In 2016 I became extremely invested in rock climbing. I had just quit my job as a teacher and was giving esports a chance. Working for a team meant that I was working sporadically throughout the day…
When I ran the Financial Conduct Authority, we thought a lot about risk. It was a big part of how we supervised banks. They had to have risk committees, who would typically consist of 50-plus year old, predominantly male individuals who would meet once a month and pore over something called a Risk Register. The Risk Register would capture all risks that the company faced and would act as a challenge to Management on the plans it had in place to manage or mitigate those risks.
The worry for a big company is that there are risks it can’t manage, such as competitor actions, pricing pressure, or worst of all, regulatory intervention. But small companies like Jigsaw XYZ don’t have the luxury (or pain) of having to think of all the things that might go wrong. Jigsaw is an agile company that responds to most risks as they arise and then pivots quickly to deal with them. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to worry about. There are always immediate worries, such as cash flow (i.e. will we make payroll at the end of the month), meeting deadlines, making sure everyone is happy, or keeping the fridge fully stocked. Pandemics are not on that list.
The risks for big companies typically range from the fairly mundane (we might lose our chief engineer) to so-called ‘fat tail risks’ or ‘black swan’ events. The origin of the phrase ‘black swan’ comes from the old world presumption that all swans were white, until in 1697 Dutch explorers reached Australia and became the first Europeans to discover that black swans did, in fact, exist, and were native to Western Australia. The phrase then developed as a way of describing previously unimagined events as nonetheless possible.
The problem with trying to capture black swan events is that the list of potential events is almost unlimited and difficult to manage, covering anything from an unpronounceable volcano shutting down air travel to the Earth getting hit by a giant asteroid. The result is that Risk Registers have strong biases towards known risks and only factor in fat tail risks after the event.
A recent example is that while lots of companies had backup computer centres before 9/11 (there was no cloud in those days), not all did, but afterwards every major bank had full backup in case there was a complete loss of operational capability. Before the financial crisis and the collapse of Lehman, banks would lend to each other believing that they were all guaranteed, then they stopped and we had a LIBOR crisis.
Pandemics are not technically a black swan event as they have historically happened every 50 years or so, but they were certainly not on most people’s Risk Registers. They would tend to be captured under some vague heading like ‘loss of operational capability’. The mitigation plan would likely be some mix of backup sites and working from home arrangements.
What makes our current situation so different is that it is not just a single company, city, or country event, or just a brief temporary disruption of normal business. It is worldwide, and a year long and counting.
Cash flow and empty fridges
The initial challenges of managing through a pandemic such as this have emerged in phases. The first for Jigsaw and many small companies came down to how our customers might respond. As a small business relying on a few business relationships and typically short term contracts, what our customers do is key.
Unfortunately, the first response is often to put everything on hold. Either contracts that are imminent are not signed or those that are in flight are cancelled. This then fairly quickly turns into a cash flow issue.
The key has been to keep those discussions open so that, after the initial knee-jerk response, there is an ongoing dialogue. The other focus has been to keep on prospecting new clients, which is especially important considering that everyone has persistently underestimated the longevity of this crisis (anyone remember the Eat Out to Help Out scheme?).
Productivity from the kitchen table
Working from home is not a new phenomenon but was for most people manageable as an adjunct to physically visiting the office. They could take a flexible approach depending on other commitments such as school runs or exercise. When gyms, schools and parks closed, there was suddenly a lot of pressure on physical domestic office setups, and a lot of stress in managing these new arrangements while still delivering against deadlines.
Most people who are used to working from the office don’t have a home office. It gets squeezed in as needed and then cleared again to make space for food prep/homeschooling/Zoom yoga (delete as appropriate).
Privately compiling reports and the semi-quiet tapping of a keyboard has been replaced by the noisy intrusion of Zoom. This only adds to the ‘kitchen table’ pressure, as we now need not just a physical space but noise separation as well, and while we can provide the technical connectivity, most of these physical demands fall back on individual circumstances.
The loss of a physical office also means the loss of many intangibles. The office is not just a workplace but a social hub as well, whether it’s the chance to yell across the room, break out with a colleague for a coffee or fresh air, or settle down to after work drinks.
A year without this affects everyone differently, but it can have a profound impact on our individual health and wellbeing. Jigsaw has put a lot of effort into trying to recreate the buzz of the office in a virtual environment. It can never be completely replicated but I think we have tried hard and learnt a lot along the way.
There is still no clear path to returning to a new normal, or even what that new normal might be. Some of the big banks have already said the new normal is just the old normal and everyone should be back at their desks soon.
For Jigsaw, I think the waves of lockdown have simply accelerated features of how we were already working, including working from home, flexible working, Zoom conferencing and spending fewer days in the office, but with a balance that still involves physical interaction, and importantly, choice. The exact blend is going to be different for everyone.
I don’t think anyone can say they’ve had a good pandemic (although, in fact, my builder says he has), but Jigsaw has not only survived but has emerged stronger as a company.
Get uncensored information for stakeholders of a free and open Internet. “The DNS Decrypt” is published by Greg Thomas in The Query.