Voices

The coronavirus pandemic is just the end of the beginning

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It’s common to lament the way days in quarantine all run together, so that those who are stuck at home find it increasingly difficult to differentiate, say, Fridays from Tuesdays, and the passage of time is hard to measure, noticeable only on those rare occasions when you force yourself to recognize that the days are actually getting warmer and longer, or that the deadline that always felt months away is, in fact, coming up next week.

Crises, whether biomedical or social, have a tendency to suspend our sense of time, so that it seems like we’re living in an eternal “now” of infection counts and mask-related arguments, of protests and a steady stream of outrageous videos from the streets. They freeze us in place, struggling to deal with the pressing issues of this day and this week — Can I get Zoom to work for this call? How will we deliver this work product to our client? Is there a curfew tonight? — even as they lay the groundwork for major changes that will have long-term consequences far beyond their short-term impacts.

For the fact of the matter is that major long-term changes are brewing beneath the momentary questions about reopening and masks and protests, and many of us are so fixated on the short-term questions that we’re not preparing for the real “new normal,” the one that won’t emerge before the end of this summer or even the end of this year. It’s the future that will take shape once the pandemic is truly over and we start rebuilding our economy and our society around a new set of parameters. Getting through the pandemic will not be much use if you’re not ready to adapt to those new parameters (whatever they may be), and a big part of that means starting to think about them now.

No matter their size, for instance, smart firms will be thinking about how to leverage the new comfort with remote work to build national and even international client bases, and to recruit full-time, part-time and temporary help on a location-blind basis. They’ll be looking to their next lease renewal, and radically rethinking their expansion plans in terms of the real estate they won’t need.

Smart firms will also be looking at new service lines in assurance around assessing clients’ readiness for another pandemic (because there will be another; trust me), and building advisory services around the host of new businesses that will be launched in the wake of the coronavirus, in biotechnology, medical devices, office furniture and design, online communications and workflow, and many other areas.

Here’s another thought: Whatever you may think of Black Lives Matter and the protests around the death of George Floyd, the demographics of this country are such that future pools of job candidates and potential clients will only get more diverse, and smart firms know that if they aren’t ready to engage with them, their future prospects will be severely limited.

There are a hundred other ways our economy and our society will start to be seriously different; the trick is to start planning for them now, even the ones you can’t quite identify, and to use some of the time you’re currently spending on figuring out the next week to begin getting ready for the next decade.

In the end, the pandemic and the protests won’t be the beginning of the end; to echo Churchill, they’ll just be the end of the beginning.

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