Rule 7: Be Prepared to Improvise – Return to Work in the Time of COVID-19

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Epstein Becker & Green

Part 7 of a series featuring our video Rules of the Road: Return to Work in the Time of COVID-19.

What can jazz teach us about COVID-19? What lessons can we learn from the great masters like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington at this very moment?

As it turns out—a lot.

In a unique way, jazz, a truly American, musical art form, perhaps perfectly embodies this moment. Jazz is about democracy – about different people, from different backgrounds, experiences, ethnicities, coming together – inclusively – to make music and make things happen – to swing. Jazz is about working things out musically with other people – who have their own ideas, their own vision, and who may very well disagree with one another – but who need to overcome their differences to work together to create something bigger and better than themselves – for the greater collective.

Importantly for this moment, jazz is not just about playing—it’s about listening.

And perhaps most relevant to the context of the workplace, jazz can teach us a lot about improvisation. About working without a script. About adapting. About taking in information, from a variety of sources, and responding—in the moment—to create ideas, programs, ways of communicating and working that we may not have previously thought possible. And doing so repeatedly to build resiliency for ourselves, our families and for our organizations.

Witness the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to foist constantly changing laws, regulations and guidance on employers. This guidance has and will continue to change. New science will (hopefully) emerge, ushering in new health and safety best practices and ways of working. These changes may not happen in a linear or predictable fashion, as we have already seen. And so, as much as possible, employers should be prepared to improvise by:

Being on the Lookout for Evolving Guidance – Because Things Will Change (again and again)…

New and evolving guidance forces employers to perform an incredibly difficult task—to hit moving targets.

At the start of the pandemic, health experts rapidly honed in on transmission through physical contact, and the importance of frequent hand washing. Scientists then focused on wearing masks to prevent spreading the virus through droplets. On September 20, 2020, the CDC revised its guidance to reflect the risk of COVID spreading through aerosols (as opposed to droplets) only to reverse course on September 21. As our knowledge of the virus continues to grow, employers should expect to make additional changes to business practices and the physical layout of the workplace to incorporate evolving best practices, or even to consider whether and to what extent the physical office remains relevant to their current-future business model. Laws, regulations, and regulatory guidance also change with (alarming) rapidity. To select one recent example, on August 8, President Trump issued a Presidential Memorandum concerning the deferral of payroll tax withholdings effective September 1. On Friday August 28, the IRS issued guidance regarding how to implement such deferrals, providing employers one business day, August 31 before the deferrals could go into effect. The IRS did not confirm that such deferrals were optional until September 3.

The specific content of new guidance is largely unpredictable, but employers can buy precious time to adopt to changing circumstances by staying alert—by not assuming that today’s guidance and best practices are static, as they are anything but that.

Adopting Resilient Systems to Support Improvisation

Preparing to improvise requires developing and cultivating a system and a culture for changing plans. The CDC advises people to maintain 6 feet of distance from one another. As a thought experiment, what would happen if tomorrow, the CDC changed its recommendation from 6 feet to 10 feet? Employers would need to adjust their reopening plans by reconfiguring the workplace, perhaps increasing the proportion of employees who work remotely to make more room in the office, provide additional staggering of when employees start and end work, etc… Employers would need to communicate the changes to employees, and work with employees whose other obligations (e.g. child care) may not fit with the new work schedules. In short, reopening employers need a robust system to change plans, communicate those changes to employees, and (if possible) accommodate those employees who cannot adapt to the changing requirements.

While it might seem counterintuitive, employers can actually prepare to improvise by ensuring they have not just the systems and procedures, but also the culture and mindset to:

  • Identify and even anticipate (to the extent possible) new developments in law, regulations and best practices;
  • Decide, with a combination of courage and humility, to change plans;
  • Communicate changes to employees clearly and with transparency, always with a sense of fairness and an awareness of the human condition; and
  • Work to accommodate employees who require accommodations with respect to those changes.

The last item is particularly important for limiting risk and building a great culture, as will be discussed in a future blog post.

Conclusion

Throughout the pandemic, employers have and continue to take extraordinary steps to continue to operate, all the while keeping employees safe through remote work, alterations to physical workspaces, and other individualized accommodations. Whether driven by law, policy or culture, each of these adaptations are extraordinary, commercial examples of improvisation in action.

Our improvisations of 2020 may very well become the new standard in 2021 and beyond…

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