I used to think that only when the aliens attacked would we find enough common ground to work together as a single human race. Because although we face innumerable global challenges, from environmental to social to political, it is only when the danger seems immediate that we respond.
It seems Covid-19 beat the aliens.
Now that the aliens (or Covid-19) have landed, I can’t help but wonder if we could take the collective spirit and lessons that have been provoked and, once this epidemic is over, use them to fight climate change (or racism, or poverty, or….).
We’re mostly in crisis-management and adjustment mode right now. As we should be. But what if we looked at what’s happening now and tried to figure out how it can help us make things better in the long term?
This is not to belittle or in any way disregard the suffering that many are undergoing. In fact, quite the opposite. It is to look at what is happening right now and ask if there are lessons we are being taught today that, if our minds are open to them, will make a better tomorrow.
At the start of our Consulting Skills Course, I usually ask the attendees to ensure that they apply curiosity and intentionality to the training. Not coincidentally, they happen to be two of my favourite approaches to life, as they always end up teaching me most. So naturally, I wonder what would happen if we applied curiosity and intentionality to the current crisis? What if we asked ourselves questions about how some of what we’re doing now could be applied in better times? What if we intentionally tested our responses to some of the crises that are being thrust at us now with a view to seeing if they could improve our lives and businesses when this crisis is over?
I think there are three classes of learnings we can be creating if we’re intentional about it: how to contain and treat these kinds of pandemics; how to avoid them starting, and; how life and business could be different. I touch on the first two, but drill deep into the third.
1. How to contain and treat
The first and most obvious lessons relate to how this kind of outbreak can be managed and minimised. It is wonderful to see Chinese doctors appearing in Italy to share lessons in real time to help. Though I can’t help but wonder if more fluid global communications, set up along the lines used by the Joint Operations Special task Force to overcome AlQaeda in Iraq, might actually help spread learnings and effectiveness globally faster.
That said, with biology as my worst subject at school by some margin, I shouldn’t try to add any insight that’s not already out there on containment. As you can see, plenty of specialists have already done that.
But I would hope that there are broad and genuinely open exercises run of lessons learned once this is under control that will help us identify how to deal with the next (currently inevitable) breakout. Broad and open enough to take in an honest analysis of the outcomes of the varied responses that different countries and communities have taken so that we’re reducing the number of variables we need to guess next time round.
2. How to avoid it starting
Secondly, there will be both long term and short term lessons to be drawn about how to avoid something like this starting altogether.
Short term measures may include regulation regarding consumption of animals or animal-husbandry in the chain that leads up to this kind of pandemic. A lot is now known about how this and previous related outbreaks occurred. For instance, excluding bats from wildlife trade would likely have had a significant impact on reducing pathways of virus from bat to human. We (humans) outlawed it for a while after SARS, but then allowed it to restart.
Longer term lessons may relate to what we eat, and the wildlife that we encroach on with our insatiable appetite for expansion. The more we tear down forests and encroach on and live near wildlife that was previously protected by nature, the more we will be placing human populations near wildlife with a variety of pathogens that we can’t deal with.
It is, as David Quammen eloquently put it “part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making”.
3. How life can be different
The third class of lessons, and the ones I will cover mostly here (as I am an admitted amateur in the other two!) relate to what we might learn for life and business if we treat this current way of living and doing business as an experiment. That may sound callous, but if we are going to be forced to live and do business in a certain way for the next while, why don’t we intentionally use that as an opportunity to figure out alternative, and potentially better, models for business and life when the pandemic is over?
Here’s what I mean.
Business and Leadership Growth
This pandemic is creating live tests for us as business leaders. It will test our values, our behaviours and those that we drive and role model in our organisations.
So can we use the tempestuous period we’re in to grow as businesses and business leaders? Here are some traits we’ll need to exhibit to make it out of the other side stronger and create a better world for the experience. If ever there were a time to develop our antifragility, then this is it.
Test and learn
The most fundamental thing for us to do is to develop an experimental mindset to everything we’re doing, and to ask what it would look like if we were to take these changes as opportunities to learn and improve.
That boils down to two things. First, taking an intentional approach to testing, meaning being explicit about what it is exactly that we’re going to try to do and why; and second, adopting an iterative approach to learning and applying our learning.
There are known models for doing this, many stemming from the Lean and Agile movements. But you don’t need to live in the Agile or Lean world to start doing this. I’d venture it can be simple. As we make a change, we can track what that change is, and the impact it had as we trialled it. Take that lesson, tweak it, and try again. It needn’t follow the dogma of SMART – often you can intuitively tell if something is better or worse, and as business leaders, we all need to be developing the skill of judgement.
Let’s make this real. Many of us are looking at moving interactions onto an online platform – a combination of video, audio and text. Pick a context and your best estimate at the combination of technologies that will support it, and start your test.
You may find that team catchups work best with a video conference facility – with different clients I use Zoom, Whereby or Teams. But you’ll learn that getting interaction out of a group, or gauging engagement of that group, is a lot harder. So you may then iterate to see how you can foster interaction by using the tools differently. See how that works, tweak, then try again.
Or, if you’re a fitness instructor, you could follow this inspired lead from this PT in Seville
For many businesses, it may be beyond tweaks to how they do business. They may need to pivot (English translation – change their business model!) into an entirely new or adjacent area either to survive, or better, to realise an opportunity that’s just been created by this tilt in our way of life.
Some may find that they can create new value by providing products or services that help people address the current uncertainty, fear and volatility. Provided it doesn’t turn into ambulance-chasing behaviour, serving clients with offerings that provide more certainty, remove some of their fear, and provide stability would be both serving them and creating commercial benefit for their organisation.
For others, it may be innovation to reflect new ways to create value in an evolving world where work behaviour is changing, and serving industries or needs arising the process of those industries being reshaped, accelerated or decimated.
Whether you’re forced to rethink your business now, or you spot opportunities that your purpose and skills can serve, expending a little effort on innovating effectively and figuring out how to rapidly assess the success of that innovation so you can accelerate, tweak or drop it would be effort well spent, and will serve you well beyond the current crisis.
Reinvent to digital
Probably the most profound change in business models will be a review of how to digitise anything that can go digital. Companies that have been slow or reluctant will finally be forced to do this. If they manage the transition successfully, this will strengthen their businesses beyond the current pandemic.
I called my insurer earlier to discuss my wife’s car insurance renewal, and was astonished to discover that the call handler was working in a physical call centre. I asked him about it (did I mention curiosity?), and he reassured me that now all call centre staff are two desks apart from each other. So that’s progress! But surely someone is figuring out how to move all call centre activity to be done remotely?
(Uh oh – I’ve given away my wife’s car insurance renewal date and can expect LinkedIn messages offering me a deal every year now!)
I also saw this through a company that my wife works with, Tropic Skincare. Their annual bash which would normally attract over 2500 people was cancelled due to the Coronavirus, and was replaced last minute with a digitally live-streamed version (facilitated at very short notice by Cherryduck) which reached over 8,000 people. Their CEO, Susie Ma has since taken to delivering light-hearted introductions to their product that are both informative and fun – much needed in this time. I suspect these are channels which will remain open once the virus has passed.
It is also amazing to see some very rapid evolutions in combinations of technology use. Drones in China which are being used not only to deliver packages and with loudspeakers to share info, but also to take people’s temperatures en masse so as to identify potentially infected people for isolation. Apparently thermal imaging is even more precise than that thermometer in your armpit!
Build for resilience
If we’re to protect our stakeholders, and especially our teams, how much resilience do we need to have in our businesses?
A business whose teams are always running at capacity, which is pursuing growth above scale, or indeed above any other consideration, a business whose primary reason for existing is growth, is likely to be a business that is running with minimal ability to survive flexing, let alone the ability to grow through the flex (antifragility as described in Nassim Taleb’s excellent book referenced above). If we are all “blitzscaling“, or moving fast and breaking things, when an exogenous pressure comes in, we’re more likely to snap. “At breaking point” is more than a cliche in those environments, and it doesn’t take much to force the snap.
That may mean lay-offs. That may mean inability to pivot to new scenarios. That does mean a very fragile business. Many businesses are already going through this. The smartest ones are looking at how they can build a shape that gives resilience and antifragility.
Build scenario planning capability
So you know your revenue is shrinking. But you don’t know how far or fast it will go. Unless you’ve done some serious scenario planning, the further and faster it goes, the more likely you’ll end up knee-jerking rather than making a calculated move.
The ideal scenario is the one I referred to earlier. You’ve figured out a way to change the business to the new environment, strengthened your adaptation skills as a core competency, and are no longer under threat.
However, what would help now would be to think ahead to what you would do if your revenue shrinks to a couple of critical points. If you can preempt your decisions by thinking them through now before it hits (and let’s hope it doesn’t), then you’ll have made a decision during times when your head was cool rather than in panic mode. The business equivalent of fixing the roof before the rain.
Deepen client relationships
When was the last time you checked in on your clients? Your ex-clients? And I mean a genuine conversation, human to human, without a pretext or agenda of a sale?
Whether or not you remember when that was, now would be a good time to talk. They’ll be going through what you are, and you may actually just help each other out simply by talking.
If you do it a few times, it may even become a habit when times are better. A recurring slot in your calendar. A habit which would simply be a good thing at any time, not just the tough times.
Testing times test our values. It is easy to be generous when your pocket is full, but do you stay generous if you’re worried whether you can make payroll? Or indeed when your own salary or dividend is on the line?
(Disclaimer – I have to at this point declare my interest. My work is built around how to help companies thrive in a way that is values-driven. But it’s a vested interest that comes out of my own belief set and values.)
If you’ve not declared any values, you may paradoxically be safe from having them tested during challenging times. But you’re also unlikely to be building up much loyalty from your team or your customers. So I’d recommend in those circumstances to see what values you’re tending towards in times of pressure, and making a decision informed by that basis on what your values in business are. (But there’s a whole book on that coming!)
If you have articulated values, then this is the time to ensure that you’re doing all you can to demonstrate them.
This may well cost you. Values invariably involve some form of cost – opportunity or real. You may well find ways for that not to be financial, provided that the values are still served. So this is a great point to look at what your values really mean at a behavioural level, and explore the multitude of ways that your business can serve them while still surviving or thriving.
We’ve seen Microsoft take the lead in paying its contract staff, such as cleaners for whom a loss in wages could mean hunger for their families, even as it asked them not to come into work.
And popping on Zoom for a conference call isn’t an option for those guys and gals to get their work done! (How many of you invested in Zoom stock at the start of this crisis?)
Many of the rest of the trillionaire company classes followed suit, which was great to see, though I wonder whether it was in response to Microsoft’s move, or driven by actual care.
Now the cynics may say it’s easy to demonstrate your values when your cash balance is higher than the GDP of many countries. But you don’t have to be Microsoft size to demonstrate humanity to your team.
I loved Silicon Reef’s statement to their team about supporting parents who will unexpectedly have their children at home next week. The leadership asked those that would be impacted to figure out what would work best for them, and to simply let the company know so that it could replan how it would continue to serve its clients while respecting its team’s humanity. And this from a small company – not one with teams of hundreds or thousands that could be redeployed – and one that has decided that looking after its team is more important than optimising utilisation for profit.
Another example sees Facebook state that it is (finally) taking some responsibility for what is posted on its platform with regards to bad advice on Covid-19 (with some challenges). This is mirrored in small providers such as Rocketlink who emailed their customers to tell them that they are doing the same. It will cost them money, but they are simply doing the right thing.
Values should extend well beyond your customers and your team. They may go to your suppliers, the communities you operate in and the environment. Not to mention the owners / investors. A key question will be how much your actions will respect those values to the multiple stakeholders, and to be blunt, whether they will show a simple primacy of shareholders above all others. If so, this will also be the time you can kiss goodbye to any loyalty you had from your team at the very least, if not the other stakeholders as well.
So once again, you will be tested to see how you can meet explicit and implicit commitments you’ve made to the people and environment in your ecosystem. That will involve your flexing both your innovation and tradeoff muscles – you can and should find ways to care for your stakeholders while minimising impact on your cash flow, as it would be impossible to care for anyone at all if that dries up. But if you are intentional about that now, it will serve you well in calmer times. Even as a leader in being confident about talking about and living those values, as you’ll have genuinely tested them and come out the other side stronger for it.
How does virtual work?
Finally the biggie that’s getting all the attention. We’ve had paradigm shifts in businesses before. This feels like it’s accelerating the latest one, the removal of geographical barriers for employees through home working. This has been a possibility for a few years, and a reality for a number of companies (I particularly like how endjin looked at how to use real estate savings to invest in working conditions in its team’s homes), but this forced “trial” of a few weeks or months may mutate into many not looking back. Has Covid-19 hastened the arrival of the tipping point for remote working?
Certainly, such a prolonged period of home working should allow us to test the best ways and combinations of tools to get to the outcomes we want for those of us whose jobs afford them that luxury. Since I’ve started to do this, I’ve already learned a few things in working with my clients in terms of how to make better use of my tools, and what’s best done where.
Two personal examples. I’ve often wanted to have more conversations with SME owners just to bounce ideas that may help them develop their businesses. I’ve usually resorted to meeting in a cafe somewhere, or their office if it’s a little more formal. But that takes a travel and time toll for an activity that I’m doing as a way to support businesses for free. So I put out a post the other day suggesting to do it online, and have loved the response. An hour with owners from Yoga Masters (her words, not mine!) to owners of software development businesses.
Offer’s still open, by the way. If I can help anyone by bouncing ideas around for these challenging times, happy to simply chat. Message me.
I’m also working on how to convert strategy awaydays into a format that can be effectively done online – it will need to be very different, but I believe it can be done. Now more than ever companies need to be thinking about the future, and the traditional awayday format is no longer an option for responsible companies.
At the other extreme of scale, Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang in recent earnings call said that “The crisis is a very, very big challenge to the society but also‚… gives people a chance to try [a] new way of living and new way of working”. And tech companies like Stripe are surprising themselves that their “level of satisfaction with engineers is actually marginally higher”. Having been previously concerned about a “productivity tax” in not having face to face, they’ve found the opposite to be true.
So this may end up being a phase in time which accelerates us towards accepting that working for home for many jobs is a real option. And one with many social, environmental and productivity benefits. I for one don’t believe you can replace all human meetings – you and I face to face in the same room. But that doesn’t mean that all (or even most) of our work needs to be done that way.
As with everything above, the key is to test and learn, and figure out what this different paradigm allows us to do better so that when we’re back to having a choice of working in the same locations, we treat it as a choice and not an imperative.
By the way, my friends at Fluxx are actually recruiting candidates into this experiment – if you want to join it, check out Richard Poole’s post.
Accept that business is human
As we go virtual, our kids will at some point walk into the room. Our significant other will from behind the computer ask if you’re online, and you’ll want to answer without showing the people on the call that you’re answering someone else. Who can forget the child walking in on the academic during his live news interview on Korea? So we need to be apologetic, or shout at the child to get out, right?
Or, do we finally begin to accept that work and business are simply a part of the human experience, and that we don’t stop being human simply because we’re “at work”? Can we get to a place where, sure we need to be productive, but that doesn’t mean that we need to be apologising for our humanity, our children or having things that concern us that aren’t directly about work?
Perhaps once this is over and we go back to whatever the new normal is, we’ll more accepting of the richness of life that comes with being human.
I founded and run a small charity for children in war zones and refugee camps. In 2012, I was visiting a partner organisation that delivers trauma therapy on our behalf to severely traumatised children in Gaza. One of the volunteers told me about their boss when Gaza was being carpet-bombed in 2008/09. He told me that his boss, Issa, had organised for children to be taken out of the epicentre of the hostilities to an open space where they might more easily be identified as children and spared the bombardment as they played. Issa asked the volunteers to be out at a certain time to be picked up by his minibus to go collect and deliver the children. On the first day, most of the volunteers were late – somewhat trepidatious about going into a minibus in the centre of Gaza during bombardment. As a result, they were late collecting the children and getting them out of danger and into play.
At the end of the day, taking the volunteers back to their homes, Issa stopped the van right in the middle of Gaza city, turned the engine off, with warplanes thundering overhead, and turned to the volunteers. “We’ve been given an opportunity that most people do not get – to serve people and children when they need it most desperately. You were late this morning. Tomorrow, you will not be late.”
And they weren’t. After the attacks were over, and 4 years later when I met them, they told me of their loyalty to Issa. And of the fact that the experience through him was one of the times they felt most valued and valuable.
Your leadership will be pushed now. It will not be pushed as Issa’s was. But your team will need more of the right kind of leadership, and more visibility than either you or your time would naturally give right now. Direction, some level of certainty, some indication that all is not out of control – all of these are critical right now. Pay these needs intentional attention right now, and self-adjust to grow with them. My own greatest times of growth in leadership always, and I mean always, came when times were hardest. Take this as an opportunity thrust on you.
Here are some of the ways we can stretch our leadership capabilities right now.
- Decision-making and Decisiveness
If there’s one thing certain to spread anxiety through your team, it’s you spreading your own fear. I get the current vogue with “vulnerability”, but we shouldn’t interpret this as either victimhood to your circumstances, or impotence to move forward. So yes, listen to opinion, admit if you don’t have the answers, and don’t worry about that. But once you’ve sought advice, decide and act. Don’t faff around, or you’ll create even more fear in your team than they already have.
Your team will work more with the leader who is able to balance taking advice and options with making decisions than they will the one who incessantly prevaricates and can’t decide. This is not to say that you can’t change your mind when you have new information, which includes information that things aren’t working out as planned. In fact, the confidence to change course when things aren’t working out is important. But don’t mistake this with changing direction every other day simply because you can’t decide.
A recognition of external factors beyond your control is key, as is the empowerment that comes when you internalise that you can control the decisions you make in response to those factors. Realising that you can’t control many external factors means you can (and should) stop spending time, effort and emotion on things you will not affect, and rededicate all that energy on the things you can. That is a far more effective way to deal with this (and future) pandemics and disruptions than to spend our time and energy incessantly watching media feeds and getting agitated about them.
In Greg McKeown’s wonderful book, “Essentialism“, he says “The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away, it can only be forgotten”. I’d add that we can also at times believe that we don’t have the ability to choose. But in reality choice is always there.
This is a natural extension of the age-old wisdom and strength that comes in the separation of stimulus and response. In the kind of extreme circumstances that we’re facing right now, that ability comes to the fore and will define successful leaders. Looking to intentionally use this time to hone that skill creates a serious growth opportunity.
So in this testing time, we can be intentionally developing our ability to take advice, then decide and commit. Always on the basis of our values.
- Crafting a vision
We’re also presented with the opportunity to develop the leadership skill of crafting a positive vision, and acting with decisiveness to move in that direction. People and organisations are far more motivated by a positive vision than they are a reactive one.
Looking in recent history at movements that have succeeded (e.g. Otpor in Serbia) and others that haven’t (e.g. the global Occupy movement), one can discern a number of factors which contribute to success. One is the presence of a vision of what you’re fighting for, rather than just what you’re fighting against. A “we must get through this” mentality is needed to get started, but is nowhere near as powerful or compelling as a “this is what we’re building”.
My friend Issa, above, painted a picture of serving those most in need, rather than defaulting to a “let’s not get killed” mentality, which would probably have had the volunteers all staying at home. So look for, or create, the light at the end of this tunnel, and galvanise your team to build it with you. That will last well beyond the end of this pandemic.
- Increasing the feeling of control
One of my mantras when working with leaders is that “Leaders always carry megaphones”. Meaning that if you are cheery, you’ll spread happiness. If you’re quiet, you’ll spread concern. If you’re fearful, you’ll amplify doom.
So use this time to practice spreading to your team that they are none of them victims of what’s going on, any more than the company or you are. If you’re working on recalibrating the vision, let them know that’s what you’re doing rather than them wondering. And once you have it, believe in it and spread that belief – it will significantly increase your probability of succeeding.
Recognising that everything a leader does is amplified in the organisation, and never more so than during tough times, is extreme preparation for continuing to carry the megaphone in better times.
Listen even more than usual right now. Develop the ability to listen actively, meaning understanding what is behind the words. Sometimes the words themselves are insignificant – it is simply communication and reassurance that your team may be seeking.
This is not abnormal – every one of us humans seeks reassurance in some way from those around us. This is a time to practice providing it. Not a blind reassurance that ignores reality, but a reassurance that you will find a way, and that this is best done by using your team’s collective capabilities.
Extend this to identifying their needs. Taking laptops, monitors and mice home is fine, but one of my clients has shipped chairs home to one of their team who expressed discomfort about working for hours on a dining room chair. Small touch, but shows a realisation of people’s needs and humanity.
Use Slack or Teams for sure. But make it a real (i.e. not text) conversation every so often. Prioritise time for human interaction with your team right now.
And once that’s all done, see how much of it you can build into your normal routine once this is over. Empathy and team communications are always in short supply.
Social and Lifestyle Changes
I read a wonderful piece on some of the things we could be learning from fashion and design trend forecaster, Li Edelkoort. She says “The impact of the outbreak will force us into slowing down the pace, refusing to take planes, working from our homes, entertaining only amongst close friends or family, learning to become self-sufficient and mindful… We will see a stop in the endless production of ugly souvenirs and useless goody bags.”
What an opportunity this is for us to recalibrate and figure out what is truly important in our lives. A chance to reassess and distinguish what we care about (limited) from what is available (nearly unlimited and wasteful).
What if this were the catalyst for us to live simpler, and to be more fulfilled for being so?
The high street
The shift to home working being a real option clearly has innumerable personal benefits, as well as significant environmental ones. But it actually may also help us solve another cultural and social conundrum of our times: what happens to the high street?
I live in Twickenham in London. There is a high turnover in shops in town. We use online for shopping for a reason – it is more convenient and often cheaper. Some shops have responded well by providing an experience which can’t be replicated online. Most haven’t.
Rather than bemoaning the death of the high street, what if this crisis we’re going through redefines it? Working locally, even if for remote companies, can help to put our communities back together again. Whether it’s cafes (The Press Room in Twickenham is a personal independent fave of mine – I hope they figure out how to ride out these months), or shared offices, or ethical alternatives to WeWork, once we’re able to circulate more freely again, surely the first option outside home should be local rather than an office you commute to?
On the same note, if we are looking to preserve the character of our high streets even as they evolve, we should be supporting our independent businesses as soon as is safely reasonable. They will not have the same depth of pocket to survive that many of the chains do, and if we don’t want every town to have 2 Starbucks as their central social points, we need to support those independents where we safely can with our custom.
I’ve seen neighbours setting up WhatsApp groups in streets where those more at risk can ask help from those whose immune systems are stronger. I live in London, so you can be guaranteed that before this, many of those neighbours hadn’t connected in any way other than looking firmly at the pavement as they walked past each other. But perhaps our feelings towards protecting fellow humans may finally allow us once again to build up community? Why should that WhatsApp group be archived once things are better? Once you’ve bought something for Norman and Mary at number 27, you may find that once this is all over you actually talk to each other?
Some local authorities are stepping in on the action, and trying to organise it better. Whether it’s this as a mechanism of getting help to those who most need it, or simply the organic approach of neighbours helping each other out, this period of social distancing may paradoxically bring some of us closer together.
Reduced (pointless) consumption
An anti-consumerist backlash was already well under way. Not mainstream yet, but certainly far from underground.
So what will happen if we stop buying tat we don’t need? What if this period where bling is not so much of a thing, where always having the latest gadget, where not being worried about wearing the same outfit to 2 parties – what if this period helped us to recalibrate to a new norm? What if all of those things begin to be seen as garish excesses of consumption rather than the social expectation?
It’s already under way. The minimalist movement is strong and growing, and owning things is not the social marker of success that it used to be. Governments are also getting in on the act – it will be magnificent to see regulation enacted which stops companies from creating things that cannot be fixed, but need to be replaced. Or building in obsolescence. The EU is tackling this throwaway culture as part of its Circular Economy Action Plan. Perhaps this time of an enforced “less” mentality will help shift us in accepting that less actually can be better? Perhaps in this time when more of us are being forced to decide what is important, we can look to ensure that we can keep those priorities with us once we’re through this?
We will have to travel less. I will openly admit that this is the vice that I will find hardest to deal with – I love travel and still see one of the highlights of my life being my 6 month travels around Latin America with my wife and 4 young children. I hanker after an opportunity to do it again, even as my conscious self tells me that it would be a case of selfish environmental damage.
But what if this time of no international travel acclimates us to seeing international travel as a rare treat to be enjoyed rather than a regular right once, twice or three times a year? What if that recalibration has us realising the beauty of modest, but more meaningful holidays? Travel that aims from the point of departure to the point of return to minimise harm and disruption? Overground travel by train where the journey is part of the experience rather than a flight where the journey is a necessary evil to get to the “good bit”?
For those who can, working from home has become a real thing. Yes, this can be a huge boon to our overall life balance, but there are a few things we need to figure out as we go through this experiment.
The positives from a life perspective are clear. Reduced travel and the consequential impact on reducing pollution. The potential for more time with family or pursuing other interests. The opportunity to deepen local community connections.
But we also need to manage excessive intrusion into our lives. Smartphones and laptops were already making us always potentially (and in reality) available for work. Blurring the physical lines as well means we’ll need to be even more conscious of encroachment, and develop the discipline to switch off if home isn’t to become completely overrun by work.
So while the beauty of working from home is the potential for us to have more fulfilling lives that are no less productive from a work perspective, having such a long period of having to do so now should allow us to figure out working patterns that respect our humanity. But only if we’re intentional about learning from it.
Mainstreaming of digital nomads?
I for one loved the dream of the digital nomad. Being untethered from a physical location, but still running a company or being employed, really appeals to my wanderlust (aside from the fact of an increased carbon footprint through travel, and the minor hurdle that I have 4 school-age kids as well).
But for many, the attraction is encapsulated more in “remote working” than it is in “working from home” – home is just one form of remote. But once we’re allowed to travel again, having figured out that remote working works for us, and more importantly, having employers figure the same thing out, perhaps many more of us will finally undertake the digital nomadic lifestyle?
Even with my 4 kids, it is not inconceivable that schooling remotely can become a real option. When I took them around Latin America for 6 months a few years back as mentioned above, we still managed to make their education work with blogs that they wrote, YouTube, eBooks, and the rest. And that was before Google classroom or Zoom or the countless other remote learning innovations had taken off. If schools were to take this as an opportunity to figure out how a remote, or blended, infrastructure could actually enhance rather than detract from children’s education, then this could be the period that finally truly releases us.
Perspective and compassion
This was a wonderful tweet. Perhaps once we’ve regained our sanity, this sense of perspective and compassion will grow?
There are currently 3 of us working with Beyond the Quarter. I was touched that one of them actually offered for me to delay his payment, sensitive to the fact that our own work and income may be impacted. It was a very human gesture (thankfully never going to be taken up) in his concern for my bigger and younger family.
In his case, this was something that is very much in his character. But what the tweet above highlights is that even for those for whom compassion is not a prominent trait, this is a time where it may develop. And for those of us who have been compassionate, this may be a time where even our levels of compassion get recalibrated upwards.
A big reason I set up Beyond the Quarter was for us to develop a more human and kind capitalism. Perhaps in this virus we can develop an even kinder humanity?
Handwashing was by many people’s measures one of the greatest health innovations of and for mankind. The fact that it’s getting such a serious marketing push right now can’t be a bad thing, and will probably leave a vital habit stronger once the danger is over.
But what is getting talked about less is our immune system and general health. The absolute critical roles that breathing, sleeping, eating, hydrating and moving right play in keeping us healthy, and minimising both the probability of catching a disease and the severity with which we catch it.
Now that we’re more isolated at home, a more perfect opportunity to intentionally practice all of these could hardly exist. For my part, I’m developing the following habits:
- Drinking 12 glasses of water each day;
- Sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night;
- Increasing the positive nutrients in my food, and leaving 12 hours between evening and morning meals;
- Starting to get fit again at home;
- Meditating, a habit which to be fair I’ve cultivated for a few years, but to which I’m now adding 5 sessions of deep breathing and breath holding each day;
I’ve just completed BJ Fogg’s excellent book, “Tiny Habits“. He is likely the world’s greatest expert on building habits, with the founders of Instagram attending and using his teachings. I was lucky enough to have pre-ordered his book, which meant that I went through a live Zoom course with him on publication. Well worth a read, but one habit I picked up which is growing is to do press-ups every time before I wash my hands. It has now become truly habitual, and I suddenly find that I’m doing a couple of dozen a day from having done none a couple of weeks back.
If we use this time to intentionally practice some of these healthy habits, by the time we’re out the other side of this pandemic, they will have spread their roots and will see us in better long term health.
Now this is a big one. Can our experience with the Coronavirus help us affect climate change? Can it help with pollution? Biodiversity? Cleaner technology?
Fresh air in China
One of the most astonishing reports I’ve read these few days is the study carried out by Norwegian scientists Cicero on pollution in Wuhan during the crisis. You’ve no doubt heard it – how the air cleaned up, people were able to breath better, and that this was even visible to satellites.
But did you see the numbers? A sustained reduction in pollution equivalent to the amount experienced through less industry and travel during March would lead to a saving of between 54,000 and 109,000 premature deaths per annum in China alone. Fewer lives have been lost in China through the Coronavirus than would be saved in one month. This is not to have a macabre barter of the numbers dead, but simply to see the extent to which lives would be saved with a 20-30% reduced pollution level has has been witnessed in Hubei province.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account what detrimental economic impact that lack of industry has had. But it would have to be a pretty significant figure to compensate for around 100,000 lives per annum.
Clearly with much reduced travel, the demand for oil, the world’s great polluter and environmental killer, has plummeted. We’re even facing storage issues for the oil that has been extracted, and a possibility (hopefully?) that some extraction facilities may need to close as a result.
Ironically, storage remains a key issue for renewable energy in terms of how to do it effectively, but with an energy glut, might this have us witness a leap towards the proportion of our energy that is delivered clean?
Reduce destruction of biodiversity
It is highly likely that this outbreak was caused by our incursion on parts of the planet that we didn’t inhabit before. The proximity between us and animals carrying viruses that we aren’t immune to, our mixing of those animals with others in food markets, all of these have resulted in pathogens crossing from animals to humans- the so-called Zoonotic diseases. They include the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, bird flu, MERS and now Covid-19 merely in the last 30 years. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 75% of new emerging diseases infecting humans have come from animals.
These are all accelerated by our incursions into pristine natural areas – be it with road building, mining, logging, or urbanisation. Kate Jones, chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at UCL, says that this transmission of diseases is “a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”
One could almost argue that the spread of these diseases is simply nature’s way to redress the balance. Will the scale of this pandemic make us rethink the need for us to take and mess with more of nature?
Will we learn anything?
To reiterate what I said at the start of this article – this is a tragedy. The deaths, the long-term physical and psychological impacts on so many, let alone the economic cost, are enormous. But we need to learn from all tragedies, and there are always so many lessons. In this instance, they’re not just directly about prevention and disease management, but are much broader. Lessons we’re being forced to learn, which will help make our lives, our businesses and the world better if we carry them on beyond these times of enforced isolation.
Will we do it?
The test will be which will be the stronger – our desire for “more”, and for the short term, or our desire not to go through this again. Much of mankind has a tendency not to learn the lessons, or at least not for very long. It’s another permutation of the “winners write history” syndrome – if we’ve survived it, we’ll tend to just be grateful that we did and carry on without the lessons of the price that so many paid.
Bill Gates warned of the need to learn the lessons of these outbreaks, or in reality the need to apply those lessons back in 2010, and then again in his superb Ted talk “The Next Outbreak? We’re not ready.” We didn’t heed his advice. Perhaps because it was still not our lives that were significantly impacted. Now everyone’s life is impacted. Will that be enough for us to listen?
We’ve repeatedly proven that we either forget lessons of the past, or learn lessons in the way that is convenient to our own immediate interests. I read an article by Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, whose parents fled the horrors of Nazi Europe in the late 1930s. Of the lessons of the holocaust, he writes in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “I have yet to hear a single [Israeli] teenager come back from [organised trips to] Auschwitz and say that we mustn’t abuse others the way we were abused. There has yet to be a school whose pupils came back from Birkenau straight to the Gaza border, saw the barbed-wire fence and said, Never again. The message is always the opposite. Gaza is permitted because of Auschwitz.”
So if we are able to turn the lessons of one of the most horrific of man-made crimes in the last century into a rationale to abuse others, what hope do we have against this faceless enemy of Covid-19? Looking at the wonderful tweet earlier, will the lesson of our fighting over toilet paper lead to more compassion towards refugees, or will it lead to animosity towards them as more refugees means less toilet paper to go round?
In the tiny, 11 household village of Aneyoshi in Japan, there’s a stone tablet that instructs the inhabitants not to build houses below it in order to avoid flooding from tsunamis. It has stood, and been obeyed, since the 1933 tsunami and flood. It has a story-like, cultural and moral appeal. It says “high dwellings ensure the peace and happiness of our descendants”, which according to the the village leader is read as “a rule from our ancestors, which no one in Aneyoshi dares break.” By observing it, the village has been spared by a few hundred feed from 2 tsunamis since. But many other similar stones, which haven’t entered the local folklore, have been ignored to the detriment and loss of life of thousands.
This, and many other fascinating stories of lessons learned and others ignored (e.g. building in flood plains within a few years of the last flooding in the US) are documented in Bina Venkataraman’s wonderful book about thinking ahead, “The Optimist’s telescope“.
What specific tactics can we learn from where lessons take hold as opposed to where they don’t? Here are a few things we all can do to try to take the lessons forward, and start to do it from now.
Be the visionary leader
We’ve had the doomsday. We’ve seen the pain. But that’s rarely enough to mobilise us. People are motivated forward by a vision. We as leaders need to translate our aversion to living through this again into a positive and more attractive vision, and do that by demonstrating our own commitment to it. So if we’re to develop ourselves out of obscene and destructive consumption, we need leaders who don’t insist on the palatial, who aren’t lining their own pockets, turning the rewards of office to their own benefit. And in so doing, modelling how genuinely life can be more fulfilling with less bling and more community.
Create no-return commitments
Not quite the Cortes burning of the ships, but make commitments that may be easier (or necessary) to make now which can be carried forward or provide momentum once we’re through this. For instance financial commitments (whether that’s cancelling pointless expenditure or taking on insurance), or creating a business strategy or operating process and starting to execute so that you’re already in motion and committed when we’re all freer again.
Create intentional habits
Look at things that you’re doing now which your best self / best version of your company would want to be doing even in better times. The check in on loved-ones. The consideration before buying something of whether it’s really something we need, or just sating a temporary need for a fix. The pause for reflection on what is important, and putting it in perspective with the bigger things in life. The regular contact with your team.
By treating decisions we make as experiments and actively noting both those decisions and the outcomes, we can apply the learnings as relevant. You may include stories and histories of how we got here and what happened so that they can be replayed in future to help in decision-making. This can be for the whole epidemic, or for our businesses or families or individual lives.
Create the world we need to live in
Inasmuch as we need leadership, we all have control of our own responses and lives. You can start creating this world. So can I. And we should start doing it now.
If we know that is the world we want to build, and we are now in the foothills of this outbreak, what are the lessons we need to prepare for now?
I’ve highlighted a number of ways in this article. I hope you’ll disagree with enough of them to provoke your own response and action. Or agree with some that you might experiment with right now.
Either way, we can all do something to start creating a better outcome at the end of this damned sickness than we had at the start of it. Because choice is the tool that no one can take away from us.
I was having a conversation with my sister on WhatsApp about this. Like many exiled families, my parents and siblings between us live across 4 different countries, and like almost all of you, we’re concerned for a number of older and younger relatives who are vulnerable for a variety of reasons, as well as small businesses which may be at risk. At the end of a long message, she said “we’re all in it together”. Not the end of the sentence. She went on “whether it’s this virus, the environment, pandemics, refugees, social injustice or whatever”.
And that’s surely the point. Yes, we are currently hit by this pandemic. But we are all in it together across so many issues in the planet and in our society right now. We can choose to shut down and hope for the best, or to take it head on and learn from it so we can apply our lessons beyond it. We can choose different.
So what gives me hope that we will learn from this and adapt our behaviours for the longer term? Two things.
First, we tend to make our decisions based on the facts and factors that are most readily available to us. Known as the availability bias and based on research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, this describes how we tend to make decisions based mostly on information or speculation that is more readily imaginable. While Ebola touched the lives of people far away that weren’t “like us”, it was harder to internalise the experience enough to act on it. Well, there’s no need to engage in mental acrobatics for a vast number of people on the planet to imagine the havoc wrought by Covid-19.
Second, we tend to respond to shocks by overshooting, before then returning to a place somewhere between where we were before, and where the shock response took us to. There is an economic concept of overshooting articulated by Rudiger Dornbusch (anyone else old enough to have studied his books for your economics degree?), in which exchange rates over-react in response to monetary policy changes before settling down to a longer term value. This concept is true in far more ways than just exchange rates. It is there in our emotional response to a shock, when we will over-react before settling to a new normal. And I believe it will be true of this shock, which has triggered an extreme (but necessary) reaction from which we will settle to a new norm.
With Chinese doctors flying to Italy to share their knowledge, the biggest lesson I hope outlasts this virus is that we can all unite as a species and work towards a common goal. I hope that after all the havoc, pain and destruction this pandemic causes, we can look at it and decide we can do things better. Placing genuine human values at the core of what we do, and then working to rebuild our businesses and communities around those would go a long way towards both protecting us for the next time, and creating a better world to live and work in.
Please add your thoughts with the many things that I’ve missed out!
OK, so this was long. 7-course-meal-with-wine long. But what’s a guy in self-quarantine to do but write? If you’d like to receive my usually way shorter bite-size thoughts for leading a commercial business with values, subscribe at https://beyondthequarter.com/subscribe-to-our-bite-size-business-tips/