Treating our world not as we would like it to be, but as it is

I’ve witnessed and been part of some difficult and stressful conversations over the past week. COVID-19 is dramatically changing our world and we’re all struggling to process what this means.

Workers in many industries are facing an uncertain future. Those working in or dependent upon airlines, hospitality, restaurants, travel, entertainment, etc have already seen their customer numbers drop off the edge of a cliff. Those customers probably won’t return for many months and these are not industries that have a large financial cushion. If governments don’t put in place significant safety nets, many businesses will fail and jobs will be lost. Those in such industries know this only too well and are under a high degree of stress right now.

Anyone on a temporary contract is especially at risk. A friend who makes a reasonable wage training those in education, and who is on a day-rate contract, called this morning to express her fears — rightfully so.

Even those industries not immediately impacted will face challenges. Nobody is in the mood to make decisions about anything much at the moment, because we don’t know what the world will look like in a month’s time. If you’re a sales person, or dependent on the efforts of a sales team (and who working for a commercial entity isn’t?), the months ahead are going to be tough. They will be tough because few people or organisations are going to make purchase decisions on things that aren’t essential.

In the startup world, the future of many companies is critically dependent on gaining and demonstrating customer traction. If those customers are distracted, that traction is going to be an order of magnitude more difficult to achieve.

Whilst we wait to see what happens and what rescue packages and cushions are made available, there is a high degree of uncertainty about the future for lots of us. Will we have a job? Will we be able to pay the rent/mortgage? Will the government help us or not?

Many of us are struggling to process and understand what’s happening. In Western democracies, things that we’ve assumed as basic rights — like the ability to travel — are being curtailed. “Just popping round to someone’s house for a chat” is suddenly a risky action. And “going to a birthday meal in a restaurant” is either impossible or something that has a whole level of risk we’ve never considered before. Cross-border travel is rapidly becoming not just inadvisable, but impossible. The concept of “going travelling”, and of holidays in general, has been suspended.

This is not normal and its way outside of any of our experiences. As a result, we’re all struggling — myself included. Sometimes when I try to explain what’s happening to someone not quite so tuned in, I’m made to feel like I’ve just stepped out of an episode of the American TV show Doomsday Preppers. This is tough.

So how should we respond on the human level? Here are my thoughts.

❤️ Be kind

When someone doesn’t behave perfectly, they are not a bad person. They are probably just struggling.

If someone reaches out for help, let’s respond and help them.

If our job is secure, let’s spare a thought for those who’s job is not secure.

If people panic-buy, it’s not because they are stupid, it’s because they are scared. Spare a thought for them, rather than ridiculing them.

💬 Communicate

However, this is the worst possible behaviour. People need to know the truth — it helps them to plan. Even bad news is worse than being left hanging.

It’s not difficult to communicate bad news — just apologise, explain the facts and that things have changed. Be kind, express remorse, but be truthful. Allow others the ability to plan their futures based upon an accurate understanding of their situation.

Avoiding that call, ignoring that text message — these actions are the wrong ones.

🧯 This is not political

We’re all in this together as humans — blaming or defending particular political theologies is yesterday’s battle.

If governments screw up, as some of them have, it’s not a political thing — it’s individual human beings screwing up. It’s not that “the left” or “the right” are incapable of seeing what is happening or of taking the right actions, it’s that certain individuals have been tested and found wanting. Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that those screw-ups will be fixed quickly. So, let’s drop the political arguments and focus on building friendships, not losing them.

🚪 Opportunity awaits us

Here are just some immediate thoughts, but there will be many others. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments and we can update this as ideas emerge. Perhaps a focus on the opportunities will help us to defocus from the negatives we cannot influence.

  • Ways to organise ourselves and share information.
  • Community building — helping us to help those in need, early warning systems, etc
  • Contact tracing — how can I get notified quickly if I’ve been in contact with someone who’s now infected?
  • Triage systems to help take the load off of over-worked medics.
  • We’ve seen past attempts to apply natural language processing technologies to healthcare, but maybe this is the time and opportunity where this can finally make a difference?
  • For Anthropologists, how society and cultures respond to the challenges will be a topic of great interest
  • Manufacturers are already examining opportunities to pivot from cars to ventilators, face masks, etc.

It’s probable that funding opportunities will emerge in the coming days and weeks for promising ideas. Some already have.

Of course, we may not have the skills to grab some of these opportunities, which brings me to my next point…

🎓 Learn new things

A vaccine will be found and treatments will emerge.

We are in for a bumpy ride for maybe a year or so, but there’s a good likelihood that things will bounce back strongly when they do.

If all else fails and you lose your job and can’t get another one, take my advice…

Use the time wisely to invest in gaining new skills. There’s a plethora of free online tools which you can use to gather those skills. As tough as it might seem, there has never been a better time to be unemployed, assuming you can keep your head above water financially. No other generation, faced with such challenges, has been able to sit at home and educate themselves in the way that we now can. Opportunity awaits us, if we choose to grasp it.

Eclectic tastes, amateur at most things. Learning how to build a new startup. Former CTO for IBM Watson Europe.

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