Reflections on working with physical distance

Jordan CarterA blog post by Jordan Carter, Chief Executive, InternetNZ

April 2020

We are in extraordinary times. Of all the things I expected to shape the start of 2020, dealing with a global pandemic of a dangerous virus was not high on my list - I suspect it was not high on yours, either.

One of the consequences of New Zealand’s Level 4 COVID-19 lockdown is that our organisation is doing its work from home. While we’ve been a cloud-first organisation for a while (check out a recent post here for some angles to this), until mid-March we hadn’t tried everyone working from home at the same time before.

Now, of course, this is going to be the way that we work for at least the next few weeks - and probably for longer than that. Even when the restrictions associated with Level 4 are eventually reduced - be that in April, May or later - I foresee a fair bit of working from home for many of us, for some time to come. 

Rather than talk about the systems we are using I wanted to share some reflections on what has struck me so far. There are three main things I share with you here.

Our current situation

First, this isn’t just a work from home situation. For those of us lucky enough to be working, this is working in a time of global pandemic. The news from around the world is bleak, and in countries that many Kiwis have close links to, it is going to be getting worse for a while before it gets better. Friends and relatives are at risk, here at home or overseas. There is uncertainty about the future of our economy and society, and the world we have come to know of affordable travel and freedom of movement is on hold, for at least a while. From that global scene right through to the local, we are in a position of staying home to save lives, and where each and every decision every one of us makes counts in reducing the risks that all of us face. 

This means there’s a level of stress, or anxiety, or existential uncertainty, that is happening all at once to all of us, not just here in Aotearoa. Our way of life has suddenly and sharply changed, and a slow moving disaster is unfolding around us.  It cannot help but affect us. People are distracted. It’s hard to focus. Emotions can be up and down. 

For myself, with one parent in America, and both being in the primary at-risk age groups as well as far away from where I live, it isn’t a good feeling to not be able to provide some practical support. Some of my colleagues have kids at home which complicates things. Other colleagues and friends face health risks, or unemployment. Inevitably, some will get sick during this time.

So, this isn’t working from home. This is working in a time of pandemic. It’s a sharply different situation that is going to last for months, not weeks. To adjust for this reality, I’m focused on doing a few key things differently.

  • Being clear about our short term goals. For InternetNZ, looking after our team and keeping .nz running for the public are at the core of our work. Our immediate focus has been on these two goals. We’re now moving to get our heads around how we can help the public deal with the pandemic situation better through using the Internet.

  • Ruthless prioritisation. Organisations in normal times can get more done than while working under pandemic. We have to be sharp about the work we do and the work plans we drop. For what we prioritise, we need to be clear about why it matters and what it’ll contribute to our overall purpose.

  • Giving time to think and absorb. In these stressful conditions, taking time to introduce topics and giving people the chance to think about them before tackling them - in meetings, on video calls, etc - can really help. It just helps keep the stress lower than it otherwise would be.

  • More communication and more contact. We are scheduling more all-hands meetings and I’m spending a lot more time on the phone and by video, checking in with colleagues, sharing info about what’s happening and just being there for others - as others are for me. We can’t get through this on our own, and fortunately in a work sense we can work together and support each other.

You’ll have other ideas, but these are what are top of mind for me at the time of writing. I am also starting to think how we adjust the way we work, longer term, to make remote working a more integral part of how we operate.

The role of the Internet

My second broad reflection is to think about the way that this pandemic and our response is shaped by the Internet. I’m struck every day by how central this infrastructure is to our national conversation, the work of government and health authorities, the ways we can continue with work and education during the lockdown and beyond. 

If anyone ever thought that making sure all Kiwis didn’t need to be online was a nice-to-have, they’ll be thinking again now. Old or young, rich or poor, everyone in our country has to be able to be online - to participate in a situation of physical distancing, and to get access to the information and services that will help us through.

Short term fixes to get connectivity and devices to those who need them are part of the mix. But as we come out the other side, there’s an imperative that I, for one, had drifted away from. We have to have top class connectivity available for everyone we can practically deliver it to. Ultrafast broadband has been great, but we need to commit to extending it even further - something that’ll help with social inclusion and create some jobs along the way too. The new wireless technologies coming with 5G play a role too, and the two can complement each other. 

We also need better support for those who won’t or can’t “digitise themselves, themselves” - be it for economic reasons or just not knowing how to go about it. There’s a blueprint (on digital inclusion) that government has pulled together, but the short term fixes being contemplated now for education go far beyond the ambition of those plans. We’ll need to go even further in the months and years to come, as a sector and as a country. InternetNZ will be putting some money where its mouth is in this area, but in the end it is a social responsibility to drive towards digital inclusion, and as part of recovery the government will have a bigger role than it was contemplating just a few months ago.

What we can achieve in the future

My third broad point is a big picture one. Our society and economy had developed in a certain way. That way had, and has, lots of plusses; pluralistic, accepting and even welcoming of some elements of diversity and difference among people, a lot of freedom for people to do as they liked, a national economy that worked for many, and an environment that drew many people to our islands. It also had lots of minuses; economic inequality, a lack of environmental sustainability, infrastructure that wasn’t fit for purpose, a housing stock that is too expensive and a bit rubbish for many people, inbuilt structural inequalities for groups like Māori and Pasifika peoples. We weren’t doing as much as we could in the design, high tech and science areas where we could earn more and affect the planet less. 

This lockdown we’re under now, and the enormous dislocation to the economy and society that result, will pass. 

When it does, we will need to re-start things, to get people back to work and to get used to doing things again. Some of our historic economic activity won’t come back fast or in the same way. We’ll have people, ideas and capital to devote to doing things.

We don’t have to do the same things. We can and should think of ways to do things better, and to direct our recovery in a way that builds an even stronger society, economy and environment than we are lucky enough to enjoy today.In the meantime, let’s hope that our lockdown succeeds in the goal of minimising the suffering that Kiwis face from COVID-19, and that we can be getting back to building our future together again, sooner rather than later.