20201020 The Loneliness of the Long Distance Manager

20201020 The Loneliness of the Long Distance Manager

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

We are, once more, seeing unprecedented times as country after country sets records for daily infections with CoVid-19. But there's a forgotten, perhaps unrecognised, group of people who are deserving of attention.

Across the world, across all sectors of commerce and industry as well as government service and agencies, there is one largely forgotten group of people who are bearing a burden that no one signed up for.

And which no one is, in any sense of the term, equipped to handle.

The reason is this: the last true pandemic was a century ago and followed on from a near-world war. It was different times: the latest office technology was the 200 year concept of a typewriter that found its way into a handful of offices before WW1 and grew in popularity as prices fell later, the fountain pen (invented 80 years earlier but too expensive for clerks who used quills into the 20th Century) and the relatively recent ball-point pen.

And the telephone was still a rarity. Indeed, even in the highly advanced world of Sherlock Holmes, in the last decade of the 19th Century, hand-written messages or cables transmitted between central points, later known as ″telegrams″ were the only means, other than a postal service, of communicating with someone in another room, much less another building, town or country.

Fast forward to the always on, instant message, video-phone and conferencing lives we lead and it seems as if life should be simpler. The evangelists for video conferencing, the current iterations of which are dominated by Zoom and MS Teams, were delighted: they had always had a solution looking for a problem.
But no matter what, working from home is not the same as working from the office. Talking down a line, by voice or video, is not the same as being in the same room.
What has happened is that the tech has increased availability yet, at the same time, increased the sense of isolation for the people who are on the front line of dealing with the effects of the pandemic on businesses.

So how did we get here?

Let’s be clear : we must never talk of ″Covid″ when we are talking of CoVid-19 .

There are several ″CoVids″ and it is clear that precision is important.

The virus that causes CoVid-19 is SARS-CoV-2. The one that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS, in 2003 is SARS-CoV.

The one that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS is MERS-CoV. That was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

The capital V is because it’s Corona Virus.

While there is a tendency to be sloppy with the terminology, we should resist it for that reason but also because we should never become complacent and talk of it in chatty terms.

We are hearing, albeit statistically insignificant, reports of people who have contracted a variant of CoVid-19 after having apparently recovered from a previous infection.
There are no conclusive reports as to whether this is a genuine second, unrelated infection or whether the original infection hid in the persons’ systems and mutated in that host.

We are now hearing, too, that the original estimates of how long the virus would survive on surfaces were low and that we should now regard 72 hours as the lifespan on non-porous surfaces.

That raises huge questions over handrails in public transport, on steps into buildings and, of course, the rubber bands in escalators and travelators – the latter of which are most commonly found in the very places where no one is producing accurate data on infection rates – airside at airports.

And, of course, escalators are a principle feature of shopping centres (malls) and, therefore, while track and trace software identifies individual shops that an infected person has been in, he's also been using escalators, lifts, etc.

Is sealing a single shop for cleaning a big enough response?

The debate over opening borders remains hidebound in politics rather than reality: it makes no sense to ban the holders of passports from a particular country.

Countries have long managed infections of serious disease with reference to travel history.

That has been to take action of some form against those who have been to an infected area within a set period of time.

When governments are talking about ″travel bubbles″ they are, these days, talking about bubbles for each others’ citizens. There is a a reason for it: as part of a bilateral bubble arrangement, express agreement can be made with regard to healthcare for the other party’s citizens. But can we trust bubbles?

Apparently not: the Trans-Tasman Bubble – between Australia and New Zealand – allowed for passengers on flights between designated areas.
Due to the high infection rates in Melbourne which is seeing a lockdown being released, no flights went there.

But travellers simply booked to fly to Sydney, then a domestic flight to Melbourne. Their passports did not, of course, show that domestic trip.
So, it’s clear – what is really needed is to take account of travel history – at least as a significant factor given equal precedence with nationality.
There is great debate over the question of airport testing.

It seems to be working in Hong Kong. Yes, the border is not fully open but it is relatively open compared to many others.

The system is that arriving passengers are tested on disembarkation and must remain in the airport until their results are known which is usually about 12 hours.
Then, if they are negative, they must immediately go home and isolate themselves, even from their own families, for 14 days.

Malaysia has a variation: arrivals are taken directly to an approved quarantine centre – usually a nice hotel often in Kuala Lumpur city centre – where they are isolated individually or in a family unit in a room and tested on arrival and again just before the days’ quarantined period is up.

Those arriving are responsible for the fees which can reach almost GBP1,000.

This system is because people, including at least one senior politician, refused to stay at home for quarantine when required to do so, even though that home quarantine is less stringent than that required in Hong Kong.

In both cases, there has been a dramatic reduction in imported cases and, by the strategic use of lock-downs of various degrees of severity, there have been – until something goes wrong – dramatic reductions in domestic transmission.

In Hong Kong, the infection map shows a fascinating skewing of rates: the Island and outlying islands and the New Territories have a far lower infection rate that Tsim Sha Tsui, the tip of the mainland.

In Malaysia, the mainland was doing exceptionally well but uncontrolled movements between Sabah, which had a serious but contained problem centred, mainly, around a detention camp, and the Mainland saw cases carried back first by recreational divers and then by those involved in the Sabah state election.

Another significant outbreak in Kedah on the mainland near the border with Thailand, has also seen people moving around.

The country has gone from about a dozen cases a day to, now, consistently above 800 per day in about three weeks. Controls on movement have now been re-imposed in a several districts.

Added to all of this is that there is the prospect of ″Long Covid-19″ which is now becoming apparent.

How much of a problem it is remains uncertain. The attention being paid to it in the media is probably not represented by the statistics – but so far there are not enough statistics to give a clear impression.

Need we be overly concerned about ″Long CoVid-19″?

Yes, it’s a worry and yes, people are suffering a diverse and serious range of symptoms but… this behaviour by the virus – mutating and/or coming back within the same host is by no means novel.

Many types of flu recur and the symptoms are not always the same, nor of the same intensity. This is a long-standing and well-known feature of such virus.

The fact that the virus has multiple variants (a fact that has been confirmed, denied, then confirmed again) and that it appears to mutate means that virologists are constantly chasing it to understand it – and until they understand it, no one can produce a vaccine that will work in, even, most cases.

Even more complicated is the question as to whether the virus attacks different races in different ways or if there is more than one form of the virus and infection, or severity, depends on race.

Given that it is now established that the strain most prevalent in Italy is different to that most prevalent in the UK and from that most prevalent in Pakistan and from that most prevalent in Malaysia and so on, it is clear that while there are core elements to them, they are not the same and therefore treatment and possible immunisation must take account of that.

Racial markers, locality, age and just sheer bad luck seem to have at least some responsibility.

There are a number of different vaccines being developed.

The Russian vaccine touted by President Putin appears to have been, either, a hoax or a wildly optimistic statement.

If all of the others are all working on identical strains of the virus, then we are gaining the chance for a quick response but losing the chance to develop what we might term a broad-spectrum vaccination.

Ditto with treatments.

It is important to realise that the SARS infection (2003) was not declared a pandemic. It killed around 8,000 people but it remains active.

And there is still no vaccine.

The whole risk argument is being undermined by US President Trump and his strongest supporters: no one is asking the big question – how can he have had such serious symptoms as were claimed and yet be driving around waving just three days after being admitted to hospital and back, mask-less, at the White House the next day?

Trump was treated with a cocktail of drugs which are mostly those available to ordinary Americans but, media reports say, he had extras. Before he went to hospital, he was dosed with an experimental anti-body drug from Regeneron. But it’s not approved by the Food and Drugs Administration.

Trump was given Remdesivir which the World Health Organisation says has not been demonstrated to have any positive effect – but the FDA has approved it despite known serious side effects. Trump went home while still being given the drug through a drip. And he was given dexamethasone. It’s a steroid designed to be anti-inflammatory.

It’s cheap and it’s easy to get but it adversely affects the immune system and, as we know, CoVid-19 doesn’t kill – it undermines the immune system so that other things kill the patient.

But, despite that, it has been demonstrated to have success in some cases. But not that much – around a quarter of those treated with it have died.

And yet, the most telling statistics are in relation to the relative infection-to-death rates.

In parts of Europe, the recent trend is for the previously considered low risk groups of 25-60 (ish) to have seen a significant increase. There is no clear explanation as to why. The generally claimed idea that it’s because they are rebellious, don’t do (anti)social distancing or wear masks, amongst other things, doesn’t really hold water in most areas.

But, if we remove age as an identifier, the bald stats show that, in most places, while infection rates are rising, the proportion that is hospitalised is much lower than in the early stages and the fatality rate is lower still.

This is assumed to be because medics now have far greater experience: to be blunt, they now know what they are dealing with.

That’s not to be under-estimated as infection numbers increase at a startling rate and temporary hospitals that had been mothballed are again prepared for use; and all of this before, in the northern hemisphere, the flu season starts.

Yet the biggest difficulties that are being created are not the virus, per se. They are human problems.

All of these factors mean that planning is never final: every plan has to have a plan b, plan c and maybe even a start-all-over-again plan. Every decision has to be reviewed in the light of constantly changing circumstances.

Ironically, given instructions, managers can implement plans within their own organisations. But not only do the instructions keep changing, they do so in ways that are fundamental to the business and, worse, often at very short notice.

Add in that the managers also have to deal with similar changes at home: is there a lockdown, is going out for a walk permitted, can I sit on my garden chair and have a quiet moment, can I go out to buy toothpaste or is that not classed as ″a necessity″? And if I can do those things today, will I be able to do them tomorrow.

The minutiae of life become major decisions. Nothing can be done on autopilot. And for managers working at home, that is doubly so. And there is no one to turn to because husbands and wives are having their own problems with the same issues and no one wants to add to their spouse’s burden.

The loneliness of the long-distance manager should not be under-estimated. They are having to be brave for everyone. Their families, their staff, their customers, their bankers or other sources of finance.

They are juggling great balls of fire.

There are those who think teleconferencing is a pretty neat idea.

Well, it was, in the 1990s (been there, done that, got bored with it). As the crisis deepened and working from home became a long-term situation, its limitations soon became obvious.

And while for intergovernmental conferences with tribes of hangers-on it would save taxpayers vast amounts of money, in the commercial world it’s rubbish.
There are people who have been trapped by border controls, away from their families, now, for as many as nine months. And away from their offices, too.
Even those with distributed organisations within countries have been unable, in many cases, to visit offices and plant away from the centre.

And still they have to pretend it’s all OK while drawing up plans that will inevitably involve default on leases of premises, plant and machinery, breaches of banking covenants, preparing to make high proportions of loyal staff redundant, failing to pay suppliers knowing that the survival of their own company might involve the knowing destruction of someone else’s.

While management books all too often glory the modern equivalent of robber barons, those who have no concern for anything except the bottom line and, of course, their own bonuses that is not who actually runs companies.

The people who run companies are, mostly, people with consciences, people who care about the consequences of their actions, people who are lying awake at night.
They are the in-house lawyers who are resigning their posts because they can’t face issuing repossession notices against tenants.

They are the payroll clerks who know the names and often the families of the people who will soon receive their last pay cheque and face the prospect that a representative of their bank will soon knock on the door of their home and demand the keys.

They are, often, not the HR directors who are insulated by an illusion that they are untouchable but their own teams who, daily, are issuing appointments for staff to hand in their laptops, electronic tags and car park passes – even their cars.

These people are real. I know some of them and I’m sure you do, too.

They are the invisible casualties. I know some who have not had a good night’s sleep in months. I know others who break down in tears without warning or explanation. And I know some who are choosing to resign because they can see that their job is going to become so unpleasant that their own misery will be insufferable.

These are hidden victims; these are the victims that the media isn’t noticing because the focus is driven by narrow political interests.

Yes, it’s horrible that an airline is making several thousand people redundant; but spare a thought for those who have to reach those awful decisions and implement them when, let’s face it, no one did anything wrong to put their company or the whole world in this situation.

This is not like the global financial crisis where we can trace the source back to a clear origin and negligence by, amongst others, the US Federal Reserve.
This is not the spread of a combination of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima and Krakatoa in one.

It’s worse. And its consequences will be felt far and wide for a long time.

And there are people trying to minimise the harms without recognition.

Yet, they are just as much front-liners as the medics who bravely went into wards filled with infected people not knowing what would protect them.

Their injuries may not have obvious physical signs – but increasingly some do as exhaustion and tics are manifesting themselves – but they are no less real.

We have a course, ″Lockdown and Beyond″ which draws attention to many of the management threats that were apparent several months ago – and which have since become a reality. It’s free. See https://learning.financialcrimeriskandcompliancetraining.com/courses/fin...

Look after yourselves and others. Wear a mask, stay a safe distance apart, wash your hands and your face and stay safe and well.