Corona thoughts – uncertainty

Last year, I joined some sort of day-long leadership retreat. First stop: the St Kilda botanical gardens. After an initial yoga session and nut-heavy breakfast, we formed a circle, and were invited to write about our ‘biggest fear for the future’. After four years working on global catastrophic risk, this is a question I had been reflecting on quite a bit. I realised then that I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, nor the deaths of billions, nor resource exhaustion. Writing about ecosystem collapse and asteroid impacts is a good vaccine against that. No, but my fear had gone deeper: what I was afraid of, was the moral and spiritual consequences of civilisation collapse.

The fear remains, amplifies even, as the pandemic sweeps across the planet. Oh, by global catastrophic risks standards, Covid-19 is a gentle caress – for it is highly unlikely that more than 2-3% of humanity will die, most likely far fewer people. That’s an order of magnitude smaller than the risks I have grown used to considering. But ethical and moral consequences – yes, I am concerned about.

For one, will we maintain a rational approach to solidarity, or fall for the national fallacy? A friend of mine was circulating a photograph of starving children on Facebook, a reminder that famine is a far greater killer than Covid-19 – but as older white people suffer far less from it, the media pays less attention. Will we, then, continue giving to charities assisting the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet? Will we direct our sanitary efforts where they might have the most impact, and save the most lives? Or as borders close, will we forget about the wider world, and let our concern extend no further than the limits of the state we live in?

Beyond this, I wonder – what do the current patterns of action and spending tell us about our priorities, and what will be the future consequences? Because we were able to – willing to – put the nation on hold to protect our health system and, with it, some of the weakest among us (disproportionately, that is the older part of the population), will we learn that we can demonstrate such solidarity, and will we rally with similar enthusiasm for the sake of the young and  generations yet to be born, ensuring we protect our environment and their future? Or is our current collective behaviour, rallying as one to primarily save the lives of the older among us – not a form of generous solidarity, but another, deeper manifestation of short-termism? For now, we simply do not know.

On procurement

We seem conditioned to value the visible result over the long preparatory process, the house over the foundations, the gain earned – no matter how trivial – over the pain avoided – no matter how great.

A friend from China used to work in supply chain management. She has exceptional procurement skills, and saved her company millions of dollars. Her achievements barely received acknowledgement. Meanwhile, when the sales team brought in a few hundred thousands in contracts, everybody cheered. Eventually, she quit.

A balance sheet has two sides, income and expenses. Yet the dominant wisdom I absorbed from business people is, focus on income. The Business Model Canvas presents elegant symetry between cost and revenue structure, but most of the tips and case studies I read celebrate clever ways of bringing in more money.

In our age of abundance, we do not value temperance. There may be reason for it. After all, a danger avoided offers no chance for heroics. After complex research, modelling and bargaining, we did not incur a certain sum – but were we ever going to pay that much? The risk did not manifest, was it through complex strategy, or pure luck? And who can tell if it was ever even present? My sale, however, the crisis I solved, the monster I slayed, that’s concrete, and should be dutifully rewarded.

On lifespans

Most organisations present themselves sub specie aeternitatis – as if, once in existence, they should never stop to be. These abstract giants we serve seem to deserve more attention than us mere mortals. And so, when building professional relationships, we pride ourselves in weaving new webs of connection between these abstract constructs, companies, departments, organisations.

The model has a fatal flaw. Their lifespan may not exceed that of an average human being. When my grand-mother was born, Disney did not exist. When my father was born, Monash University did not exist. When I was born, Google did not exist. These institutions, solid as they seem, have a birth date – and as all living things, they will come to an end – maybe vanishing into thin air, or maybe transforming into something different, smaller, and insignificant.

It is tempting to treat humans – including ourselves – as pure transactional intermediaries between employers, social bodies, political collectives. It is possible to do so politely. But is it wise? Ten years from now, new structures will emerge – we don’t know what they will be yet, but we know they’re likely to be run by humans, maybe the same humans we neglected to bond with today, enamoured with the glitzier abstractions featured on their business cards.

What would it take to flip things around, and treat titles and collectives as no more – and no less – than opportunities to build new concrete connections with people?  Over the long term, this may prove a wiser use of our time. But oh – concrete things are so much messier than abstractions.

Space sharing, time sharing: future of work, or existing models?

Our current (but changing) mindset is to think of work in the following way. Full-time work, dedicated work space, and regular daytime week hours are correlated. Work occurs Monday to Friday, 9-to-5, in a particular dedicated space and for a particular organisation. Anything  outside these spatial and temporal boundaries is either non-work or not-really-work.

We seem to be moving towards a model where work is more often part-time, with flexible hours, for multiple organisations, and occurring at different locations. However, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Let’s look at these very common professions – to quote a few:

  • Doctors and nurses may work more during the day, but 24 hour and week-end presence is required from some at least.
  • Teachers spend about one third of the time in front of a class, and two thirds preparing classes or correcting papers – which occurs in all sorts of settings, including offices, cafes, public transport or bed.
  • Cleaners typically work when others are not around, and pretty much everywhere.
  • Hospitality workers are flexible – a typical ‘daytime’ restaurant will open from 10h30am to 11pm – but start at 6 or 7am if they serve breakfast. 
  • Drivers – whether of trains, buses, trams, taxis, planes or trucks – work 5am to 12pm, and sometimes round the clock. A number of people in the transport industry will be around to support them.

When we think of new models for work – whether it’s part-time allocation, flexible work hours, or work outside the office – let’s not forget that these very common professions have been doing exactly that for years. These are by no means marginal phenomena, and maybe there’s something we can learn from them.

Please, feel free to share reflections here!