Hindsight WAS 2020
PREVIOUS AUTHORS REVISIT THEIR TOPICS, 2020 AND LOOK AHEAD...
It's the End of the World as We Know It
Just Like Every Day
2020 was the best year for learning. This might sound harsh amid a raging pandemic, so allow me to put this into context. People acquire behaviors by learning to obtain (real or conjectured) rewards and to avoid punishments 1. These rewards may range from feeling comfortable or in control over a situation to gaining status or belonging to a group.
This reward system has been shaken up for all of us. Coughing into a bent elbow or tissue nowadays leads to far more kudos than it ever did before. However, shaking hands when meeting new people – or even coming close to them – has almost overnight become a no-go. The changing circumstances caused by the pandemic have forced us to adapt. This aligns with the definition of health as ‘the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of social, physical, and emotional challenges’ 2. We are facing a public health crisis, and this crisis goes way beyond those directly affected by SARS-CoV-2. It is related to variation in the ability to adapt between people and the situations they suddenly have to live in 3.
Will 2021 surpass 2020 in terms of opportunity for learning? The art of crystal gazing is not the strong suit of a scientist. Luckily there is data available on support for various behavioral measures (e.g., physical distancing, wearing face masks) – not only now, but also if people need to keep this up for another six months 4. And these data reflect the variation in support not only between measures, but also between people. The first positive signs about possible Covid-19 vaccines have reached us. However, vaccines also bring new challenges, such as whom to vaccinate first and how to organize this, and what if people are hesitant to do so? In other words, there is still a lot of learning left to be done.
So, is it the end of the world as we know it? Yes, it is. Just like every day. The pandemic only forces us to shift gears and adapt at a faster pace. Unfortunately, there is collateral damage that comes with it.
Uber is Doing the Right Thing
In 2020, I learned how unaware the average person is (myself included) about being nudged into making certain choices. Due to big data, we are precisely targeted, and often. While the authors of Nudge say all nudges should be transparent, the reality is they aren’t. Like any tool used by humans, it comes down to who’s using it and what they intend to do with it. In this case, Uber got caught mishandling its tools, proving that the time to discuss ethical rules for nudging is now. The discussion should come from the top down, whatever the industry.
But Helping During the Pandemic
I also wrote how Uber vowed to change with the times (meaning the pandemic), claiming it wanted to 'establish a better standard of work for all who need it.' As a business built on getting people and things from A to B, Uber has shown great resilience during the lockdown, providing 23 million free rides 5, meals and deliveries for those in need. Uber seemed to be making good on CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s claim, 'We do the right thing. Period.' If not for its drivers, then for the wider public.
Looking ahead, I expect more of the same: Uber is still doing the right thing for Uber. Period. It has united with other gig economy businesses, including rival Lyft, to put Prop 22 6 on the California ballot, classifying app-based drivers as independent contractors. This would mean Uber wouldn’t need to provide health or retirement benefits or other job protections for its drivers, all the while profiting wildly from their labor. The gig economy shifts nearly all risk away from employers and onto contract workers 7.
In late October, four Uber drivers filed a court case in Amsterdam, accusing Uber of firing them via an algorithm that allegedly detected fraudulent activity. Former Uber drivers Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, mentioned in my article (and who are still awaiting verdict on their 2016 case demanding employee rights), claim such robo-style firing 8 is 'morally offensive.' Allowing programmed algorithms to rule over human decision-making is a warning to all of us about how technology is being integrated into society. The time to speak up is now. Uber suits the digital age, for better or worse, and it’s time for more oversight.
When the Dream Becomes a Nightmare
The Days are Getting Colder
When Covid restrictions, particularly working from home, first began to affect most of us significantly, some found it was a nice break from the normal slug into the office. They appreciated the slowing of their hectic pace. Time for exercise, better food, more sleep, less hassle and more time with our loved ones. For others, it was an increase in workload, a lack of air and exercise and an overload of new responsibilities, like educating one’s own children. Definitely too much of a good thing for many people. But as the weeks have turned to months and the months to almost a year, what were causes for irritation or concern before have become an outright health nightmare for many.
From Feeling Blue to Downright Depressed
The most striking thing I’ve learned about how this epidemic is affecting people (outside of the illness itself) is the pervading sense of isolation, fear and hopelessness it brings. But what began as feeling a little lonely has become severe depression for many. And it can be hard to spot, since so many of us are isolated and not seeing each other on a regular basis (if at all).
Many people I know and have been in contact with are truly having a hard time and don’t know how to cope, particularly with the days getting colder and darker. People who live alone can go days without human contact (or weeks if they are high risk). It’s a dark time for many. And those with partners or kids are feeling the tight quarters closing in on them.
Often when life gets tough, life’s milestones bring brightness to our lives: weddings, birthdays, parties, holidays. People canceling or majorly downgrading these events has taken their toll, too, especially without an end in sight. Some of the creative ideas for staying social virtually, like online cocktail hours, pub quizzes or big family Zooms, have waned with Corona (and online!) fatigue. But finding ways to stay positive and still live life is the only way to get through this time.
Letting in the Light Again
Friends of mine organized a birthday borrel (Dutch for happy hour) in the park the other night at a little stand selling Glühwine. They brought snacks and candles and treated a few of us to socially distanced wine and hot drinks. And while it was pitch dark (yes at 6 pm) and freezing cold, it felt fun and festive. A few passersby were so starved for fun and connection that they even stopped and asked what was happening.
American friends held tiny Thanksgiving celebrations, Indian friends mini-Diwalis, sometimes just a party of two at home, but they reported that the holidays were quite nice despite the situation. Many also held massive (16-person!) Zoom calls from all corners of the world, nonsensical chaos where no one can get a word in edgewise but everyone leaves crying with laughter and feeling a little less lonely. This is how we will survive this epidemic, checking in, getting outside (even in the cold!), being creative and finding ways to laugh. And most importantly, remembering we are not alone.
Andrea A.Dixon/Dixon Media
Reflections and Connections 2020
As I was researching The Ethics of Control, on behavior science and the organizational use of nudge theory (which aims to scaffold decision making to help people make better choices) it increasingly became clear that there were bumps in the road and pitfalls that had a great deal in common with other anxieties society at large faced in 2020.
An example of nudge theory in action in the workplace might be the automatic enrollment of employees in a pensions plan rather than having workers find one, to boost retirement savings. Or a staff cafeteria place healthy foods at eye level and fatty foods further out of reach. This seems harmless enough. But the challenge comes when we realize that the nudgearchitects are humans with cognitive biases as well. What if the goal that they have chosen to nudge us towards itself is biased?
If organizations can exploit cognitive biases to affect employee behavior in a positive fashion, surely it can do so for less charitable results as well. The solution to this conundrum is to always ground the choice architecture on a foundation of transparency and consent.
Watch Out for the Pitfalls
But in writing the feature, it struck me that nudge theory is yet another example of the debate we are having about popular sovereignty and democracy at the moment, in both Europe and America. The original purpose of democracy – born of the American and French Revolutions – was not to deliver optimum outcomes. Rather, the purpose of democracy was popular sovereignty: for us to govern ourselves independent of supervision by our so-called betters, lords, bishops or kings. The optimum outcome for a society cannot be objectively alighted upon outside of that collective democratic deliberation.
As the Roman poet Juvenal asked: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? 'Who watches the watchers?' Or, as I updated the quote: Who nudges the nudgers?
Hard-right populism, from America’s Trump to Hungary’s Orban, is at least in part related to widespread mistrust of political and economic elites, combined with a feeling of dwindling popular control. Whatever the truth of this feeling of powerlessness, we need to pay more critical attention, moving forward, to the dynamic of any efforts to make decisions on behalf of people without their consent.
Nudging Against Covid: What Else is There?
Facing New Challenges
When Covid hit, companies suddenly faced enormous challenges to both achieve their commercial goals and take more responsibility for their employees and customers. As for employees, companies tried to ensure that they remained not only safe and healthy, but also productive and happy. Teleworking all week can be great but can also threaten employee wellbeing by blurring the line between work and leisure, and increasing stress.
And of course, a lot of businesses require employees to physically be on the job site and engaging with colleagues and customers in order to operate at all. In sum, companies were forced to rethink and redesign work(places), both from home and on the job.
Fighting the Virus Through Behavior Change
To fight the virus, they had to change how people behave. One tool at their disposal is ‘nudging’: smart techniques that influence people’s behavior by changing their so-called ‘choice architectures,’ or the environments in which people act.
Think of the flashy stickers and lines on store floors and in office hallways that remind people to keep a distance. Playing into deeply rooted psychological mechanisms (salient visual cues), these and other nudges have proven to be more effective than merely informing people. Informing often doesn’t cut it, as people might fail to digest what can be complex information or to remember to act on it sometime later.
Taking the Middle Road
When that happens, companies can be tempted to turn to coercion. Why not put security officers at every corner in the shop and fine people who don’t wear a mask? Well, because nudges can be (almost as) effective without being nearly as intrusive. Think of teleworking policies. Simply informing employees will not change the long-lived norm to come to work. And, sure, companies can physically close off their building, but this may harm employees who desperately need a workplace away from home.
Nudging provides the middle-road solution here. Companies can explicitly change the default, announcing that employees are expected to telework with exceptions for those who need it. This way, they balance concerns for safety and wellbeing without violating people’s freedom. As such, 2020 showcases that nudges are here to stay and will remain an indispensable tool for companies responding not only to Covid, but to other challenges as well.
The Pivot to a Post-Pandemic World
Barriers are Crumbling
2020 was the year of Covid-19. It was also the year of furloughs, layoffs, quarantines and lost chances. My own pandemic experience reflects this reality. During the first two months, my training company saw a huge drop-off in turnover as many of my clients froze their activities. Now, they have adapted, and so have I. I’m busier than I have ever been – and most of the workshops I lead are now online.
So, 2020 was also a year of new opportunities. Businesses across the globe finally started to realize that working from home… works. And those endless meetings? Well, now they take place via Teams and Zoom, and they tend to be shorter. Sure, some companies remain in virtual hibernation. But others are stepping up through innovation to find new ways of working. Business is marching forward.
2021 Success is a Pivot
The successful pandemic survivors are focusing on keeping the customers they have while attracting new ones. For instance, some B2B companies are moving into the B2C sector. Others – like gyms and my own company – are moving their services online. And one of my logistics company clients recently broke down long-held barriers to international cooperation and negotiation to successfully transport 50 million pieces of PPE from China for essential workers in Europe and the Americas. Companies like these are becoming more agile in terms of the way they work and even in terms of their identity. They have brought the term ‘pivot’ well into the mainstream.
And now the vaccines are here. This means that the switch to a post-Covid-19 world is almost upon us. But we may never go back to ‘normal.’ And the future – always unpredictable – is sure to bring more surprises. Companies that continue to thrive into 2021 will remain flexible in areas such as working from home, maintaining their digital presence and staying alert to new opportunities. They will meet this unpredictability head-on, with clear strategies – based on their pandemic experience so far – to succeed in what is sure to be a continuously shifting global ecosystem.
A Fairer Fight
Crackdown on Alternative Facts
In October, I wrote Is Social Media Controlling You? As 2020 draws to a close, there are signs that things are changing for the better.
Last time around, the US election was clearly impacted by Russian interference. This time, Twitter were no longer willing to allow the US President to post his infamous ‘alternative facts’ or fact-free claims that the election was fixed 9. On Facebook, Covid-19 was the trigger, so users who like, share or comment on disinformation are now directed to information from WHO 10.
While writing the article, a film called the Social Dilemma was being watched 38 million times by October 11. Dismissed as sensationalist by some, the documentary's contribution to the debate was welcomed by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, whose Team Human book and podcast series has been building a movement to change the nature of the business he's been writing about for more than 25 years 12.
However, those are not even the biggest changes. One major legal challenge was launched by a coalition of US states and the federal government to break up Facebook's group of companies. The antitrust action accuses the company of anticompetitive behaviour since the purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram 13. If the case succeeds, Facebook could be forced to sell off those divisions.
In the UK in November, a Digital Markets Unit was set-up. The impetus for the new body is the stranglehold Facebook and Google currently have on media advertising, which is taking much needed revenue from the rest of the media. The move was welcomed by the National Union of Journalists in the UK 14.
Competition within the tech industry can force companies to focus on making their products more usable and accessible. Since lockdowns started, online video tools have become essential. The competition between Microsoft Teams and Zoom has driven both to make continuous improvements to their systems. Zoom has made their platform more secure and Microsoft improved functionality. Importantly, they have also changed a feature that was criticised as workplace surveillance, to limit the amount of information about individual employees that's shared with managers 15.
A Tool for Change
Too much focus is put on the negatives, we should always remember that social media can also be a tool for change. Where would #metoo have been without social media? And would Felicia Davis in Georgia 16 or the Native Americans in Arizona 17 have been able to organise people as successfully as they did during the pandemic without the tools offered by the same companies whose algorithms we worry about?
There are still things to worry about, but if governments take action to protect their citizens and increased competition between companies and force them to make changes that benefit their users, there is a chance that things could improve.
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