Opening in a Pandemic
Opening a new office is challenging under any circumstances. There is furniture to be ordered, artwork to be installed, and technology to be configured. In addition to the obvious things are a thousand little details we normally do not spend much time thinking about. Where should we keep the paper clips? Should the coffee creamer be next to the coffee machine or the trash can?
Fortunately, we only have to make these decisions once, but the sheer number of them can be overwhelming.
It is a challenge under any circumstances. Opening a new office in the midst of a 100-year pandemic is entirely another matter. And that is the situation we faced in opening the new Charlotte office of Miles Mediation & Arbitration.
I was wrapping up a mediation at a lawyer’s office on March 17 when I received an email confirming this would be my last in-person mediation for the foreseeable future. In order to slow the spread of Covid-19, the courts ordered all mediations be conducted by telephone or video conference until further notice. I had never done a video mediation before, but overnight it was to become my entire practice.
The sudden switch to remote technology was disruptive to all of us, but it was especially disappointing to us at Miles, as we were just preparing an early April opening our new SouthPark office. Our dedicated dispute resolution facility is one of the key components of the “Miles experience,” a comfortable environment with a specific energy conducive to settlement. In the blink of an eye, all our plans for a splashy grand opening were put on hold.
We turned our attention instead of bringing our panel of neutrals up to speed on conducting mediations by Zoom video conference, something most of us had never done before. Miles’ neutrals are accomplished lawyers and former judges, with far more experience in their diverse practice areas than adopting new technology. We rolled up our sleeves and dug into the details of Zoom, conducting practice sessions with each neutral taking turns “driving the bus.” Each time one of us completed a video mediation, we shared lessons learned with the group, quickly developing best practices on everything from managing breakout rooms to optimizing lighting and sound.
As difficult as it was for us, we were fortunate compared to other industries that had to shut down completely. Although video mediation was no substitute for the in-person experience, we still found it an effective process for settling cases. We made use of our downtime to ensure the physical office was ready so we could hit the ground running when business began to re-open.
Which brings us to today, an uncertain environment in which some parties prefer to mediate in person, but we must be vigilant to prevent spreading the virus. We are checking temperatures at the door and ensuring all participants have a mask or face covering. We have procedures to ensure proper social distancing in our conference rooms and common areas.
There is hand sanitizer everywhere.
No one knows how long it will be until business returns to “normal” but based on our experience this year, we at Miles Mediation & Arbitration know we are equipped to handle whatever life throws at us.
The grand opening of Miles’ Charlotte office was not quite as grand as we all hoped, but we are open, and we are settling cases. We know the future is bright and eventually, we will put this virus behind us. 2020 has not been the year any of us envisioned, but we are proud to be in this community, and, like everyone, carrying on in the face of adversity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As a full-time mediator at Miles Mediation & Arbitration, Steve Dunn handles complex business and labor and employment disputes. Steve is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.