When I wrote about the omicron variant a few short weeks ago, I said “It might be the next delta, or it might be another minor bump in the road.” It turned out to be neither. This version has brought its own unique mix of facts that law firm leaders must face.
Let’s start with the grim news. The original COVID-19 strain and the delta variant each peaked, at their worst, around 300,000 new infections a day in the United States. By contrast, omicron recorded over 1.4 million new cases on January 10 alone. That’s 0.4% of the entire population of the United States infected in a single day. Over 5 million people have been diagnosed in the week leading up to this column, which amounts to about 1 in every 66 Americans catching COVID in seven days. The numbers are staggering.
But there is encouraging news for those who are vaccinated. As the Washington Post reported, “Healthy individuals who have been vaccinated, and especially those who have been boosted, appear unlikely to develop severe infections from the Omicron variant that would land them in the hospital.” Consistent with this, reports domestically and abroad suggest that 5% to 10% of those hospitalized with COVID are vaccinated. So even though breakthrough cases are happening at record pace, the vaccinated have done far better with omicron than with the delta variant.
But back to gloomier news. The above hospitalization stats don’t give you any solace if you’re unvaccinated. And even asymptomatic people — vaccinated or not — can still spread omicron. All of which creates a strain on the health care system.
So here we are again. With all of this happening, what’s the next move for law firms?
Why 2020 Was Comparatively Easy
Although March 2020 was a huge lift for law firm leaders, it was in some ways easier than where we are today in terms of making hard decisions.
Once we understood the risk COVID-19 posed, the world simply shut down. Businesses moved to remote work, professional sports and the entertainment industry closed their doors, schools went online. Everything nonessential was cancelled while we all sat at home watching “Tiger King” and trying to figure out what was going on.
But while the simplicity of a global shut down was appealing, it obviously wasn’t tenable long term. Ever since then, responding to COVID today has become more and more complicated. There’s no longer any one-size-fits-all approach that can work in every office. Leaders looking to review or revise their COVID protocols in light of omicron need to think about, among myriad other things:
- Who’s vaccinated and who’s not?
- Who will wear a mask, what type, and where and when will they wear it?
- To what extent do your team members trust public health resources like the CDC and the government?
- Who is in an elevated risk category, or has high-risk people such as the elderly or children too young to vaccinate in their household?
- How likely is your team to comply with your policies?
- Are you willing to have team members leave if they won’t comply with the policies in place?
There’s also a hidden component that subtly, but deeply affects every COVID policy we consider and implement. The issue is called pandemic fatigue.
Getting Sick Of COVID
Pandemic exhaustion isn’t the tiredness that often comes as a symptom of the virus. Instead, it’s that overwhelming exhaustion many of us feel at the very notion of returning to lockdown to mitigate the spread of this virus. Many of us spent the first year of the pandemic juggling more than we’d ever juggled before, bearing a tremendous mental load trying to keep ourselves and others safe while everything normal in our lives got upended. When the vaccine finally became available last spring and summer, it was the relief we’d been waiting for since March 2020. Many of us returned to a life that felt more or less like it had been before the pandemic, treasuring more than ever the freedom we had given up for so long in the name of keeping ourselves, our loved ones, and our fellow human beings safer.
That’s where pandemic exhaustion comes in. If willpower is a muscle, many of us feel like we wore it out that first year spent in isolation waiting for the vaccine. Every social event skipped, mask donned, or day spent homeschooling a child was another chance to stress a muscle that wasn’t getting any downtime to recover. Most of us still haven’t recovered those energy reserves. That’s why today, when lockdown might seem to make more sense than ever, the will to do it seems absent. That’s why people who didn’t leave their homes for most of 2020 might have been found going to movies, eating in restaurants, and going to crowded parties over the 2021 holidays. We feel like we worked too hard for too long to go back to how things were. Our willpower is too tired to be of use.
So then, even with the latest iteration of COVID spreading faster than ever, it’s currently harder than ever to craft a coherently tailored COVID mitigation plan, to build consensus and buy-in for that plan from the team, or to get your teams to comply. What are you supposed to do with all of this?
Knowing about and adapting to pandemic exhaustion should be part of that solution. Doing what you can to keep the mental load on your team light will help them feel better while also keeping them safe (and, incidentally, more productive than they’d be if they caught COVID).
Lightening Your Team’s Lift
One easy win for many office situations is to continue to be flexible with working arrangements. If your people are fed up wearing masks in the office, let them work from home in their pajamas. They’re not stressing about following office COVID protocols, and you’re not stressing about them getting others sick.
You can also reduce your team’s mental load by reducing ambiguity wherever you can. As tiring as COVID protocols can sometimes be, what’s worse is not having any strong game plan and forcing your team members to spend their energy wondering what they need to be doing to keep themselves and others safe. If you need to pivot, let people know and explain why.
Consider involving experts. Smart firms are hiring infectious disease consultants to bring their expertise to bear and craft a manageable mitigation plan to suit their specific needs. There are also broadly available free resources and mitigation plans available from the CDC, many branches of government, and any number of universities or nonprofits. Find an evidence-based resource you can trust, develop strong written policies that your team will know how to follow, and keep an eye open as that resource updates its findings and recommendations.
No one’s certain how this will all end, or when, but we continue to owe it to each other to keep each other physically and mentally healthy, and that duty comes at a mental cost on us all. Recognizing that pandemic exhaustion exists, working around it, and extending a bit of grace to ourselves and our communities can help us lessen this load we all share.
James Goodnow is the CEO and managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. At age 36, he became the youngest known chief executive of a large law firm in the U.S. He holds his JD from Harvard Law School and dual business management certificates from MIT. He’s currently attending the Cambridge University Judge Business School (U.K.), where he’s working toward a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. James is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created and run a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at James@JamesGoodnow.com.
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