Can you believe it’s been almost a year? I remember last year sitting in planning meetings – real meetings in a real room with a table and coasters for our coffee cups. I was perilously close to too many people, some close colleagues and others paid consultants. We were talking about business continuity basically, how to ensure continued operation in the event something bad happens.
I’ve been in 20 of these in my career. I’ve learned about bird flu, remote servers, redundant systems. I’ve filled out dozens of forms mapping processes and documenting people.
Then something crazy happened: an actual pandemic. In not much more than a heartbeat we went from being ahead of the curve to being on top of the curve to being under the damn curve.
Now, we did fine. I mean, literally, as a company we pivoted marvelously. As Rome burned around us, our people and systems didn’t miss a beat. People went home, we stress tested a few networks, looked hard at our data security and then looked again because – let’s face it – I’m not sure any of us really ever expected to have to pull the ripcord on this particular chute. And we did fine.
I don’t know if it’s just me but, like the Paul Simon song says, “When something goes wrong, I’m the first to admit it.” The first weeks of quarantine were tough, really tough. But fairly soon, in hindsight anyway, things became way less dire than the news led us to believe. To be fair, I know how lucky I am. Everyone closest to me stayed pretty healthy. We had jobs. We had a roof, we had food. I not only got to work, I got to do some good for people because of work.
A year later, I don’t wear real pants very often. I shave a couple times a week, not every weekday. Sometimes I leave my webcam off during meetings because I haven’t showered yet, and I tell people I’m having technical difficulties. Of course, like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, I regret it quickly when I actually have technical difficulties and end up worried colleagues will think I’m full of shit.
Around me there are two kinds of people. There are those who are chafing in extended quarantine and demanding an expedited return to “normal.” And then there are those who don’t believe anything in our future will resemble the “normal” we once had.
I’m probably in the latter category.
Now, when I go into the office, I don’t mind. Traffic is light, and the murderous rage I used to feel is curiously absent.
Now, when I work from home, I don’t mind. I can work as long as I want, when I want, how I want. I can do laundry in between meetings. I can write this blog at night and not be exhausted.
I am far from a Luddite, but most of you know I am not a fan of social media. But I admittedly have a fascination with it, like someone slowing down to watch a car engulfed in flames. People whose fame is contingent on social media are especially fascinating to me. The term “influencer” is a job title now. When I started out in business an influencer was someone who was politically savvy, respected, able to make things happen through relationships and gravitas. Today it can be a 16-year-old with six- and seven-figure endorsements and a million followers on Instagram and TikTok.
So I’m not uncomfortable with technology but I don’t embrace it. I don’t mind watching a TV show once a week instead of bingeing a whole season at a time. Well, except for WandaVision. Those guys are sadistic, I’m not kidding. If you haven’t started watching, I highly recommend it now that there are five episodes in the can you can watch in quick succession. Because trying to make sense of episodes one through three with a week in between each was physically painful.
But I digest. I was saying I don’t reject technology; it’s just not my BFF. Especially now.
In January, two things typically happen at work. We have a companywide Town Hall, and we have a national sales meeting. I have been one of the architects of both of these annual events over time, and it’s a point of some professional pride that each year we have inched both of them higher, improving on the finished product little by little, notch by notch.
Then Covid happened and all of a sudden we were unable to have gatherings indoors. No business travel. Flights? Hotel rooms? Why incur the risk?
So we invested in an online conference platform and determined we would hold our very first all-virtual Town Hall and National Sales and Service Meeting. On the plus side, we could accommodate two companies for the Town Hall – make it relevant for more people. On the plus side, we could expand our sales meeting audience to include service and underwriting colleagues – and promote unity and collaboration.
Yay virtual conferences!
The Town Hall was up first. After a lot of planning, a lot of rehearsing, a lot of testing, I was to kick things off. There I was in the empty lobby of our brand new corporate offices, still shiny and completely deserted. I was wearing a full-zip warm-up shirt with our logo on the left chest; black, of course – very slimming on camera. Two PM Eastern, and the upbeat music faded along with the onscreen logo as I showed up on 2,000 screens nationwide. I had one job, to welcome everyone and introduce the new format before our CEO began his pitch.
I don’t want to brag, but this is cake for me. Despite being someone who would choose, 100% of the time, solitude and quiet over the spotlight, I have no shortage of experience in front of the footlights and it doesn’t rattle me one bit.
I had a preview screen on my laptop in front of me. In my ear the control room counted me down but I glanced at the screen anyway, wanting visual evidence that it was going well. And it was, for somewhere in excess of two minutes. How much more, I’m not sure. What I’m sure of is, just after two minutes my likeness on the screen in front of me froze. Like I said, I’ve been around the block a few times and I know the one thing you don’t do, ever, under any circumstance, is stop. So I continued with my shtick. I was nervous, suddenly, but I don’t think anyone could tell.
But after a while, when I got no feedback from the voices in my head, and no movement from my likeness on screen, I started flipping my script, mentioning to anyone still with me that I wasn’t sure if anyone could still hear me. But if they could, hot damn, this was going to be awesome!
I don’t know how long I kept that up. Twenty, thirty minutes? No, not seriously. It just felt like that.
Two thousand people, colleagues, friends, bosses. Our first virtual Town Hall. And there I was, center stage. It was like every woke-up-late-and-only-have-10-minutes-to-take-the-SATs-plus-I’m-not-wearing-pants-for-some-reason nightmare anyone ever dreamed. Only it was real.
People scurried, trying to get things back online. I managed to get back on camera once, to give people a status report and apprise them of Plan B. But ultimately Plan B tanked as well and we ended up aborting the day, recording some video and regrouping regarding next steps. It was so awful no one laughed. People who remotely cared about me texted and emailed to make sure I was ok. My friend Guy waited a full week before calling me to bust my balls.
I can only imagine how hard it was to wait that long. You have to know Guy.
Spoiler alert: I survived. In fact, I kept others calm. I rolled with it; what else can you do at that point? I’m 58 years old, I’ve seen some shit. And I’m a survivor. I told some of my junior colleagues about the time, when I was working for a Philly ad agency, that we were pitching a supermarket chain. I won’t say which one, but I will tell you these were not sophisticated folks, no sir. We had done some animatic representations of TV commercials we were proposing, commercials that I wrote; and I sang the jingle I wrote for them.
I said, I sang the jingle. Me. In a room with a bunch of strangers, from whom we were seeking approval and business and trust and money.
The silence was thundering. I was much younger then, not nearly as bulletproof as I am today. After a too-long pause, I literally said to them, “Okay, but you’re going to be humming it on your way home.”
We did not get that account. But I didn’t die, and that is the lesson.
We moved on and the following week - last week in fact - we had our first all-virtual National Sales and Service Meeting. Four consecutive days, same technology platform, dozens of people contributing and about 400 virtual attendees. I had no speaking role, but that was intentional. I was 100% behind the scenes, and thankful.
It went great.
Was I relieved? Sure. Another fail would have been damaging in a lot of ways, not just to me. But I will let you in on a secret: I expected it to go well. Why? How? No idea. It needed to go well, and there were great people working hard to make sure it went well. I believed. And I think that is often the secret sauce, the Intel inside. Like Tug McGraw famously said, ya gotta believe.
Today I saw a news story with the headline, "Texas lawyer trapped by cat filter on Zoom call, informs judge he is not a cat."
Yeah, I'm clicking that.
The visual is startling, so much so I thought it was something the news outlet had created just for this story. But no, apparently cat filters are a real thing on Zoom, and this lawyer, this good old boy, showed up to argue a case before a judge and opposing counsel, and he could not turn off the cat filter on his Zoom platform. He is apologetic, of course, approaching panic. The judge, who sounds midway between bored and sympathetic, begins to try and tell the lawyer what he could try to remove the filter.
Panicked, the lawyer drawls, “I don’t know how to remove it. I’ve got my assistant here, she’s trying to, but I’m prepared to go forward … I’m here live. I’m not a cat.”
“I can see that,” Hizzoner says.
There's video. You need to see this. I did. Watched that sumbitch a few times. It wasn't as funny to me as it might have been, but I wasn't dying inside for the guy, either. After all, I've been in the litter box myself, more than once.
I know we all have nine lives, at least. If we choose to live them.