Memia 2020.25: Remote work - notes from a Covid🦠intermission😷// tech regulation - pick a regime⚖️// government and the algorithms🔀// this week caffeine is ok for you☕


Lots to write about this week, here goes…

The most clicked link in the last issue (~10% of openers) was the stunning animated AR sculpture by @mpkoz.

Remote work - notes from a Covid🦠intermission😷

Here in Covid-intermission Aotearoa we’ve been getting back into daily work “normality”, currently free from the virus but watchful of events elsewhere.

For information workers at least, there’s a new in-person/remote work balance currently being negotiated between the old and the new way of doing things. How working patterns evolve here in AoNZ will likely be a lead indicator for the rest of the world post-pandemic so it’s significant to watch. There are some interesting fault lines emerging:

  • CBInsights put out an interesting report Reopening: The Tech-Enabled Office In A Post-Covid World: lots of tech hacks to reduce physical contact and virus spread among coworkers.

  • Meanwhile one commercial real estate expert says that activity-based-working combined with WFH policies could reduce real estate requirements by up to 30-50 percent.

  • …Which begs the question: where is the urge to get back to the office and in-person business at all driven from? The time savings (no commuting, no driving from meeting to meeting, no cafe queues even), lack of travel inconvenience (who misses airport lounges and Uber really?), real estate cost savings and reduced carbon emissions of working virtually are provably compelling when everyone does it. There’s a network effect here to be observed.

  • Many companies worldwide are reporting being more productive with staff working remotely. (…While at the same time some workers are reporting impacts to their mental and physical health - it’s definitely not all rose tinted).

  • …Some teams are now split between those choosing to stay remote and those who are back in the office. So what is the convention here? Do those in the office sit down at their desktop PCs for team meetings (even if they are sitting next to each other physically) - or do they get together in a meeting room and VC in remote colleagues? (Does the close-quarters exchange of pheromones and high-fidelity body language exclude those attending remotely? Do those attending remotely create a drag on overall team output by not being there in person…? Or the other way around?)

  • …When we do catchup in person, what are the new business manners? Now, when offered a hearty handshake I find myself instinctively taking a step backwards and returning a limp elbow bump instead (or failing that a Japanese-style bow)…during the lockdown some mental image clicked about how easily germs get transmitted from hand to hand… not sure I would go back.🤢

Underlying some of these tensions are changes to established power dynamics at work - recent research has found that remote work flips the leadership power relationship - "classic" leadership characteristics, such as extroversion and intelligence, are valued by team members in face-to-face gatherings - but in virtual settings, those qualities take a backseat to facilitation and action. Plus there are likely some generational / technology familiarity factors in play as well.

But even the most technologically advanced companies building bleeding edge virtual presence platforms are still requiring physical colocation, at least for now: Facebook is hiring roles for its Horizon VR universe…but which still have to be based physically in US West Coast offices.

The US Covid-19 outbreak has forced at least a temporary change in position - in May Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg targeted 50% remote workers by 2030. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google parent Alphabet just announced that Google workers won’t need to return to the office until mid-2021. And Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square recently announced that staff will be able to work from home permanently, even once offices begin to reopen:

"We want employees to be able to work where they feel most creative and productive," - Jack Dorsey

So…what does this mean for businesses here in AoNZ, tech or not? Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz writing in HBR sum up the issues comprehensively: Does Your Company Have a Long-Term Plan for Remote Work?

“We suspect that the workforces of Twitter and Facebook will be less remote in 10 years than their leaders are predicting today, but much more remote than they could have imagined six months ago. The real issue, however, is not whose predictions turn out to be right or wrong (no one has a crystal ball), but whether those leaders are thinking deeply enough about what they want their new work paradigm to achieve — and whether they can architect and construct systems that will allow them to meet their objectives.”

The even bigger picture here is how the lockdown exposed fundamental structural issues in the economy which are now right out there in plain sight:

  • unnecessary carbon emissions and pollution from commuting and other business travel

  • productivity deficits due to unnecessary time spent commuting, travelling for work and paying rent for office real estate that isn’t needed any more with new communications tech

  • business continuity challenges for physically anchored businesses in emergency events (say, like a pandemic or earthquake🤔)

  • more fundamentally: final emancipation from geographic isolation, eliminating the tyranny of distance of doing business inside and outside New Zealand in person:

    • Making remote working the natural default in AoNZ from now on can only improve the global interconnections of Kiwi workers and firms as the world recovers from Covid.

    • (This has a flip side in that it opens roles previously insulated from international competition to remote outsourcing - why hire an insurance adjuster in Auckland when there’s one in Manila for 25% of the cost…)

AoNZ productivity policy could be quickly tweaked to counter the instinct to slip back into a default of high proximity, high travel work patterns. (If only 10% of jobs were WFH 3-4 days per week on average… how many car journeys / commuting hours / carbon emissions would that save? And would the economy take a hit or actually accelerate?)

There could be a role for legislation - for example

  • making employment relationships “remote by default” unless organisations can prove according to certain guidelines that the role requires physical presence.

  • greater tax incentives for staff home office use (…a boom in “workout” rather than “sleepout” cabins ensues…)

… or perhaps market forces will just do it anyway?

Tech regulation - pick a regime⚖️

Benedict Evans writes an excellent global-perspective essay on regulating technology: in short, it’s going to happen, it’s very complicated and it will vary across regulatory regimes:

2020 Shoulders of Giants 1.1.107.png

Locally, AoNZ will need to align with one of these regimes to be effective because, with an annual national R&D spend of just NZ$2.4Bn ($US1.6Bn) we are somewhat dwarfed:

Related: great article last weekend from Stuff’s Katie Kenny: The Government wants to filter the internet. Is that a good idea?

Government and the algorithms🔀

The long awaited cross-government Algorithm Charter was released with commitments from 21 agencies and a handy algorithm risk matrix:

A policy “world first” for Aotearoa - but will be interesting to track progress in a few years and see if it measurably achieves its goals of more fairness - and/or if it makes investment in public sector efficiency and automation even more risk averse than it is already.😬

[Weak] signals

So much emerging tech to cover this week, mostly just hyperlinks below to fit inside max email size:

  • Materials science:

    • New 3D Graphene shape is 10 times stronger than steel but 5% the density:


And also a busier week than usual in Aotearoa tech:

  • Paul Spain argues for a new Kiwi silicon valley in response to Covid-19. Hmmm. Where would the venture capital come from?

  • And hot off the press, electricity lines company Vector has announced a strategic partnership with AWS for the New Energy Platform (NEP), an IoT and analytics solution for the energy industry targeted at Australia and AoNZ. I saw Vector CDO Nikhil Ravishankar present their early progress last year and it looked compelling - basically a granular real-time digital twin of the Auckland lines network which allows data-driven decisions for end-consumers to attach new solutions like micro-generation, battery storage and EVs to the electricity network.

Hidden gems

Spotted around the internet this week:

  • Whānau Mārama / NZ International Film Festival (#nziff2020) is on from this week - and this year with online streaming as well as cinemas! Tech festival pick: Coded Bias directed by Shalini Kantayya. (Ht to my good friend @InaBeeK and the whole NZIFF team for an amazing outcome in pandemic year!)

  • Ever wondered about the P vs NP problem? BBC’s In Our Time is replaying old podcasts over the UK summer and this one goes deep.

  • ☕Nothing to see here: Why many New Zealanders may be addicted to caffeine. But health science expert Eric Topol delivers better news (phew):

  • I have a joke about… is a meme doing the rounds on Twitter:

  • But seriously, no joke here: 🧍👩👨📷📺

That’s it for another week - thanks as always to those readers who take the time to get in touch with links and feedback!

Regards / Ngā mihi