24 Apr 2020

Our giant 'Green Eggs and Ham' moment

From Two Cents' Worth, 2:30 pm on 24 April 2020

The Covid-19 lockdown has forced a 'Green Eggs and Ham' moment on many businesses and government departments which could jumpstart our adoption of digital technology and productivity.

Man working on notebook, with a fresh cup of tea or coffee. Home work concept.

Covid-19 has forced us to switch to digital technologies and it hasn't been all bad. Photo: 123RF

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New Zealand businesses, hospitals, schools and GPs offices have been told for years to 'go digital', but for just as many years they've found reasons to avoid it.

It was too hard to or too expensive to adopt online collaboration tools such as Slack or Trello and videoconferencing tools such as Skype or Microsoft Teams.

It always seemed simpler just to turn around in the office and ask a colleague, or organise another meeting, if you could book the conference room space.

But in the last four weeks, that has all changed.

New Zealand's relatively low adoption of digital technologies, particularly in our myriad of small businesses and the bigger government departments such as Health, Education and Justice, has been cited as a factor in our poor productivity performance over the last decade.

Output per hour worked has broadly stagnated for much of the last ten years, in part because much of the economy remained insular, undigitised and office-bound.

Until March 25 that is, when a giant forced experiment in remote working began with just a couple of days notice.

A month in and many of us have been pleasantly surprised at how we could cope.

The video conferencing tools, especially Zoom, actually worked. Using Slack and Dropbox and Google Docs turned out to be easier than we thought. Many in traditional office environments found they saved hours not having to commute to their CBD offices or between cities.

It turned out to be easier than many thought to avoid the old habits of spending hours scrolling through our inboxes, traipsing back and forth to conference rooms, or going out for 'quick coffees' in the CBD.

Minister of Finance Grant Robertson speaking at the briefing for a Covid-19 daily update on 17 April, 2020.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson's advice for Zoom meetings: "You need a good chair and people have learned to use the function to raise your hand." Photo: Pool / NZME

The best example was at the heart of Government itself, where the Cabinet started having daily meetings with ministers attending remotely via Zoom, at least for agenda items not deemed to be of the highest security level.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the Zoom cabinet meetings had gone remarkably well and the transition was very quick.

"You need a good chair and people have learned to use the function to raise your hand. And so, you know, the cabinet ministers put up their little blue hands as the rest of us do when we're doing zoom calls. And the Prime Minister is a very adept chair. And so she makes sure that those meetings run," Robertson said.

New Zealand's telecommunications networks also handled an immediate 50 percent increase in data traffic at various times of the day as up to 90 percent of workers settled into working from home where they could.

Spark's Technology Director Mark Beder said the networks were relatively well prepared because of the rollout of Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) and the beefing up of networks to cope with Rugby World Cup streaming last year.

Former New Zealand international Richie McCaw holds the Rugby World Cup trophy during the tournament's opening ceremony at the Tokyo Stadium in Tokyo on September 20, 2019,

Beefing up networks to cope with the 2019 Rugby World Cup prepared us for working from home during this pandemic. Photo: AFP

"The ability to work from home for New Zealanders, if you went back two or three years, we probably wouldn't have had that ability," Beder said.

New Zealand's mobile networks have also helped fill in the gaps, with Spark, Vodafone and 2Degrees all investing heavily in their 4G and 4.5G networks in the last couple of years.

Vodafone’s Wholesale and Infrastructure Director Tony Baird said the UFB rollout had helped, along with intense mobile network competition.

"Between 2Degrees, Spark and Vodafone, we've got a very resilient and high capacity 4G network. So between the UFB rollout and mobile data, I think we've done very well," Baird said.

"Obviously for the Rugby World Cup, we put extra video capacity and extra hand over link capacity for the data and video side of it. And we've been rolling out more cell sites as part of our overall infill programs across the country," he said.

Workers at home, along with their kids, filled their boots with hours and hours spent talking to colleagues, friends and family on Zoom, Slack, Skype, Google Hangouts, House Party and Discord.

A photo of a woman who is working from home while she cares for a child at the same time. A woman with a child is sitting in a bright room.

Fully utilising video-conferencing tools has solved some problems of working from home. Photo: 123rf

Global technology commentator Benedict Evans said this forced and fast adoption of remote working tools had happened all over the world and many will never want to go back to the old ways.

"So you basically had a third or half of the world's population now trying to video call for work for the first time, having never tried it before and seeing it works," said Evans, who is a former partner at tech investor Andreeson Horowitz.

"And it won't always work, but there'll be kind of a whole class of things where you think, hang on a second. Did I need to go an hour there and an hour back to meet that person? Did we need to get 25 people in a room to have that meeting once a week, or can you do it from wherever you are" he said.

Could the growth of Zoom from 10 million users to 200 million users in a space of six weeks be a type of iPhone moment, whereby existing technologies were combined in a single functional one that made it easy for consumers to use, and in doing so changed an entire way of life?

"I would actually use the analogy of Dropbox, because the part of the founding story of Dropbox is that the founder, Drew Houston, went round telling everybody what he wanted to build and everyone said, don't be silly, there's hundreds of these things. And he said, Yes, but which one do you use?

"And that's kind of the story with Zoom. It is not quite the same because, you know, a lot of people were using Facetime, and were using Hangouts, (they) were using those tools. But for doing particularly big calls with lots of people having a URL that you can just tap on to go into the call, without ever having to dial in at exactly the same time and being invited. They kind of went through and removed all sorts of little teeny tiny pieces of friction. But when you added them all up, somehow made it much easier for everyone can use."

Evans said Zoom seemed to be in the right place at the right time, even though it is not radically different from its predecessors.

"So if you use WebEx or Microsoft Teams or BlueJeans or something, they're actually kind of the same. But somehow Zoom captured that zeitgeist and captured that moment. And because they'd removed enough of these pieces of friction that it was easy to get into, they've ridden the moment."

But how much of this change in behaviour will stick? Will we ever go back to our offices?

"When a new tool comes along, you start by making the old work fit the new tool, and then over time, you change how you work to fit the new tool. So you start by forcing the new tool to fit the way you're already doing stuff. And then over time, you change how you do stuff," Evans said.

He pointed out that many people in the early days of email used to print them all out to read them as if they were actual letters put into a mailbox.

Close-up Of Person Putting Stack Of Letters In Mailbox

People used to print emails out to read them as if they were letters. Photo: 123rf

"And then people said hang on, I don’t need to print my email or say 'Dear Sir' at the start," he said.

"A kind of classic example of this is every big company has people who every week pull a bunch of data off some internal system and make charts and put the charts into PowerPoint and then email a PowerPoint to everyone. There was a point where actually they would be printing the PowerPoint and giving it to everyone. And then they were, hey, we could e-mail this PowerPoint now and then someone said, 'Hang on. You could put that in Google Drive and then it would always be the same up-to-date copy. And you would have people say, this is great. And then someone says, hang on, we should just generate that dashboard on a web page and you shouldn't have to make the PowerPoint every week."

It can also change things for the worse. Sometimes a quick email can be a dangerous thing...

"Sometimes you need to see the person. I used to joke that, you know, every e-mail app ought to have a button that says, screw you, that doesn't actually send a message. You know, when you're going to write the email, you should walk to their desk and say, look. Okay, that's an issue. Let's work this out."

Evan describes this forced experiment as a "Green Eggs and Ham" moment.

A moment, when institutions like government, the courts, healthcare and education are forced to really get on board with remote working technology; a moment that gives our whole economy a productivity boost.

"The U.K. went from zero to remote primary care consultation with a 48-hour tender period. The U.K. a whole bunch of court systems around the world switched to remote hearings, which would never have been countenanced two months ago. And again, some of that will stick."

The big problem in government in the past is that the user of the technology was not often the buyer, which has meant it was a slow adopter of technology. That means whoever is selling the technology needed to convince the bosses and the ministers, rather than the doctors and teachers and nurses and defence lawyers.

"The people that I know who spent their life in enterprise sales will say that the job of an enterprise sales force is not to persuade the user, it's not to persuade the head of surgery or the headteacher that you need this. It's to help them work out how the hell they get their organisation to buy it. The people who will never use the product get a veto on it being deployed," he said.

"And to work out their own internal processes and why it is that IT says there's no budget and how you change that answer. And that's actually the challenge of getting these products deployed, which is why it's sort of the innovation graveyard."

However, there have been security challenges.

As more of us use teleconference platforms such as Zoom, the FBI is now warning these meetings can be hijacked by 'zoom bombing' where unwanted visitors spray abuse and porn around the room.

The New York Times also reported on an example of Zoom-bombers using the app’s annotation feature to write racist messages in a meeting of the American Jewish Committee in Paris. 

But many of these problems can be dealt with with the right permission settings inside the system, and some basic online hygiene.

Meanwhile, economists who study productivity are hopeful this change in our working circumstances will deliver a one-off jolt higher in productivity.

"I'm excited about it. I reckon there's heaps of opportunity coming down the track from this thing," said BNZ economist Paul Conway, who spent nearly a decade as the Director of Research at the Productivity Commission. He’s hopeful this forced digitisation of the economy will help open it up to the world and improve productivity.

"We'll never go back to being the way it was. And I think part of that is that we're learning from our crash course in digital that it's actually quite handy. And if we grab that and run with it now, all sorts of things will come from that. We'll find it's not just dodging pandemics that it's useful for. It's actually useful for connecting," Conway said.

Beautiful view from top in a Waiheke Island, New Zealand with a beautiful blue sky and a white sand in a sunny day.

BNZ economist Paul Conway thinks we're in the best place in the world to face the pandemic and economic fall out from it.  Photo: 123RF

"I think we're in the best place in the world, to be honest, to be facing this pandemic and the economic fallout from it," he said.

"We're having a crash course in digital and we can feed ourselves. We can quarantine our borders. We can sort of hunker down for a good long while," he said.

"In time that will spill over into the shape of cities, how we think about public transport, how we think about roading, all sorts of things. We could have autonomous bus networks, all of these things become possible in a digital future.

"You could imagine that congestion, one of the biggest hassles of life for people in Auckland ordinarily, gets a lot better because we can use our existing infrastructure a lot more effectively. We're not all trying to go to work at the same time. It will change the way we live. It'll change the way we work and it'll change the shape of our cities."

"I'm enjoying my diet of green eggs and ham."