The consensus of opinion, supported by declining cases and hospitalizations, now is that the COVID-19 pandemic is at last subsiding. Except for a relative few, which unfortunately includes some powerful and influential people, who seem to want the pandemic to last forever, most of us are sighing with relief.
This leads to the question of what comes next. I’m not, in this instance, talking about wearing masks, using hand sanitizers or the like. I’m talking about business and employment practices. How much of what we’ve been doing will continue, and how much will go away?
During the pandemic, meeting remotely has become common. Working remotely has been widely permitted and sometimes required. The same is true of learning, where remote instruction has continued to be permitted or required of students at all levels, from preschool through graduate school.
The trend toward remote meetings has extended to arbitrations, mediations and even to courts, as many courts, arbitrators and mediators permitted or even required hearings to be conducted using the Zoom platform or a like mechanism. The Financial Industry Regulatory Agency (FINRA), the agency that processes disputes in much of the financial services arena, reports that through April 30, 2021, its dispute resolution service received 693 motions for Zoom hearings. More than half were joint motions, meaning both parties asked for a remote hearing. A majority of the contested motions were granted.
But the times are changing again. FINRA suspended in-person hearings through July 4, meaning that those who didn’t get a Zoom hearing had to postpone their cases. But now it has reopened in-person hearings in most locations, although Zoom and telephonic hearings remain available.
Courts, likewise, are loosening restrictions on in-person hearings, although limitations on the size of juries remain in effect. For now, some judges are continuing to hear some matters by Zoom. But it’s not clear that this practice will continue, or to what extent if it does. That decision will likely vary from district to district or judge to judge.
My guess is that a surprising number of remote hearings and mediations will continue past the date at which COVID concerns make them desirable. Parties like avoiding travel time and expense for themselves, lawyers, arbitrators, witnesses and mediators. In commercial arbitrations, the savings generated by remote hearings can be substantial.
So far, I’ve mentioned only some forms of judicial proceedings. But most people do not work in a legal or dispute resolution profession. Yet folks in many different types of businesses and industries have worked at home for much of the past 14 months. How well has that worked?
Well, it varies. Amanda Mull reports in The Atlantic that 66% of persons polled by Morning Consult said they wanted to return to the office as soon as possible. Mull claims that those who have worked from home have worked longer hours than before the pandemic and are “more likely to report loneliness, depression and anxiety than those working in person.”
Yet 84% of those responding to the same Morning Consult poll said they enjoyed remote work. Mull believes many have been more productive working at home. So which is it?
I think the practice of working remotely, like the practice of remote legal proceedings, will decrease with the decline of COVID infections, but will not go away. Many will continue to work remotely, and permit their employees to do so, at least some of the time. By now, we have a pretty good feel for what works well in working remotely, and what does not. And by now, many of us have become comfortable with, and appreciative of, meeting virtually as opposed to traveling to a meeting.
And that brings us to the world of education. Northeast State Community College’s Dr. Bethany Bullock reports mixed reactions from students and faculty about the desirability of virtual learning. She says the biggest fan of remote learning came from students who are also parents, whose children in turn were engaged in remote classes themselves. But most students, she says, now want to return to campus.
As I understand it, online instruction has been common and even prevalent at the graduate level for some time, predating COVID by a substantial margin. So we can expect a healthy dose of virtual learning to continue.
There are few silver linings to the COVID cloud. But learning new tools for work and communication is one of them.