This started out as this month’s newsletter but a) it became too long and b) it’s probably too controversial, in places, to deposit into someone’s email. It will take time to read and more time to consider especially to consider from all sides. So this is here and another newsletter, more suited to the medium, is in preparation.
A friend used the term “CoVid-19 fatigue” recently and that’s a perfect description not only of the tedium of the world being focussed on one primary issue for, now, five months or so (depending on where in the world you are) but also with the issues it’s bringing up.
Someone else said in a statement to “the room”: “you aren’t working from home – you are at home doing as much of your job as is possible within the limitations that brings.”
There is no doubt that across many organisations, internal structures have been placed under immense stress. Interestingly, from a systems point of view, my own observations are that the companies that are suffering the most stress (and therefore acting the most ineffectively vis-a-vis their primary purpose are those with strict administrative systems, most often those created by large consulting companies. The rigidity of those systems has become a purpose in itself rather than an aid to efficient and smooth business processes.
There’s the old thing (long pre-dating 2015 when, for some reason, a raft of consultants and social workers wrote about it), that a willow tree survives huge storms because it is flexible whereas an oak tree will break or fall over. It’s not clear which of the stories came first – the one about the oak and the willow or Aesop’s Fable about the oak and the reed. Aesop’s is a bit more dramatic. There are many versions of the same story published in the past two or three hundred years, proving that there’s always someone happy to come along and re-write the good stuff and put their name on it 🙂 As Aesop was born, apparently, around 620 BC and lived to the ripe old age of 84 despite spending part of his life in slavery it’s not unreasonable to assume he was first.
If there is one lesson that I would urge upon businesses which are now returning to work it’s to urgently review those systems which are too detailed and which are very rigid. Why urgently? Because, if the data we now have is evidence of a future trend, we should expect that, in most countries, we will see that CoVid-19 takes hold a second or even a third time and that controls on movement and gatherings may become a feature of corporate and personal life on at least one more occasion before some kind of equilibrium can be assumed. Now the realities are known, there is an opportunity to prepare for the possibility of Lockdown II.
One of the first areas of compliance that achieved recognition was in relation to the identification and verification of customers. It rapidly became clear that the rigid systems that had grown up over the past 25 years or so didn’t work in the circumstances people found themselves in, without preparation.
There were those that sought to capitalise on the situation – the pro-fintech regulators, the fintech companies and evangelists, the anti-cash brigade (that’s becoming so much of a thing that it’s tempting to give it capital letters), for example.
But there are two realities:
1. The reason that there are such rigid systems is because banks, insurance companies and securities houses started the process towards this rigidity in the mid-1990s. As a result, regulators have, over time, become increasingly prescriptive, the FATF and others have become more directly focussed on the institutions within jurisdictions, even announcing that it intends to make provisions directly addressed to those institutions, thereby bypassing the governments that make up the FATF. Put simply, they were not careful what they wished for and now they – and everyone else in the regulated sector – is tied up in regulatory requirements that contain remarkably little room for dealing with anything out of the ordinary.
2. Consultancies sold fear – if the regulator set boundaries at a metaphorical x, then consultancies said “to be safe, we should put measures in at 80% of x. So the systems in place at many regulated businesses are narrow, strict and unable to cope with anything outside the expectations of the systems designers. All over the world, financial institutions have found themselves in the position where if they opened up their approach, the defence of “that’s what huge accounting firm Z told us to do so if it’s gone wrong, it’s their fault” would not be available to them. And yet, regulators, themselves, often told regulated businesses that a relaxation of systems for the identification and verification of customers would be allowed. However, when they said that they also said that, if things went wrong, it would be the regulated business that would have to justify its position which, let’s face it, doesn’t give much comfort.
It’s all systems, not only financial crime. Everything from complex HR systems to complex financial and accounting systems in which, for example, multiple approvals are required for small purchases. The vetting of suppliers for small expenditure takes up so much time that some small businesses decline to contract with potential customers because that process would take out all the profit that might be earned. People at the top of organisations need to look at what’s happening beneath them and to see how processes can be simplified, modified or even eradicated and where authority can be put at the point of order not at several steps away in a convoluted system that, as the recent situation has shown, militates against the effective operation of the company. It is silly, for example, that a branch manager has an entertainments allowance and expense account – but he can’t buy a book, or an online training course or pay to take part in a seminar, online or real world, without permission.
It’s not as if CoVid-19 is the only threat.
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s coming into summer. Sadly, that also means bad weather for some: already battered by Dengue Fever, an erupting volcano, CoVid-19, Manila has just been brushed by a typhoon that displaced tens of thousands of people elsewhere in the Philippines. Those of us who live in benign climates with the occasional bit of weather cannot conceive of the problems that face those in the monsoon and typhoon belt in countries with extensive and grinding poverty. Similarly, we cannot conceive of the terrible effect on so many across vast areas of Australia where relief remains elusive following the bush fires of only a few months ago. Some small towns, four months after the fires came under control, still have no telephone connections and the only electricity they have is self-generated. Today, in India, as something that a mix of typhoon and monsoon is welling up ready to batter and submerge large areas, tens of thousands of people are trying to evacuate the target area but cannot get out fast enough because of the lockdowns set for protection against the spread of CoVid-19. Talk about a perfect storm.
We, the lucky ones moan about being stuck at home. At least we have homes. But it’s the disruption and destruction caused to businesses that adds what chefs would cause depth and complexity. While people are moaning that they can’t get their matchafrapalatecino or whatever it is, they really need to grow up and see the extent of the changes across the world in the past seven or eight months. With some countries estimating that more than 10% of last December’s workforce going to be unemployed by August when employment support schemes end, there is no room for the self-absorbed attitudes that have characterised the behaviour of many. It has been noticeable that it is the elderly, those who have witnessed the privations of war, that have found ways of standing up to the developing situation. There are lessons for the under 40s there – and it is generosity of spirit and the focus on society as a whole rather than on individual groups (who refer to “my community” as a way of staking a claim to special treatment) which is more likely to generate a positive future.
Then we see the people who crow about how easy it is to be, as they put it with a facile glee that makes me want to smack them in their artificially whitened teeth, to “WFH.” WTF. No, you stupid dickheads. It’s not easy. It’s bloody difficult and the only reason you are having an easy time is because while you (like me, incidentally) are locked in your almost hermetically sealed apartment several hundred metres up in air that’s cleaner than it’s been for years because there’s no locally generated pollution and out of town factories are dying, there’s an absolute army of people down below cleaning the streets, emptying dustbins, delivering food to shops, manning the checkouts, driving grocery (or for the pretentious dickheads food for each meal, one at at time) deliveries, spraying sanitising chemicals in and around buildings, the people who are working in pharmacies in case you decide you need a new toothbrush or, heaven forbid, some medicine. And that’s before we talk about those who are driving buses and trains, taxis and on-call cars, looking after the vehicles and rolling stock, manning the ticket offices. And it’s before we begin to talk about the police, security guards and medical staff whose job, by definition, puts them directly in harm’s way. No, you idiot who thinks it’s easy – your life is easy because the lives of so many others are not and because they put their lives – or at least their health – at risk so you can dazzle yourself with the reflection of your open-mouth gleam in the window pane as you look out and see them as ants.
Sadly, we are already seeing the blame game, groups are taking every opportunity to reinforce messages of division. UK TV calls upon journalists (a term which has considerable flexibility as it appears to include bloggers that established media sympathises with) with a particular axe to grind to “review” the mainstream newspapers but what they really want to do is highlight “billionaires” (not, note, milliardaires which, if they were literate, they would realise they mean) who have “furloughed” staff and taken advantage of the employee support scheme put in place by the government and to complain that such people do not, when it comes to taxes, “pay their fair share.” But aside from negative, pejorative slogans, they have nothing to say.
Here’s a thought: man is, in most circumstances, the apex predator for this world. But something too small to see without intense magnification, a virus, has all but torn down much of what man has built. Rebuilding will be difficult and, without unity, almost impossible.
We are not going to get, at least for the foreseeable future, a world that – financially and structurally – replicates that of only a few months ago. But that doesn’t mean that we need a revolution on top of the changes.
These are some of the areas that we need to address:
1. shorter supply chains – both goods and food should be produced as close to the point of consumption as is reasonably practicable. That means wage greed in developed countries has to stop and with it the lunatic idea that one should live on credit. The fallacy that high earnings are a good thing must be set against the reality that it is the relationship between income and cost of living that creates wealth or poverty. A high average wage does no one any good if that merely fuels inflation in the property market. It’s not so long ago, in the UK, that credit, even hire purchase, was something close to shameful. Then, in the 1980s, vast amounts of credit became a badge of honour, even as it undermined the social and economic fabric of society as a whole.
2 a rethink over finance, especially for small and medium sized enterprises. SMEs can benefit from methods of financing that do not depend on interest. They should get over the hurdle that it’s often called “Islamic banking” and look at the obvious benefits that it brings in terms of e.g. certainty.
3. consumers need to sort out their priorities. Why are there so many fast-food and coffee-shop chains? The answer is simple – they make a lot of money for someone. It’s the same with mobile phones and other gadgets and “designer” clothes and accessories. No one needs a handbag that costs thousands of pounds, dollars, etc. Equally, the “luxury” or “exclusive” brands which, when it comes down to it, are driven by ego. Pay attention – you are paying a fortune to carry an advert. If you have money to waste, then fine – how you waste it is up to you. But if it’s borrowed or using up money that you could use for savings for a rainy day, then think long and hard about it. If there is a second or third period of lockdown, many millions more will be out of work. When they are out of work, they don’t spend money. That means that there’s a snowball effect. Those who think they are insulated aren’t.
4. Don’t spend five times the amount for a cup of coffee in an international chain that you could spend in an independent owner-operator café or sandwich shop. Why do you think that such little places are the backbone of the industry in countries that take coffee really seriously? Good coffee did not start on a sofa in a pretend library in Seattle, etc. It started in holes in the wall in Milan, etc. Such places are still around, all over the world. Support them because that’s the shortest route between your coffee habit and food on their table. It’s the same with café food – why eat an American burger where even the napkins you think are free are bought from an overseas corporation? Go to family owned restaurants, café or sandwich shop and bars for the same reason – shorten the distance between your spending and the people you are spending it with.
5. While the buzzword junkies are having a field day with their “social distancing” and “new normal” mantras, that is a means of diverting attention from the harsh realities that are crowding in. The idea that there is some kind of socially positive element that binds people together with facile buzzwords means that the severity of the consequences of the actions of each individual are underestimated. We must, all of us, realise that it’s not a game and that we all must take steps to protect ourselves and everyone else, even at the cost of some personal habits. It is unlikely that, long term, actual freedoms will be restricted, but the things we take for granted, the things we do because we’ve always done them, like hugging, air kissing, shaking hands, standing with our arms around each other singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” or whatever supporters of your sport sing – they are going to be frowned upon, not specifically by agents of government but by people generally. Until they themselves are taken in by the moment.
I’ll openly admit, I went to an office building, noticed the sign-in desk and temperature station, but didn’t notice the marking on the floor nor, even, that someone else was waiting, albeit some six feet away from the desk. I wasn’t being rude or difficult, I simply was thinking about where I was going, getting my compliance done and carrying on with my mission without interruption. Absent minded professor syndrome. But on another day, I went to a supermarket, picked up a basket and went in only to be called to by a member of staff and told that I’d come in the exit (despite there being baskets by the door and despite the fact that that’s the way in I’ve always used) and that I would have to queue outside and, before entering have my temperature taken. I calculated – I would be standing in the sun for at least half-an-hour and then have my temperature taken. That seemed patently stupid (as did standing in the sun for half-an-hour) and so I abandoned the expedition. There’s no criticism of the shop – that branch did in fact have to close and disinfect several weeks ago after a CoVid-19 case was confirmed there. But the system, applying “social distancing” in the queue, and in the shop by means of allowing only a small number of people inside at any one time, is inconvenient. It’s not normal, new or otherwise and it’s not a “normal” I wish to adopt. I’ll find some other means of stocking up my fridges, freezers and cupboards. But I’ll find a way that doesn’t put myself or others at risk. And why not just call it “spacing”? it’s not buzzwordy enough, that’s why.
6. There have been some interesting aspects to the severe curtailment of much social and commercial activity. The first is that, contrary to what we might have thought, the earth and its ecosystem is, in some respects at least, remarkably resilient and far more “self-healing.” However, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves – three months or so of massively reduced road traffic and factory generated pollution is not going to unwind the best part of 200 years of industrial abuse. But it’s a start. During the UK’s Industrial Revolution, it was already known that the air around the “dark, Satanic, mills” cleared during Wakes Weeks – the annual two week factory shut-down. And we know that when China reduces (it no longer closes) its factories for two weeks over Chinese New Year, the pollution drifting to Hong Kong is dramatically reduced. We should not, then, be surprised by the positive effect that the lock-downs have had on air quality. But it’s been more: the reduction in airborne dust from construction over an extended period means that larger particles are less common. One of the aspects of coming out of lock-down which does not appear to have been given prominence is this: we know that CoVid-19 attacks those with, inter alia, existing respiratory problems. Clean air helps prevent respiratory problems.
Question – has this reduced the proportion of fatalities? When a) pollution returns and b) there is more person to person contact will the number of cases rise and the proportion of fatalities rise faster? I have no idea and merely pose a question. But I’d like to know the answer.
There have been interesting images of wildlife wandering around empty city streets. But while social media users distribute these with a variety of upbeat messages, there are major concerns in almost every major city of an increase in both the number of rats and their level of desperation – closed restaurants don’t toss out waste which is a significant source of rat food, even when it’s bagged properly and awaiting collection.
7. Many companies all over the world are questioning whether they need large centralised offices. The fact is that, in many, many cases they do not. But they are following up with a presumption that there is a binary decision – centralised office or work from home. That’s not right. There is a third option which is, for many reasons, the best and for some reasons the worst. The third option takes account of the fact that many people do need to “go to work,” they need a dedicated workspace with proper desk, chair, etc. If they are working on confidential matters (who isn’t?) then open plan rented hot desks is probably not the way to go. Scratch that – it’s the worst idea ever. Every part of the infrastructure of such places militates against any and all forms of confidentiality. Even cubicles aren’t ideal. But if recruitment is handled intelligently, cluster offices can be created – small cells of, say, five or six employees all working close to home in a controlled environment. It works – in fact my own company did it with an office in Labuan in the early 2000s. Sadly, what didn’t work was the communications and after three months we had to close it because they were unable to connect reliably to our servers which meant they could not access e.g. the CRM platform needed to perform their duties. But the concept was simple – five people in an open plan office on an island where even skilled and educated people found it difficult to find work.
For me, it’s a no brainer – why make people move to the work when you can take the work to the people? So what’s the disadvantage? First what will happen to all those white elephant office “campus” developments? Secondly, if you’ve got all those people in your campus, you control far more than their work time – you influence their entire lives and that would be lost. They will go home, they will have friends outside work and they will think freely. You’ll lose the ability to impel your corporate group-think. You won’t like that because you think that’s how you make staff loyal. Newsflash – in the real world, away from the machafrappanonsense, hashtag-influenced, whining group that you’ve allowed to convince you know how to run your company – real people with real depth and real experience don’t care if you’ve got primary coloured big toys in your atrium – they want respect for their minds and for achievements that go far beyond beer-pong. Treat people as children and children is what you get; treat them as adults and you’ll get rebellion, you’ll get challenge but you’ll get it because someone has thought something through and can see – and explain – a better way of doing it. And they don’t need to be in your centralised office to do it – in fact, many of them are happier as “backroom boys” which includes, of course, girls, doing their job to the best of their ability.
8 The societal benefits of 7 cascade into the world at large. Local shops, local cafés and restaurants benefit. Those giant shopping centres that litter the recently developed world are not needed. By moving workplaces into small towns, even villages, independent businesses can thrive. That’s what happens in small towns all over the world. What’s the first thing that changes them? The arrival of a large supermarket or superstore. Society needs to do an about turn on those. There are cities around the world that have killed independent shops unless they move into shopping centres with their twelve hour days and seven days a week trading. Small shops close at, perhaps, 7 pm, people go home to their families. They take, usually, Sundays off, to spend with their families. Shopping centres deny those that own small businesses those benefits unless, in addition to far higher rents than they charge “anchor tenants” and “image” brands, they have to employ staff to cover the longer hours. Around the world, large shopping centres are struggling but still more are built, even in close proximity to those that are, on any reasonable analysis, failing. But the fact is that, during the lock-downs, no one needed a shopping centre. Everything everyone needed could have been made available by independent shops had they been allowed to open.
There are, I’m sure, dozens more things that we have learned from the enforced shift in lifestyle. Think about what you would add to the list.
We’re surviving, kind of, the pandemic.
Are we going to survive the recovery?
We need to stand back, take stock, to not act hastily.
And we need a new normal. But it’s not the one that the buzzwords are used for: it’s far more than washing our hands and not sitting together in a restaurant; we need to look at what the past few months has told us about the world we had come to see as normal and to realise that it was, in many cases, a temporary aberration.
Let’s make a good normal while we have some momentum and purpose.
And while we are doing it, let’s take out petty politics and work towards a simpler, cleaner, more pleasant future.