PPPPreparation and Preservation... - Four P's #151

Thinking outside AND inside boxes.

We’re back with four new P's after a one week break for the holidays, and it wasn't easy narrowing things down. There's a lot going on, both in the outside world and inside my head but let's start Episode 151 by wishing my super smart, sassy Sydney a super 7th birthday this week! We'll be in-person, outdoors at a local park, making slime with like two dozen of her friends.

This party is yet another sign of our recovery. While there are still so many troubling signs challenges that COVID keeps throwing at us, it's impossible to ignore the progress compared to where we were a year ago, when we had to quickly convert Sydney's party to one of the first (of what would be many, many) Zoom virtual birthday parties over the past year.

So without wasting any more time, here are the Four P’s for this week:

  1. Call it a Comeback

  2. Thinking INSIDE the Box

  3. My Problem With Problem-Solving

  4. Go Tuck Yourself


SOMETHING PERSONAL: Call it a Comeback

A few months ago, the New York Times shared an ominous prediction that New York City's tourist economy may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2025.  That sounds really far away… but signs of life are starting to pop up. Baseball. Basketball. Bars. BBQs. Sunbathing. Hopefully all while following the proper safety and health protocols.

Another sign of life: I returned to my office last week, in the heart of midtown, for the first time in 13 months. It was only for one day. And I was there mostly alone, present only so that we could do some minor work on our HVAC and tech stack. I also have no idea when I'll be back again.

Truthfully, I was filled with a range of emotions: excited to be outside of my house, of course. But it was eerie being in this big, open office space, with things still exactly where they were left on people's desks, frozen in time since March 10th, 2020 (if you're counting, 400 days later). Walking out for lunch, I was pleasantly surprised to see more activity, people, and life than I expected. While not even close to what a beautiful spring day might look like on Fifth Avenue near Central Park, there were plenty of construction projects and workers to keep some of the remaining restaurants and bodegas open with a limited lunch staff and menu.

No, my comfort level with public transit is not at all there, but I did make good time driving into Manhattan in less than an hour. The return trip was not as favorable. Somehow, I waited 20 minutes for my car at the parking garage, then spent two hours stuck in rush-hour traffic matching any pre-pandemic congestion.

As for tourists, I do not think I saw a single out-of-towner (not counting commuters from the suburbs) in any of my 10 hours in Manhattan. That sounds like a native New Yorker's dream, but we truly depend on tourism as a foundational pillar of our success. A colleague was visiting NYC from Baltimore last week said she didn't see anyone else at her hotel besides a skeleton staff, and there was dust on the furniture in her room.

What would a city without a full tourist economy even look like these next 3-4 years? New York drew a record 66.6 million visitors in 2019 and was on pace for even more in 2020. But 2021 looks like it will only get about 25-30% of that. New York’s economy has been hit harder than most other major American cities. Thousands of shops and restaurants, many of which rely on out-of-town visitors, and several large hotels have closed for good. Hotels that hosted homeless New Yorkers to stop the spread are barely hanging on. Broadway remains dark. International travel is all but halted. And by 2024, that number likely will not return to the 13.5 million international visitors we saw in 2018 and 2019.

At this point, vaccine deployment is our best hope at accelerating a recovery. I'm excited to report that as of this past weekend, I'm now fully vaccinated, as are about 30% of New Yorkers. We're getting there, and faster than the others. But until everyone, everywhere gets their vaccine, it's going to be a quiet summer in the Big Apple.


SOMETHING PROFESSIONAL: Thinking INSIDE the Box

Being back in the office, I was acutely aware of the set up we left behind:

Open floors, long bench seating, common areas, circular ventilation, closed "phone booths" and lots of collaborative space.  It was truly the modern office model for facilitating collaboration and cultural connection. Now, it's a COVID nightmare.

Those who have returned to offices, school, and other common locations spaces are getting acclimated to dividers, plexiglass screens, and other measures of physical separation. It's more of this "new normal!" Businesses large and small, national and international, are re-thinking lots of things, and continue to adapt their long-term plans. My company will only go back, at most, in a staggered, partial capacity.

But as I sat at my desk last week, conscious of how close the next (empty) desk is to me, I began dreaming of cubicles. Until the last decade, cubicles in offices were standard. And for those who cannot #WFH indefinitely, don't you kind of hope we return to an office filled with partitions and cubicles?

Office spaces have gone back-and-forth, between open and closed spaces. Industrialization first inspired the idea of the "office" as a distinct workplace, separate from manual workers. With an increased focus on professional and physical efficiency, skyscrapers rose in cities, and more people worked in tighter spaces again.

Post-war offices fostered open, organic office landscape. Rather than relying on the hierarchical structures of rows of tables and efficiency-based office design, the mid-century office space began to thrive on the flow of human interaction, paper flow, and varying needs of privacy and interaction. This started in Europe, but soon crossed the Atlantic to the United States, where companies were eager to get rid of dingy offices and adopt more flexible spaces.

The development of specialization, departmentalization, and new ideas translated into burgeoning administrative branches in business. But, ugh, the distractions! Typewriters, people walking, chatting... Noisiness and a desire for privacy eventually compelled commercial designers to place sound screens between desks. This wasn’t entirely successful, however. High-pitched sounds or ringing phones could still be clearly heard, for instance, so screens ended up serving merely as a status symbol.

Despite innovative attempts at office design leading into the early 1970’s, it turned out that companies didn’t care much for progressive ideas such as “workspace mobility” or openness. Instead of spending money on carefully designed offices, companies wanted cheap solutions. Thinking inside the box led to the cubicle.

Nowadays, we're on more virtual calls and connecting remotely more than ever. We're spending more time working at home, alone, with more stretches of uninterrupted privacy than we’ve ever had in our careers. Freedom to stretch, grunt, pick our noses, talk loudly, belch after lunch, clip our nails at our desks and so much more. A return to social and communal workplaces must be gradual.

So, I say to you, Office Services teams, "Put up those walls!"


SOMETHING PRACTICAL: My Problem With Problem-Solving

It's been awhile since I've been on a job interview, but the one term I used to define myself more than any other: “problem-solver.” It's become such a meaningless cliché that has lost most meaning, yet problem-solving remains one of the most important, yet consistently neglected, skills in the modern workplace. With routine jobs declining around the world, more and more employees are being tasked with tackling open-ended challenges. But you don't need an MBA or Ph.D in statistics to be a great problem solver – you just need a good mix of left and right brain thinking.

To solve a problem, you first have to follow a process. Some people do this intuitively without breaking a sweat, and the basics are pretty simple – once you know them.

  • Define the challenge: To find useful solutions, you first have to understand that you have a problem or challenge. A mistake that I used to make as a less experienced professional would be to immediately start thinking about how you’re going to solve it.

  • Ask the right questions: Problem-solving only works if you’re answering the right questions. The problem-solving process has to start with thinking carefully about what question you’re trying to answer: Who is the audience? Who is deciding what tactics are adopted? What does success look like? How are we measuring it? When do things need to happen?

  • Break it down: Compartmentalizing a problem into smaller parts makes it easier to solve. Start with a hypothesis and the criteria needed to support it, then start discover what kind of data can solve the problem.

  • Use the Matrix: The best way to prioritize solutions is to look at the interaction of two factors: the scale of their impact and your ability to influence outcomes.

    • High-impact, low-influence solutions: These are the ideas that may be highly effective, but are beyond your influence.

    • Low-impact, low-influence solutions: Avoid these, obviously.

    • High-impact, high-influence solutions: This is the goal.

  • Get Help: A common mistake that talented people is to try and solve problems all on their own. With more than 100 common cognitive errors that any one of us can make individually, the best way to eradicate biases and individual mistakes is teamwork.

  • Do More With Data: Within that team, having data analysts and insightful strategists has always done me well. Of course, collecting data is one thing; using it to come up with beneficial solutions is another. As vital as data is to solving problems, it can’t really tell you anything on its own – you have to interpret it.

So if you happen to be sitting across from me in an interview at some point (or in a Google Meet virtual interview for the time being), here's your heads up that I'm not just going to take a superficial "problem-solving" response without probing deeper as to what that means to you. And if you're able to cite examples of high-impact, high-influence outcomes and creating egalitarian work processes, I'll hire you on the spot.


SOMETHING POLITICAL: Go Tuck Yourself

A couple of times per week, while scrolling between MSNBC and ESPN, I'll pause on Fox News to see what (and more often how) they are covering topics of the day. I can never keep it on for more than a few minutes. I can only do this during the daytime news hours.

No matter the news stories du jour, I still cannot muster up the strength to watch the opinion shows hosted by Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson after dark. They're all bad people. People who watch them are either bad people, themselves, or they’re just dumb. There is no third kind of viewer. Their shows are discriminatory, divisive, destructive, even deadly.

Unfortunately, as last week's latest Tucker Carlson damage proves, we cannot just ignore or dismiss him as a cook or a hateful white supremacist because his words reach millions. In an age where digital influencers are all the rage, traditionalist influencers are still far more influential. In fact, Carlson has the largest viewing audience on Fox News, and one of the largest on all of news television. 

Last Thursday night, Carlson espoused and expanded upon an increasingly louder racist trope: the "great replacement" theory. This is a fear-stoking narrative fueling "white replacement" anxiety -- an idea that white people in the United States are being intentionally replaced by immigrants, and thus, must fight back. While the topic of voter rights and suppression has been in the news most recently because of Georgia's own new racist law, Carlson claimed that "the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World." If that isn't blatant white supremacist theory, I don't know what is.

The Anti-Defamation League responded by calling on Fox to fire Carlson (they won't). Besides being just wrong, this type of rhetoric has deadly consequences. Along with downplaying the Capitol riots, hate-inspired mass shootings, and racist attacks, Carlson is encouraging hate. Even just ignoring discrimination and hateful violence fosters its repetition.

We've been told, repeatedly, to say something if we see something. Well I see something, and it's bad. So I'm saying something. You should, too. And make sure your racist, Tucker-loving friends and family can hear you when you do.

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