"A Change Is Gonna Come"

Normalcy after COVID, Productivity in a COVID world and a quick take on Apple’s new toy

I’m not sure we will ever go back to the normal we used to have. But I do think we should read that more as an opportunity to do something new. In today’s newsletter, I discuss why that is. Some interesting early research from Microsoft about productivity in a COVID-19 world and a personal take on Apple’s new iPad Magic Keyboard and the “job” it’s trying to do.

On to the issue.

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Is the new normal going to be, well, normal?

Let’s be fair. I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty that things are going to get back to the way they were. History often teaches us that. After the previous World Wars, the economy, the mental health and the industrial needs had all changed irreversibly. Our after-pandemic world will be as changed as those worlds were, but for different reasons. Like those who dealt with their circumstances, our new world has been thrust upon us without request. It is now up to us to modify our behaviour to adapt; SARS-COV-2 is not going to accommodate us.

One thing we can say with some degree of certainty is that without an efficient vaccine we are not going back to a free to move society — as in being able to walk around anywhere, gather, meet, shop — sorry Anti-Vaxxers (2). And, even if we were to produce a vaccine ready for generalised vaccination in the whole population in the next couple of months (no, it’s not going to happen), there is no telling currently how mutation might affect its efficacy. For reference, you need to get your flu jab every year because of mutation or Antigenic Drift. The list of flu viruses included in the flu jab is actually longer than you might think. There are four types of flu, but only types A and B interest us. The current coronavirus taking the world by storm is a Type A virus and is not the only one to exist. What that means is that another pandemic-inducing virus is always just around the corner. Type B viruses are what we colloquially call seasonal flu, and they have many sub-types and mutations, hence the requirement for renewing your jab once-a-year.

Bearing all this in mind, the question then is, how do we live with the virus and the threat of new viruses? This is, in part, being discussed and tested all around the world. Steps like progressively loosening lockdown, targeted testing, tracking systems (perhaps privacy-violating?) and precise isolation are all on the table for debate, which brings us back to the initial proposition. Is the new normal going to be normal?

Well, in a word no. Or at least, not for the foreseeable future. I won’t be so presumptuous as to predict when and if this will end, but I do know that habits and changing and that the longer those habits are anchored (admittedly by Force Majeure), the longer they have a chance to become the new normal.

What COVID-19 did to productivity for one team in Microsoft

However, a fundamental business transformation that has been thrust upon us and forced us to react urgently just to keep things ticking over is not necessarily business transformation for good. It will only be revealed further down the line how much COVID-19 has affected business. The following tweet does, however, present an interesting and amusing comment on the situation, and is totally in the wheelhouse of this newsletter:


Source: unidentified

Interesting feedback and research are being gathered by all the most prominent software solution providers, like Microsoft, and regularly published freely to help businesses across the globe cope with the pandemic and implement meaningful change that may help them going forward. Let’s have a look at some numbers and initial conclusions.

Using telemetry data collected from their networks, Microsoft has analysed its working practices given that for some groups, they immediately transitioned to a 100 per cent working from home situation. One particular team, dedicated to digital transformation and the way the modern workplace is affected, got to run the experiment in their own back yard. With 300 employees in the group, it is statistically sound research. Some biases are to be expected, being that the group is devoted to digitally transforming the way we all work in groups. Still, conventional wisdom would have us believe that this fracture of proximity would cause a complete breakdown in collaboration. Surprisingly that didn’t happen. And, through sentiment surveys, data showed that in some ways the group felt closer together than before the lockdown. The constraints seem to have lead to more creativity in the way the team socialised and communicated.

Microsoft found that weekly meeting time jumped 10 per cent for the group, translating to around three extra meetings per week per employee. With approximately 70 per cent experiencing increases in meetings, regardless of function. Suggesting that the chance “meetings” that were had in the hallway, refectory or the environs provoked intentional online meetings to recreate that feeling.

Uncovered by further investigation, was a change in meeting length. Twenty-two per cent increase in shorter meetings and 11 per cent fewer longer meetings. Shorter meetings are defined as 30 minutes or less and longer meetings defined as longer than an hour. No official guidance had been issued to the group and the results had apparently developed organically over the early stages of confinement.

In another surprise finding, the team uncovered a tendency for more one-to-one meetings to be held, ostensibly for quick check-ins (“Hey, how’s it going?”) and scheduled social events through video. There is much work to be done to understand the impacts fully. Still, given the context of pre-COVID meetings proliferating and increasing in length, negatively impacting productivity and happiness, some positive benefits may have naturally emerged as a result of the lockdown. In a way, the team had auto-dosed just the right amount of meetings once freed from corporate imposition.

You can read a more detailed write up here.

Some thoughts about the iPad and the jobs to be done

I’ve been thinking about the new iPad Magic Keyboard (iPad MK) and have a couple of thoughts I’d like to share. I get it, I really do. I’m someone who instinctively wants the newest and best, as ADD tends to do. But this time, I just can’t quite see the use for me based on the setup I’m currently using. Oh, of course, I can clearly see why others would want it and find it the dog’s nuts to use—more power to you.

There seems to be a couple of required compromises to get the best out of it. Compromises I don’t need to make with my favoured solution; a Magic Keyboard (MKB) and Canopy from Studio Neat. On the face of it, it does all the things that the iPad MK can, minus the different viewing angles. But I feel it goes much further, let me explain.

I can use the iPad in or out of a case, detach it easily. It features a full-sized keyboard, with Function keys, Multimedia keys and a real Esc key. It folds away neatly and is lighter than the iPad MK with the KB in it. If the KB dies, buy a new one and plop it in, 100$ tops.

As I said, it lacks different viewing angles, but it also requires what might be the real issue for some, the trackpad—solved by having a Magic Trackpad along for the ride for an, admittedly, extra 130$. That’s a total of 270$ (the Canopy is 40$), with each part easily replaceable, without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If you’re a mouse user, like me, it’s even cheaper than that. Oh, BTW, it’s lighter too, at only 393g as opposed to around 1/2 a kilo for the 11” version, if I’ve understood John Gruber’s article. What is also of note, is that transitioning from iPad to iMac requires no readjustment. It’s the same KB, size of keys, feel, angle, everything is the same.

One thing that is less than optimal is that it requires sliding three items in a bag instead of one, I guess increasing the risk of loss. But the MKB in the Canopy is so slim, just like the Mouse/Trackpad, that I don’t even notice it. Often, I’m in a meeting and only need to take handwritten notes with the pencil, so the KB and Mouse stay in the bag until I need them. Getting them out when needed, is little bother.

Another point that, is for me, is important, and it is perhaps, the elephant in the room for the iPad MK. It doesn’t allow use in portrait mode. With the Canopy there’s no such restriction, even putting the iPad in “upside-down-portrait” to gain access to the USB-C connector. 

Lastly, and not unimportantly for some, if you want to move to or from a different sized iPad, no problem with the Canopy + MKB. It still works.

And that’s the point. We all have different needs and wants. The iPad is there for them all. I’m clearly an exception, and Apple has done the groundwork to target the sweet spot of the jobs that users are trying to get done. It has done it elegantly and mindful of the fact that those that do adhere are immensely satisfied. Chatting with others on a Slack group, this was the overall message I got from them.

I think it is just about perfect for most people, just not me. To be fair, I probably wrote this just to stop me buying one 😜.

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1 "A Change Is Gonna Come" is a song by American recording artist Sam Cooke. It initially appeared on Cooke's album Ain't That Good News, released mid-February 1964 by RCA Victor, via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Change_Is_Gonna_Come

2 Nothing to do with DEC’s mainframe computers ;-)

Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen