Social Isolation

This weekend I walked around 3Km indoors, because we’re at home in social isolation for the foreseeable future–the Portuguese government has all but declared a state of emergency yet (that’s expected this Wednesday), but already shut down all schools until mid-April as well as putting in place severe restrictions for nightclubs, restaurants, shopping malls, etc.

And, even if all of the above were done somewhat belatedly, it has also recommended everyone self-isolate and stay at home for the next two weeks, which is what we’re doing.

The Good Bits

We had the good fortune (if you will) to act early on this, since some of our family members (myself included) have additional risk factors and the usual amount of elderly relatives–which is a massive responsibility even if we became asymptomatic carriers.

So we gradually stocked up over the past few weeks. Good thing we did too, since it’s currently impossible to get any groceries delivered until April thanks to panic buying.

And no, I have no idea why people hoard toilet paper. I find it utterly baffling.

The Annoying Bits

There’s a difference between working from home and being stuck there which I suspect is going to take the shine off things. I am mostly OK with it, but I suspect newcomers to remote working are going to find things quite daunting.

Besides we now have a couple more semi-permanent workspaces in the house, and since this is a very popular topic right now here’s a quick rehash of my usual bag of tips and tricks:

  • Set up a personal workspace. (decent chair, a good headset and an extra monitor if possible)
  • Dress for work. This bit really helps, believe me.
  • Stick to a schedule. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same schedule you’re used to, but make sure you have clear boundaries/break times, and that you’re offline on breaks.
  • Keep a “water cooler” chat window in the background. But don’t spend more time there than absolutely necessary. Some people keep audio/video calls running for hours, but I, for one, just can’t focus if that’s going on. Do what works best for you in terms of focus (and bandwidth), but be mindful of distractions.
  • Call your peers often. You need to sync at regular intervals and in a more structured way, so get used to shorter, more focused meetings (besides “regular” ones, which are usually the first big hurdle for people not used to working remotely).

The Future Of Remote

It’s going to be interesting to see the outcome in terms of overall acceptance of remote work in the near future. But we should keep in mind this is a rather abrupt transition for everyone concerned:

  • Many companies see remote work as something of last resort–for those rare instances when they can’t find the talent they need or as an emergency measure. Call it whatever you want–the antiquated fixation on control, having people you can see working, etc.
  • Also, many people are just not going to be able to be productive remotely. That’s a reality most techies currently spouting that they’ve been doing this for years just don’t get, but a reality nonetheless.
  • The upside is that a sizable group will come out of this realizing remote work is perfectly viable for them, and even preferable (even if not full time). Social isolation will take a toll, yes, but they’ll be used to remote conferencing and (hopefully) able to run effective meetings, and they will want to use those skills more often from now on.

My guess (and hope, really) is that many companies will realize remote work has to be part of their strategy (if only for business continuity), and that there is an upside in both improving quality of life for their staff and being able to hire further afield.

Others (and I’m thinking of most Portuguese companies) are going to go back to “business as usual” as soon as humanly possible, because they just won’t be able to effect the required cultural or process changes. They’re completely stuck in the groove.

I know which ones I want to work for.

And if you’re the kind of person who can be as (if not more) productive remotely (full-time or otherwise) and your line of work permits it, you should consider having a discussion in your company to make it “normal”. Just don’t overhype it, since that is certain to make things counterproductive for everyone.

Then again, I’m extremely lucky to have both the option and the habits to stay as productive as possible in this way–although to be fair I’m not fully remote, only home office based, which means I‘m supposed to travel out to customers whenever required.

The Scary Bits

The numbers are staggering, even if you have a grasp of the exponential dynamics of contagion.

I haven’t been able to concentrate much on work as news rolled in thick and fast and our little band of friends crunched the figures and churned out projections1 that were in stark contrast with political denials and delays in taking effective action.

What happened in Italy (and, being of an inquisitive nature, I’ve gone through a lot of reputable medical material on it, which is prime nightmare fodder) is already starting to play out next door in Spain, and I honestly do not know if Portugal has enacted emergency measures early enough to make a difference.

Nobody does.

But Europe’s lack of preparedness and fumbling hesitation in locking down airports, borders, schools and entire cities is certainly going to go down in History for the wrong reasons.

As to the UK, well, they have a nice theory going. Let’s see how it plays out, and how the Britons will react to the notion of “herd immunity” as the number of cases rises exponentially.

I suppose it’s one way to sweep Brexit2 under the rug, but at what expense?

The Future Of Supply Chain

One thing’s for sure.

The next few months are going to make people take notice of how interdependent and interconnected our civilization has become, for one, but also that we currently have several critical bottlenecks (if not outright single points of failure) in terms of manufacturing, supply chain and logistics.

Everyone’s extremely concerned with ventilators (and they should), but besides the amount of technical gear (gadgets or medical equipment) that are currently only made in China, there are other, possibly more critical items manufactured in very few places.

I’m thinking medicines, reagents and other sophisticated compounds, yes, but also basic, low-tech items like masks, tubing, saline bags, etc. that are demonstrably in short supply, and which have few manufacturers that just can’t scale to meet massive demand. And I’m not even going to go into the scarcity of supply routes.

Some people are likely to point out that there are national and regional reserves and the odd “alternate” factory (sometimes by mandate of local governments, such as Brazil), but those are not enough.

Survivors (political and otherwise) are sure to at least raise the issue of whether decentralization and redundancy shouldn’t be enforced for this kind of thing.

And, politics being what it is these days, separatists and isolationists of various kinds are going to have a field day (or year), feeding off the economical downturn that’s also in the works.

But let’s worry about that later–unlike most people, I’m sure this is going to take months to sort out. And that’s being optimistic as far as the pandemic itself is concerned.

Dodging Bullets

As an aside, I was asked to go to Italy a week or so before the outbreak peaked there (and actually worked remotely on a project for a major Italian customer).

Looking back, it’s a good thing I couldn’t travel at the time.

Although I wasn’t really aware of the seriousness of the situation, I did mention it casually to one of my colleagues…

Certainly too casually, let that be a lesson.

  1. This is what comes from constantly hanging out in Slack with a bunch of engineers and math geeks of various kinds. Plenty of grim humor and unbridled creativity to apply to statistics… ↩︎

  2. The grim irony of this being extremely likely to thin down the “herd” of elderly Brexit voters is certainly something to consider. ↩︎

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