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A grander reopening post-coronavirus

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History has a way of making everything seem inevitable. In hindsight, the success or failure of any given endeavor seems foreordained; the wisdom or foolishness of any particular choice seems obvious. It seems clear to us now, for instance, that the U.S. Constitution and the government it established were destined for long-term greatness — but it did not seem that way to the men who created them. After all, the previous government they had set up under the Articles of Confederation had been a failure, and there were few precedents for democracies that didn’t descend into tyranny or mob rule or foreign subjugation. The Founding Fathers were profoundly worried that their second experiment wouldn’t work, and they were on tenterhooks about it for a decade or more.

When you’re actually living through history, nothing seems inevitable. In 20 years (or perhaps less), it will be more or less obvious when the coronavirus pandemic ended, and when the U.S. economy returned to strength. It will be equally clear whether decisions taken now about when to reopen American businesses, parks, schools and all the rest were the right ones. For now, they are the subject of rancorous debate — a debate that most of us have very strong opinions about, but are not in much of a position to influence, as it will be held in statehouses and governors’ mansions and in all the other corridors of power.

What we can do, however, is determine how we each, individually and within the organizations we work for, go about reopening. First and foremost, we should bear in mind that everyone feels differently about it, and try to respect those differences. Not all your staff, for instance, will feel comfortable returning to the office, no matter how early or late the reopening is, and you should put as many measures in place to reassure them and keep them safe as you need. (The Maryland Association of CPAs has a great collection of recommendations on safely reopening an office on its website.)

We can also remember that few things are ever as certain as we would like them to be. By the mid-1930s, Americans thought they had emerged from the Great Depression that started in 1929 — only to face another steep downturn in 1937-38. Whenever you reopen your firm, don’t assume that it will be for the last time, or that your state or local authorities won’t call for a do-over, should the coronavirus return.

Finally, don’t forget what you’ve learned, both now and in the future. It will be tempting to view the pandemic solely as a painful episode that we want to put behind us as soon as possible. But it has also been (and remains) a tremendous learning experience; don’t rush to resume the old status quo, when you can make it better by incorporating the best elements of how you operated during the crisis.

What’s more, at some point this will all be history, and nothing gets forgotten more quickly or more completely than the details of history. In five or 10 years, will you remember how well- or ill-prepared your firm was? Which contingency plans worked, and which didn’t? Whenever your reopening is, be sure to take the time to document all of that, incorporate it into your firm’s disaster recovery plan, and keep it fresh in your mind for the next time a disaster strikes.

Because if there is one thing inevitable about history, it’s that it repeats.

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