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Staying Caffeinated During COVID-19

Ken Biberaj

Managing Director, Savills

During week two of social isolation, I started a virtual conversation series called #CoffeeWithKen.  What started as an opportunity to catch up with friends morphed into a series of deep conversations with incredible thought leaders.  We have explored the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a variety of sectors and how we return to a semblance of reality.

After eleven weeks and over 15 virtual sessions, which have been listened to by thousands of people, I have learned an incredible amount (and consumed lots of caffeine!).  Through these conversations, I’ve observed trends and lessons that we should prioritize as we approach summer and start emerging from our social isolation. Here are some of the key insights:


  • Trust Matters. In our conversation with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, we discussed the overarching challenge in having a coordinated response in the United States as a result of reduced trust in public institutions. Responding to a pandemic is dramatically more difficult if we disregard science, reject media coverage and ignore those who work in government tasked with responding to a crisis like COVID-19. Richard Levick of LEVICK echoed this sentiment in our discussion about crisis communications. We discussed the importance not only of trust, but also of the roles of state and local government.  Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, discussed a recent op-ed she published in The New York Times, in which she noted that “America Will Save America” and highlighted the great work and leadership being done by governors and local leaders across the country. However, the challenge of responding to a crisis like this is infinitely harder if the general public does not trust the information and recommendations that are being presented.


  • The Impact Is Not Equitable. John King, CEO of the Education Trust and the 10th U.S. Secretary of Education, highlighted the inequity of the COVID-19 pandemic on students in lower income communities. From trouble accessing broadband for virtual learning to students starting college (hopefully) in the fall more unprepared than ever, students across our country risk falling far behind. David Clunie, Executive Director of the Black Economic Alliance, touched upon the alarming economic impact being faced in communities of color that are underbanked and over-represented on the front lines as essential personnel. Moreover, Joe Andrew, Global Chairman of Dentons law firm, directly spoke out about the need to stop asking when we are returning to the office. Joe noted the inequity as most lawyers can drive and park at their offices while many support staff and junior associates rely on public transportation, potentially putting themselves in greater danger of exposure to the virus.


  • Trends Have Accelerated. In our conversation with Jonathan Glickman, former president of MGM Motion Pictures, we learned about studios accelerating new releases, such as Trolls 2, directly to consumers through Netflix or Amazon instead of theaters. This trend was likely five years away but is happening now. Moreover, Julie Samuels of Tech:NYC and Cyrus Massoumi, Founder of ZocDoc, spoke in separate sessions about rapid advancements in tele-health and innovations likely to emerge from the tech sector post-pandemic. Billy Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, talked about the increased awareness related to logistics and supply chain challenges in getting food to families in need. The hunger issues across the country have accelerated during the pandemic, especially considering school closures.


  • Our Problems Are Interconnected. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, talked about how public health has become a national security issue and why we need strong international cooperation as we collectively seek to address this global pandemic that easily crosses borders. Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey Governor and Administrator of the Environmental Agency, noted the need to stay focused on climate change, which can not only contribute to more pandemics but also foster innovation and job growth through new energy strategies. Suzanne Clark, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted in our conversation about getting America back to work that we must be coordinated, working with health professionals, local municipalities and the private sector.


  • Office Space May Be More Flexible. There is wide-ranging commentary about the future of office space. Will everyone work remotely moving forward or will companies need more space to accommodate social distancing? It appears that the one area of consensus is that companies will ultimately be interested in more flexibility. In a panel discussion with the CEOs of some of the top flexible office providers, we dove into the challenges associated with de-densifying their spaces while also accommodating more flexible terms.

I never imagined these conversations going beyond a few sessions, yet, as of today,  we are booked through July on such important topics as “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” with former GE Vice Chair Beth Comstock and combatting “Racial Inequality” with Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League. I look forward to the day these coffee talks can take place in person.  Until then, thank you for tuning in.  Stay safe.


Catch up on all Ken’s conversations here.

Ken Biberaj

Managing Director, Savills