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I’m unsettled. Nothing like this has ever happened in my lifetime, or even in the lifetime of my parents. Schools closed. Worship services canceled. Citizens ordered to stay at home. The uncertainty of it all could be the worst part. Why are things so bad in Italy? Are my children at risk of serious harm, or not? How sick will I get when I catch it? Everyone has a theory but no one seems to really know what’s going on.

How not to respond to a pandemic

A lot of the responses to this historic situation seem to assemble into a few basic types:

Panicking: Stockpiling, ranting about how other people aren’t doing enough, obsessively re-posting worst-case predictions and gut-churning anecdotes. Social media is great for this. I’m trying to avoid social media completely these days. I doubt I’ll miss much.

Being cavalier: Some people seem to think this is no big deal. I don’t understand this – maybe it’s a defense mechanism against panic.

Vaguely gesturing:  By now it’s de rigeur for a business to have a Coronavirus resource page prominently displayed on its website – heck, we’ve got one. This can make sense, if you provide a critically helpful service, or if, like us, you’ve always been relied-on as a good source of information about what’s going on in your niche. Or it can be a complete waste of screen space and bandwidth – a glossy page full of cliches and platitudes (“we are closely following”… “we are deeply committed” … “sanitize frequently-used surfaces” … “use Slack as a virtual water-cooler”) that links to all the standard government websites, has been approved by Legal, and adds exactly zero value for any customer.

These are bad ways to respond to a pandemic. I don’t recommend them, although I can hardly blame anyone who indulges in them. These are extraordinarily difficult times and it’s never easy to do the right thing.

A better approach: creative adaptation

But I’ve been surprised and delighted by how many people and businesses are doing the right thing. Our tax accountant doesn’t usually ask how I’m doing, but this week he did. That meant a lot to me. I could list five or six other examples off the top of my head, of the most humdrum business communications being infused with a new note of personal warmth and genuine concern. I don’t think people are faking this. I’m trying to do the same in every business email I write. It’s a small effort that can make a big difference in someone’s day.

We’ve extended paid sick leave to our part-time hourly employees (previously only available to full-timers) and we will do whatever little things we can to help everyone adjust to kids and spouses being home more – gift cards, reimbursements for Internet upgrades, etc. We’re holding regular company-wide video calls just to talk about what’s going on and how everyone is doing. We’ve started a long-running prayer-request thread in Basecamp. We’re still paying the folks who clean our office even though the office is closed. These are just a few initial things and we’ll do more.

All of these little gestures point to a more fruitful way of responding to this crisis: creative adaptation. Earlier this week I got two emails at about the same time, from two of my favorite online stores, which I’ll call Store A and Store B. The two stores are in the same line of business; both sell in person out of a small brick-and-mortar retail shop, as well as shipping nationwide to online customers; and they are both actually located in the same town, which happens to be near San Francisco. So both were directly affected by a ‘shelter in place’ order issued by their county.

The email from Store A said: “We are closed until further notice” – and that was just about that. The other email said: “We are open for business … our retail team will be working from the safety of their own homes … we will be able to ship your orders during this period.” And then they took it a step further: “If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and would like us to personally deliver to you, please contact us for details … we ask for a minimum $100 purchase for home deliveries”. Wow. The San Francisco Bay Area covers about 7000 square miles – that’s quite an offer.

It’s hard to overstate the emotional impact of that second email, especially when I read it almost immediately after the first. The can-do approach is good for Store B’s bottom line, of course, but it’s also a real contribution to the common good – it boosts public morale; it keeps Store B’s employees gainfully employed; and it does all of this without undue risk to public health. It’s exactly the right way for a business to respond to a public crisis.

At AdjusterPro we have the good fortune of already being a paperless, remote-first company offering a cloud-based service that’s delivered online. So we won’t need to change anything about our basic way of doing business. But our industry will still face hurdles: the big exam providers have closed their in-person test centers for now; we’ll need to figure out how to do exam-proctoring and fingerprinting and social distancing at the same time; next week may well bring a new challenge that we can’t foresee today.

We have a lot of ideas and will be bringing them to the (now-virtual) NAIC conference that begins today, and we’ve been talking with key businesses in the industry all week. Some of our ideas may work, and some may not, but as long as we are willing to adapt and be creative, our industry should be able to weather this new kind of storm.

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