“Love in the Time of COVID.” If that title reminds you of “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the novel by Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez (or perhaps more familiar, the movie starring Javier Bardem), the similarity is as intentional as it is striking. As unthinkable as this sounds in the second decade of the 21st century, our society is being overtaken by a disease. Not since the Greatest Generation has a single conflict so consumed the entire globe.
What a very different year 2020 turned out to be. It’s hard to believe now that at the beginning of March, when the warnings were just starting to sound in our ears, my company held its annual officers and managers meeting, which is an internal communication tour de force. How quickly, over the next few weeks, did our communication work turn from strategic planning to pandemic management. We ended the month of March with a “work at home” order for all office-bound employees.
Since we are an “essential business” involved in infrastructure engineering and construction, the coronavirus outbreak presented us with a dichotomy: field employees (inspectors, construction managers, surveyors, etc.) involved in ongoing road and right-of-way projects needed to stay on the job; office employees needed a new kind of internal infrastructure to stay working while isolated and distributed. We learned some things along the way:
1. Everyone needs to be reachable. For us, that means urging every employee with a mobile device to download an app that connects to our cloud-based intranet. What may have been considered convenient before has become indispensable now.
2. Working at home means leveling the tech playing field. We cannot assume everyone has a workspace, desk, docking station, large monitor and other peripherals, wide-band Wi-Fi, and all the other things we take for granted in an institutional office environment. Our company provided a fund and a charge code so that employees, with supervisor approval, can upgrade and purchase equipment needed to create a remote office and can connect securely to our servers.
3. We need to stay focused. In addition to providing COVID-19 news, we found it necessary to give employees a steady stream of normal work news, along with encouraging messages from the CEO about the need to remain committed to our work and the company mission. While it is a “new normal,” it is still normal. We are striving to maintain business services as seamlessly as possible.
4. We must keep in touch. The Wall Street Journal recently noted the dramatic uptick in cell phone usage—for talking, not texting, entertainment, or social media. As an antidote to the constraints of social distancing and isolation, employees are voluntarily calling one another more frequently than ever. For us, this means sharing cell phone numbers, as well as posting instructions on how to forward desk phones to other numbers.
In four more weeks, our efforts may take a completely different turn. The effect of our shelter-in-place measures are hard to predict, both for good and for bad. But for now, there is plenty of love—aka communication—to give and to receive, even in the time of COVID. Maybe, especially in the time of COVID.
Michael Deas, ABC, SCMP, is director of marketing at Volkert, Inc.