Handling a New Normal in the Workplace

A reflection on the management challenges that one small business owner has faced this summer, and the decisions they've had to make during the pandemic.

Never in a million years did I think we’d have a serious business conversation about how many lawyers should be allowed to use the bathroom at once.

What’s the right number? Is it two? Four? Even six? Do we need to investigate the matter and do a little research? Maybe count stalls, measure floor plans, even (God forbid!) do a comparative analysis of the mens’ and ladies’ rooms?

For argument’s sake, let’s say we find the right number. The perfect number. Let’s say it’s three.

How in the world can you tell whether or not there are one, two, three, six or zero people in there at one time? Do you have a system? Some type of punch in, punch out sign? Or do you just ask people holler in there and have the folks using the restroom sound off? Do you need a sign-up sheet? A reservation system?

These topics are as ridiculous as they sound, almost like the start of a really bad joke. Something like, “How many lawyers does it take to use the restroom?”

But in the world of coronavirus, these topics aren’t a joke. They are deadly serious. And in the midst of all this, you have to make decisions within an environment that is supposed to be a place of business.

These are the kinds of moments and discussions that define 2020. It feels like the Twilight Zone.

I am one of many owners of a small business, a law firm in Denver. Moye White LLP employs a total of 134 people, including 66 attorneys. I’m one of five partners charged with managing the firm. When I was asked by my partners to help manage the firm several years ago, I anticipated all kinds of management challenges with business, the law, human resources and all the various issues which pop up and need to be handled on a daily basis.

What I never anticipated was having to have a serious management conversation with my partners about how many lawyers can use the restroom at the same time. It seems unreal, but it is a reality for my business and for businesses across Colorado and around the country.

Like countless other businesses, we took our office completely remote in the middle of March. If you had told me then that it would be harder to return to the office than it was to leave it, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that has proven to be true.

There are a plethora of issues, from the obvious to the mundane to the unreal, to tackle in order to return to the office safely. Everything needs to be handled effectively so people can come back to the office and work as they have for years until now.

Let me share another fun detail. Coffee. The elixir of life, particularly in a law firm. I shudder to think of the sheer volume of coffee that our law firm goes through on a daily basis. Coffee is the fuel that we lawyers use each and every day to operate. We brew it in huge dispensers, multiple times a day, at four different locations in the office.

And now, we simply can’t. We can’t have the huge dispensers. We can’t have people swing by and pump themselves some coffee. We can’t have several people congregating and chatting by the coffee station like before. Coffee is gone.

These new realities have made me rethink everything I know about a workplace. But I’m learning that just because something is crazy doesn’t mean it’s not real. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with it. And if that isn’t 2020 in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

There are also countless details that are less humorous. People are scared, and rightfully so. Individual people have individual circumstances regarding health or family or other factors. The spectrum of viewpoints on COVID-19 and its relative risks spans a wide range, making conversations and decisions especially complicated.  

And the hardest part about these conversations is that there is no undoubtedly perfect answer. We don’t know enough to make the perfect decision. We don’t have any previous experience in dealing with these types of issues. We’re just going to have to take it one step at a time, doing our best and hoping for the best.

I really don’t know if we’ll ever figure out the perfect number of lawyers who can use the restroom at the same time. We’ll make a guess, and we’ll devise a system. And it may work, or it may not. We may get lucky and pick the perfect number. Or we may pick a number and system that we use for 15 minutes before we realize we made the wrong choice. 

One way or the other, we’ll figure it out, day-by-day and bit-by-bit. The only thing I know for certain is that somehow we will all find a way to get through this together, so long as no more than three lawyers in our office have to pee at the same time. 

This article was originally published by ColoradoBiz.