Many Companies Aren’t Reopening Offices Until 2021 Amid COVID Fears – Some Questions Worth Asking

By now we have all heard announcements from various companies, small and large, stating their plans to keep employees out of the office until 2021. Some Silicon Valley companies have given the distinct impression that mid-2021 is the earliest they may bring people back, if ever. Lots of smaller, less high-profile companies have ruled out a fall 2021 return, even in areas where COVID has virtually disappeared from their local geography. In fact, many companies made their decision to do this as early as June and July.

There can be no doubt that many companies making this decision are doing so believing it to be in the best interest of their company. I am sure in some cases a liability fear may play into it, and in other cases, they may truly lack the time and resources to set their operation with the right logistics and risk mitigation necessary to safely re-open. A big part of the consideration is likely geographical, as obviously some cities and states face very different COVID data than others. At the end of the day, I am sure some companies have acted in good faith to do what they believe is best, no doubt emboldened by the “functionality” of remote working, even if not “optimal.”

That said, there also can be no doubt that some companies have eagerly jumped into a mode of extended “out of office” culture without thorough diligence, grit, or analysis. As all of us in our businesses must do business with various vendors, partners, suppliers, and the like, I think it is worthwhile to wonder where any of these questions may apply to the companies you do business with, who have chosen a remote solution for such an extended period of time.

1. Did a senior management team make the decision based on maturity, true cost-benefits analysis, and diligent consideration, or are a bunch of 25-year olds who love working in their pajamas running the show?

Leadership is the backbone of any company, period. Where there is strong leadership, a good business model can thrive. Where there is weak leadership, a strong business model will inevitably become a weak one. In many cases, it would appear “employee polling” may be driving the decision-making process. Regardless of how that plays out in this specific case of remote work, what does it say or potentially say about the leadership structure of the companies you work with? It is worth finding out how the decision was reached, and whether or not capitulating to young, pre-married, pre-family employees was perhaps a disproportionate factor.

2. Whether or not they made the right decision, which is a pretty subjective thing in some cases, did they actually try?

We have all seen governors and mayors say “we are letting science and data guide us” over the last few months, despite abundant evidence of pure arbitrariness and selectivity drive political decision-making. When business leaders are choosing to have employees forego the office culture, and claiming health and science as their reasoning, what health data did they look to? Was it a headline on CNN, or was their intricate study done of the data, the health risks, the CDC guidelines for mitigation, etc. Did they talk to local hospitals and viral health experts in their area? What qualitative and quantitative research was done before research was used to explain the decision?

The reason I bring this up is not to nitpick where some companies may or may not have gotten this decision right (or wrong), but rather what it may say about their analytics capability, period. In other words, did the process they went through here reveal a skill for data compilation and assessment, or did a reveal a hole in mature, thoughtful, sophisticated analytics? It is worth knowing that about the companies you do business with.

3. Has the company moved the goalposts a bit on what they want for their own firm’s execution and delivery?

When quarantine first began back in March, when there was still a growing number of cases and mortalities around COVID in our country, and there actually was great uncertainty as to where this would go, we often heard that video conferencing technologies were enabling continued communications (Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams), cloud data storage was facilitating file management (BOX, Dropbox), and the various technological tools of today were helping maintain some functionality in that extraordinary time. Fast forward to today, where the COVID outlook is drastically different, infection fatality rates are exponentially lower than feared, and hospitalizations/severities have dropped significantly, and it now seems that some of the technological tools that “kept the ship running” in March are now being spoken of as permanent solutions. Is what was once “acceptable” now being called “ideal”? Has the company lowered its standard for long term operations out of the “acceptability” of the quarantine utilities? It seems worth questioning where the conveniences of working from home for some are being allowed to rationalize a lower bar for company performance. How long will it be until that cuts into their success as an organization, or alters their relationship with you? Perhaps it won’t at all, but is the overall question of holding high standards worth asking?

4. Does the company throw around slogans and language about “safety” and “health” lightly, indicating more virtue-signaling than real regard for company culture and stature?

This is an important one in today’s day and age, where tokenism trades at a real premium and substance is at a discount. Have you detected seriousness of purpose and depth in the company’s communications, or does it seem like sloganeering and superficiality? Perhaps it is too hard to judge, but perhaps this experience has given you a chance to look under the hood of the “true north” of the companies you work with – what guides them, how much meat they really have on the bone, and how committed they are as an organization to the steak, not just the sizzle.

5. Finally, is the company using this awful period in our society to establish higher standards for the future, or more comfortable standards for the future? What will its present disposition mean for its future?

Many parts of 2020, at least the months of March through July, will have to be given a hall pass. There was such a severe lack of understanding as to what was going on, and what it meant, that collectively there may have been a “just survive” mentality that had to take over. Do you see in the companies you patronize, work with, buy from, sell to, or what have you, a potentially extended re-rating of standards? If you once worked with a basketball team that drove to the basket all the time, but now seems to run a four corners offense, what would that make you think? Would a football team with a run and gun offense that just started taking a knee excite you?

I think it is this last point that is most important. Vision. Leadership. Modeling grit and determination. America came out of 9/11 with some companies and some personalities (including business personalities) leading the way. This COVID moment is going to reveal some companies as followers, and others as leaders. Some will set their policies and vision around what others are doing, and others will set the standards that other companies have to catch up to. Moments of crisis do this – they reveal character, they do not create it.

Character, in this sense, is not merely a personal and moral category. It speaks to the full personality and inner being of an organization. The COVID moment is giving all of us in the business world a chance to better understand who we are, and who we want to be. But it also is giving us a chance to see that in those we do business with – who we buy our supplies from, who we allocate client capital to, who we do service contracts with, who we use for corporate travel, etc. All of our vendors, partners, and suppliers are facing challenges, and they deserve grace and space to navigate through these waters as they see fit. But we also have not just a chance but a duty to re-assess our rolodexes, and come out of this on the other side with optimal relationships with optimal business partners, determined to flourish in a post-COVID world.

If you want to discuss further call me at my office, or better yet, come by and visit. I’ll be there – working.