Return to normal, what normal?
Less than two months ago, we experienced an end to life as we knew it. Many businesses had to close and some of our fundamental civil rights were suspended. It is not the Corona virus that is the main problem, it is the lockdown. Never before almost the entire world population got placed under ‘house arrest’. We have witnessed outbreaks of deadly viruses before. In 1981 HIV emerged as a deadly virus. At the time we had little understanding of the virus and there was no vaccine or cure. Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, 75 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 32 million people have died of AIDS. The point is we have had deadly viruses before (HIV, Ebola, SARS, Marburg, Hantavirus, MERS, Influenza, ea.), but never before have entire populations been placed in lockdown.
"It is not the Corona virus that is the main problem, it is the lockdown"
So, how did we get here? The answer is surprisingly simple and straightforward: insufficient healthcare capacity. We are by now all familiar with the phrase ‘flattening the curve’. If we all get ill at the same time, our hospitals will be overwhelmed and unable to cope. People will be dying in the streets. No-one likes the prospect of dying, so flattening the curve makes perfect sense. We all accepted that in order to protect ourselves and our healthcare system, we had to stay at home. There was no viable alternative. Businesses had to close and civil rights got suspended.
Almost invariably the popularity and approval rates of our leaders spiked. We all believed that they did what they had to do to fight the virus and save us from a deadly threat. After a few weeks the battle would be over, and things would go back to normal. As we are now in week six of being confined to home, patience is running out. People are increasingly desperate to get their lives back.
"Lockdown is not a solution; it is just a way of buying time"
The inconvenient truth is however that nothing has changed. Lockdown is not a solution; it is just a way of buying time. Time that should have been used to structurally ramp up medical capacity. Most countries didn’t. Unless we continue to flatten the curve, hospitals will still be overwhelmed, and many people will die. Governments are caught naked: there is no exit strategy. There is no cure, there is no vaccine, there are not enough ventilators, not enough tests, not enough hospital beds, not enough trained nurses and not even enough protective equipment to keep them safe.
Increasingly governments are under pressure to lift the restrictions. Some countries have already set some baby steps, others have set provisional end-dates. Governments are aware that they cannot keep populations locked up forever. It would be so much easier if there would be a cure or a vaccine. There is a global race to develop a remedy. The US government alone is spending over a billion to help speed things up.
Normally it can take five or more years to develop a drug and move it into human trials. No one wants to wait that long. AstraZeneca, Vir Biotechnology, and Eli Lilly and its biotech partner, AbCellera Biologics, as well as several academic labs, are hoping to start human trials by the end of summer. Developing drugs are one of several strategies scientists are pursuing against Covid-19. The long-term goal is a vaccine that would teach the immune system to make antibodies against the virus. But testing a vaccine takes time—likely 12 to 18 months or longer—and it might not work, or, like the flu shot, be only partly protective.
Even when at some point an effective medicine or vaccine has been developed, it still needs to be produced in huge quantities. Do you have any idea how many Olympic swimming pools of vaccine are needed for the entire world population? What would you say is easier to manufacture: face masks or vaccine? Right, now think about how we are doing with the face masks. The future does not look too bright as it comes to a cure or a vaccine for Covid-19. Not to mention the logistical nightmare of administering the vaccine to more than 7 billion people across the globe. No, dear readers, there is no reason to believe that things will go back to normal any time soon. Unfortunately.
Adjusting to a 1.5-meter society
So, there we are stuck with a virus and our economies shattered. For as long as there is no structural solution to the Covid-19 virus, we have no choice but to keep flattening the curve. This will mean that social distancing will be the new normal and people will have to continue keeping 1.5-meters apart. It will be immediately apparent that this will have serious consequences. Let’s take public transport for instance. The very nature of public transport is trying to get many people from A to B at the same time. Observing the 1.5-meter norm will reduce the capacity of trains, buses, trams and airplanes to around 20%*. Not only is this not a viable business model, it also creates major logistical issues in transporting people between home and work. Even if we are allowed to get back to work, most of us will not be able to get there.
Once you start thinking about it, it becomes clear how much of our economy is based on mass gatherings or huge numbers of people. Tourism, sports, events, amusement parks, air travel, cinemas, restaurants, just to name a few. In some countries these sectors count for 25%* of the economy. It will be hard or impossible for these businesses to survive if occupancy rated drop below let’s say 75%*, and yet that is what is likely to happen. The 2020 Olympics have now been postponed to 2021, but experts have already warned that even that is unlikely to happen. As long as there is no viable solution, we will have no choice but to keep flattening the curve.
For as long as there is no permanent answer to the Corona virus, we will likely go back and forth between periods that are more relaxed and more restricted. If the number of hospital beds gets near maximum capacity, we will have to abide to very strict social distancing. Once the number drops to 75%*, it will be a bit more relaxed. This pattern will then continue. The trillion-dollar question is what this will mean for our economies. Any investor might want to look at what companies can still return a profit in such scenario. I’m not even sure if most of brick-and-mortar non-food retail could survive. It might just not be sustainable to run let’s say a fashion store when only 1 customer per 3* square meter is allowed in, you have to disinfect the fitting rooms after each customer and even might have to disinfect the returned items before you hang them back. On top of that the store may have to close for several weeks, each time the hospitals reach max. capacity. It might very well just not work.
What about law firms?
The economic crisis caused by the lockdowns will on the short term bring many economies to their knees. As always, on the medium term, things will be all right and probably even better than before. For the legal industry the outlook remains more positive. I will write about this topic in detail in a separate article in which will explain where the opportunities are and what should be done today to emerge from the crisis with little or no damage.
Within the framework of this article I will limit myself to what measures law firms should take to resume working from the office after the government restrictions will be lifted. The starting point of all preparation should be 1.5-meter social distancing between everyone in the office, and to limit the spread of any contamination by taking additional measures.
Implementing 1.5-meter social distancing will be much easier for law firms that still have traditional office space than for law firms that have more modern open-plan offices. Depending on the size of your firm and the layout of your office space you might want to introduce one-way traffic in the corridors and restrict traffic between floors. The capacity of meeting rooms has to be reduced in order to respect the 1.5-meter social distancing.
An area of special concern will be the elevators. If your offices are in a high-rise building, taking the elevator will be the only way of access. In accordance with the distancing the capacity per elevator will probably be reduced to 2 -3 persons at the same time. You will need to coordinate with the operator of the building to make regulations on how elevators can be used in a safe manner. For high-rise buildings this will create a logistical nightmare that will severely limit the amount of people that can realistically use the building.
Besides social distancing, law firms also need to put in place a methodical and rigorous cleaning regime. Elevators and door handles must be disinfected all the time, as must toilets, taps, light switches and printer areas. You might want to restrict the use of the coffee corners and close the canteen/restaurant as freshly prepared unpacked food could be a source of contamination, potentially infecting everyone in the office at once. Just remember the bartender of Kitzloch, a popular restaurant and bar in the Austrian ski resort town of Ischgl, who single handedly contaminated over 100 guests with the Covid-19 virus. As there are strong indications that the virus is airborne, you will also have to take a close look at the office’s ventilation systems.
Given all limitations it seems unlikely that all lawyers and staff will return to work from the office anytime soon. More realistic would be that on each given day 50% of the workforce will remain working from home, while the others work from the office. Colleagues who have a higher risk profile (age and/or health condition) might not be allowed to return at all (employer liability?). Do not expect to have normal meetings with clients or seminars any time soon.
We are here to help
TGO Consulting is there to help you navigate the crisis. We are currently writing a book on this topic that will be finished by end April. This book will be made available for free to all our clients. We will also continue to publish weekly articles on topics that are most relevant to you right now.
Our experience with law firms in China gives us a two-month head start in knowing what best to do. There will however remain many important unknowns and things can change really fast. This is where our unparalleled creativity has proven to be extremely valuable. We have a proven track-record to find effective solutions faster and better than anyone else. In the meantime, our TGO Consulting Research Team keeps to monitor the state of the economy literally 24/7 to ensure that our approach always remains fact-based.
Please do not hesitate to contact us to find out how we could help your firm navigate these challenging times.