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When Life Gives You Lemons…

by Mark Delfino

I loved lemons and lemonade as a kid. While I consume much less of both these days, they still have positive associations for me. This is why, during our first remote Zoom staff meeting, I used one of my parents’ favorite phrases: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

On one level, I’ve always liked this expression because it speaks to the can-do, optimist in me. But it also has a deeper meaning because my parents – both Italian – taught me to appreciate and embrace the lemons themselves despite the negative connotation the phrase suggests. I’m not sure where or when this bad reputation started, but it appears they’ve had it for some time. For instance, Shakespeare referred to a bad gift as ‘a lemon’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1598. Evidently, it was their limited usefulness as a standalone fruit because of the sour taste and tough skin that fueled more and more references in the ensuing 400+ years.

To my parents, lemons were anything but useless. In fact, they made me believe lemons had superpowers. They helped seafaring immigrants fight off scurvy. They cleaned our gut, aided digestion, kept us healthy. As a young kid, I wanted those powers. Before long, I wasn’t bothering to add sugar to make lemonade, I would go straight to the source and eat the lemons themselves. As an adult, I have incorporated them into a more balanced diet, using them as a source of Vitamin C and digestive aid with meals.

What does this have to do with the current situation? In early March, it was becoming clear that a novel coronavirus would require us to work remotely for an undefined period. At the time, this seemed like life giving us lemons (hence my staff meeting reference). As you might expect, our initial focus from a business perspective was simply to re-create our prior work environment without disruption of client service. It quickly became clear we were well prepared to do this, so our focus shifted to something more positive. Soon, we were learning that these lemons could be fruitful for us.

We now view going remote as an opportunity to add capability. Though physically distant, we have achieved a level of collective technical efficiency that we did not have when we began working remotely. Today, our staff members can participate in video or audio meetings and use their phone to scan and send a document to anyone else in the firm, both executed in a secure environment.

Virtually all expenses and HR matters have been automated. In April, we on-boarded a new hire entirely remotely despite the litany of required forms, policies and acknowledgements. Prior to these lemons, I would physically sign and route over a hundred paper items each month. Today, I use a new e-signature capability for many things. My only physical interaction is a masked, gloved rendezvous with Bruce Berti, our Director of Finance, in a gas station parking lot every 2-3 weeks to sign a few checks.

Our clients have also helped. They’ve been willing to try video and audio calls and to test our new e-sign capabilities. Many of those who were still receiving paper statements elected to receive electronic document delivery, allowing us to provide the large majority of our quarterly statements this way. This has cut the time and cost we spend printing, stuffing and mailing in half.

These positives don’t mean that all we want now are lemons and lemonade. In fact, the opposite is true. The past few weeks have helped most of us appreciate and long for the personal and social interactions we had prior to social distancing even more. This was evident in a recent staff survey. While I was pleased to understand how well our staff was doing in general and took comfort learning they felt the firm was supporting them adequately, it was clear that a diet heavy on lemons and lemonade was starting to weigh on many. We’ve taken a host of actions to address staff concerns, but many of us are itching to get back to a more balanced (but still healthy and safe) diet.

I’m proud of how our staff and their families have managed under the circumstances. I’m also proud of and grateful for our clients who are also enduring. Many have reached out to do nothing more than to ask how we are doing. Times like these reinforce how much we all care for each other.

As I write this, we don’t know what our future work environment will look like. We do know, however, that no matter how sour the taste or tough the skin, we’ll find a way to make the most of it.

To limoni e limonata

 

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