with a high level of younger people and a leadership or required cadre of older peopleTeachers and professors are generally over the age of 50. Think about a bi-modal distribution. Think universities, seminaries, and Fortune 100 business. The average professor is going to be above the age of 37 when they graduate with a doctoral degree. That same average professor may do two years as a postdoctoral researcher. They then will spend up to seven years in a land grant institution on the tenure track. Meaning they are approaching 45 years of age in their penultimate year of tenure or no-tenure decision. Add in 10 or so years and 55 is the average age of a seasoned full professor, the middle of the average professorial ranks, and smack dab in the middle of the at-risk category. Consider the military where the average age of officers is around 34 years of age. This is the age where you will start finding seasoned professionals, business leaders, and government leaders. A general officer in the military is likely going to have 30 years of experience and be approximately 50 years of age. 

One of the things each company will have to consider is “What if there is a second wave?” During this event, you should have a set of trip wires at local levels that consider government guidance, but your decisions are made for the business. Government is slow to make decisions. Whether it is closing schools for winter, communicating water outages, or discussing hurricane plans with someone miles off the coast, the government will never beat a business to a decision. You should set some tripwires for pandemic return to work from home based on some of the following criteria.

  1. Number of infections in a community increase by some value
  2. An infected person was detected in the office and deep clean required
  3. Local schools or daycare systems close for infection or cleaning
  4. Commuting systems are shut down for cleaning or infected people reported
  5. The cost of cleaning a location after having infected visitors has eclipsed any cost of having work from home

There are many reasons to consider a return to office from home based on more than regulation, and government requirements. Being able to make that decision while holding course and reducing damage to the business may in fact be a strategic win. 

Never let a crisis go to waste

Each business and organization should think through who is required to return to an office versus those that are not required. It is normal to want “normal”, but it is also important to protect your ability to continue as a business. Every crisis is an opportunity. Turn the problems of today on their head and think about how you can change the narrative into a good thing. Some simple common things that leaders can think about that make them resilient to a second wave are as follows.

  1. Shrink the real estate footprint as much and as fast as possible knowing social distance and density guidelines will likely shift over time and may be imposed with no or little notice. This dramatically decreases operational costs.
  2. Work from home solutions save companies money and may increase profit if implemented effectively and securely. Solutions also provide significant resilience to any disaster scenario absent total war. Now is your chance to implement something on a win-win basis. 
  3. School, daycare, and other environments may not open soon. There are secondary effects of COVID being discussed and creating unknowns regarding children. Allowing people to work from home will make a company more resilient and not create social economic choices that may impact strategic capability. 
  4. Companies that drive wellness, social, and cultural structure enabling work from home will gain the fastest in any recovery fastest and be more resilient to second waves of virus, a new virus, or mutations of virus. 
  5. Having as many people as possible work from home will allow companies to use the PPE available for those who cannot work from home. It is a win-win for a company to support those who can’t work from home and support those who can work from home as a team. This is reinforcement for shared workplace and organizational culture.
  6. Rethink how you define work from home as a business. Is it work from home full time, part time, when convenient, or a strategic level of investment in cost savings? Yes, I’m leading the witness a bit. The more spread out teams, org structures, and people are across geography the more resilient. You don’t want to burn all the savings through making in person meetings a requirement. 
  7. Consider how you structure your workforce and think about things like job sharing to constrain costs if you have to shift work or rotating bi-weekly shifts. 
  8. Make decisions now based on future requirements of resilience. How you purchase, what you purchase, who you hire, where you hire, and what it means to hire people across a wider geography is important. Viruses move between communities and are not evenly distributed. 
  9. Benefits, plans, and medical insurance costs should be expected to expand in cost. Though some disagree. Absent a sudden socialized health care system, we can expect medical insurance costs to soar. Distribution of staff, a smart resilience strategy and a diaspora of your employees can help constrain those costs.

Think of the pandemic and this life changing event through the lens of your role as a senior leader with a strategic vision 10 years out. There is a lot to be happy for in how flexible companies have become and much to be concerned about regarding the short term and long-term health problems of COVID-19. 

It is up to senior leaders to look beyond today to a future filled with success. With economic upheaval also comes the opportunity to make grand change. Those who negotiate this environment and future quickly and surely will be substantially ahead of the competition. They also will be prepared for the worst outcomes and have the best chances for success. If the second wave comes you can be prepared. If a follow-on virus comes you can be prepared.