What Changes and What Stays the Same?

From Airlines to Twitter to Home (and everywhere in between)

Good Thursday Morning!

Last week the great Dr. Herb Emery was on the Growing Pains podcast and we discussed what changes and what stays the same after COVID-19. There are many who think this is the impetus to shrink supply chains, re-examine who is truly essential in our society, make deeper social connections, and re-think the nature of work.

Let me say at the outset, I am not one of the converted (neither is Herb).

I say that with a hint of longing. I wish we were going to do all of those things. I wish we had a better grip on the reality of class-divides and the completely arbitrary nature of working 9 am to 5 pm. Perhaps someday we will get around to all of that but for the time being, I’m long-term optimistic and short-term concerned.

Since 9/11 we’ve been saying that it’s time to admit to the fragility of the systems and cities we’ve built and that remote work would eventually usher in an era where we could live wherever we wanted. The result would be a mass exodus from big city blue-states for greener pastures like Boulder, Colorado, or Bozeman or Salt-Lake City or Kitchener-Waterloo. Guess what? They’re still there. Manhattan is still Manhattan and houses are still 1.2M in Palo-Alto. Why? Because New York City and San Francisco are still completely fantastic.

The point is, I fear modern humans have an incredibly short memory and tragedies become memories really quickly.

My partner in crime David Campbell frequently points out the irony of how the Millenial in the room is often the debby-downer at the podcast party.

Last night I finally cracked Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. I’ve been meaning to because Sebastian is a bad man who can really write. I thought it was a perfect time, given the fact that we’re now all facing an existential threat that should, in theory, make us all band together. I believe it was President Reagan who said we’d all unite if aliens invaded. Well, now they have and we haven’t done any uniting outside of our political groups. The situation at home in Canada is much better, but South of the border every indication is we’re in for a troubling decade. Some are calling for the lock-down to last into the summer (comfortable salary-working from home) and some are armed on the Michigan State Capitol or yelling at our healthcare heroes who are counter-protesting (likely lower income-hourly workers who either don’t have the opportunity to stay home or can’t afford to).

Junger points out the higher you climb on the economic ladder, the less you need other human beings. He grew up in the ‘burbs outside of Boston where houses hid behind hedges and you didn’t know your neighbor. He points out that you didn’t need to, really, because…

“Nothing ever happened in my town that required anything close to a collective effort.”

When things are good, this is fine for most. When things are bad, it becomes clear that…

“Modern society has perfected the art of making people feel not necessary.”

The banker is ushered to his table at-once and the undocumented farm-hand from Norther Mexico bends at the hip all day in Central California.

What happens when there is a pandemic? I’ll give you a hint: one is at home pushing buttons and the other carries a letter in her pocket from the Department of Homeland Security telling her she is now considered essential to the food supply chains of America. (Revisit “Who is Essential in a Pandemic” here and join me in bowing at the feet of Miriam Jordan of the New York Times).

Okay, so let’s think about some unique scenarios that have arisen because of the pandemic and what opportunities this will present closer to home. As you read the list, it will appear 1-1: World-Home. Read the first in the World list and then skip ahead and read the first in the At Home list.

What’s happened in the world?

  • Jack Dorsey has been a front-runner the entire time and recently just dropped a 9-5 bomb: Twitter employees now have the option to work from home permanently. Why? Because for tech-enabled teams, productivity either stays flat or increases when your workforce is distributed and flexible. Just ask Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Wordpress & Automaticc.

  • Supply chains are being re-examined and some claim that they are shrinking. I would use that word lightly. Apple now looking at moving operations from China to India is a lateral move, not a tightening of their supply chains.

  • Work we’ve known we must do, but never had the chance to do, will now become a priority: virtual doctor’s appointments, digital health records, decentralized schools, etc.

  • Buffet’s out on airlines. In Berkshire-Hathaway’s first virtual shareholder’s meeting he told us all that the world for airlines just changed in a major way. He has sold all of his positions in America’s big 4.

What does that mean for us at home?

  • It means we need to re-think where we stack up when it comes to productivity and work. How many of our companies were able to seamlessly transition to a distributed workforce? How many actually saw productivity increases? How many are going to re-consider the arbitrary nature of the 9-5? Who is now considering going global, setting up flexible operating hours to appropriately serve the West Coast in the morning and Europe in the evening? We’re in the perfect time-zone to do it.

  • Does this present an opportunity for our manufacturers? Back to Herb.

“Many economists believe that COVID-19 disruption to international supply chains for producers will result in a re-regionalization of supply chains. In other words, reliance on low cost, but risky suppliers in China will give way to not-so-low-cost, but more secure sources of supply in North America. New Brunswick’s economy should see an opportunity to capture some of this post-COVID-19 contestable market share. But the risk is that our producers won’t be competitive against producers in other provinces and U.S. states who are better positioned to scale, modernize and find ways to sell and distribute their products and services.”

  • How deeply does that resonate with us at home? We have so many things we need to modernize and now we have the energy for work necessary. Is it time we institute the Atlantic Canadian Corona Corps?

  • What does that mean for us and the fact that we’re already travel constrained? Will people pay $650 every summer to go see family in Newfoundland on Air Canada as I do? Will we consider high-speed rail connecting the tri-city area in New Brunswick to Halifax? One of the Maritime Turning Points we’re going to look at on the show is when the trains stopped running. Re-considering how we move around would be something Jeremy Rifkin would tip his hat to.

I’ll leave you, this fine Thursday, with the tweet below from Naval.

I’ll just leave it righhhhttttt here. Take your time.

There is a lot of work to be done at home. Obvious now?

What a ride,