The roaring twenties and the prohibition are back!

Mirriam-Webster dictionary has hailed the “Pandemic” as the word of the year (2020 if you are a little behind on your calendar). It may very well be “Lockdown”.

At my work, with friends from all over the world, we are swapping stories of how our respective governments are dealing with (or not dealing) the pandemic situation.

Seemingly a universal approach is to close down gyms, swimming pools, restaurants, and other places where people tend to spend time together (I was surprised to learn that Jamaica didn’t lock down gyms but introduced a curfew instead and it worked. Go figure.).

In Poland, for example, only organized groups are permitted to exercise, but gym workout equipment and free weights cannot be accessed “on-demand” legally. Legally is the key word here – From the same friends, I get some anecdotal stories about underground gyms, saunas, and hair salons.

In “Secret Gyms and the Economics of Prohibition”, the NPR’s Planet Money Newsletter authors launch an investigation into the illegal ways the gyms are operating under new rules. The story may very well be recounting ordeals of getting alcohol in the 1920s:

“Take the case of Christina, a paralegal and gym enthusiast from Tucson, Arizona, who asked us not to give her last name for fear of being labeled a snitch “

Apart from underground speakeasy establishments, there is of course a grey area of businesses striving to survive and clearly pushing the interpretation of the law. Since outdoor dining is still permitted, enterprising restaurant owners are coming up with outdoor, well, buildings:

I admit it is hard to judge these efforts to help the business stay afloat. Setting aside the responsibility for creating conditions helping spread the infection, I am surprised how quickly the history makes a full circle.

We are back in the roaring 20s, meeting in underground illegal clubs to get our fix of the forbidden fruit (in this case, meeting in person).

I’m most curious what is the 21st century equivalent of Jazz.

Surprising Effects

Did you know that the Frequent Flyer programs are bigger businesses than the airlines themselves?

The Financial Times pegs the value of Delta’s loyalty program at a whopping $26 billion, American Airlines at $24 billion, and United at $20 billion. All of these valuations are comfortably above the market capitalization of the airlines themselves — Delta is worth $19 billion, American $6 billion, and United $10 billion.

Byrne Hobart explains in this fantastic article about classic airline economics:

Loyalty programs aren’t a great business paired with a terrible one, they’re the part of a single unified business that makes it viable. An airline without its highly profitable loyalty program is a company that faces high labor costs, volatile fuel prices, and a rapidly changing demand environment. With loyalty programs, that’s offset by a high-margin, high-growth side business.

Local women crochet sweaters to shield rescued elephants from cold, Elephant Conservation Care Center, India

Time for something heart (and elephant 🐘) warming!

Deliberate 32 – The perils of prepping

With the Autumn rapidly taking its hold, many parts of the western world are now undergoing a second (or a third) wave of the COVID pandemic.

That second wave, apart from being MUCH more brutal and taking lives or more people – has caused less anxiety and has excited the preppers a tiny bit less. We have been through this, hence it’s not the “big one”.

As far as apocalyptic scenarios go, we are living it. We have been hit with a global threat, affecting not only health, but economies, and our way of life as well. According to my very scientific Google search, 1.31 million have died and 54 million people got infected, with many survivors reporting dangerous side effects.

And yet… We seem to be brushing this off to our detriment. Life feels a little bit more normal than in April, despite the hospitals being just plain full and even basic medical necessities rare commodities.

September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center have claimed the lives of 2977 people, but for COVID, with 500 times greater death toll and an immediate threat of infection, the emotional response around the world does not seem to match.

We are not built to prepare for the mundane.

If we were reasonable people (not that I am implying we are), we would prepare for the most likely scenarios – falling from a wonky chair while reaching the top shelf, a fire caused by that phone battery behind the couch, car accidents created by driving and texting.

But the fact that these scenarios are happening (because they are highly probable) is getting us habituated. Because we hear about it all the time, we are less likely to treat them seriously. When is the last time you checked the expiry date of a fire extinguisher in your car?

Our imagination is captivated by rare and extreme events, and prepper culture is focused on the Zombie Apocalypse AKA Mad Max scenario.

Doomsday prepping for Less Crazy Folk

In today’s issue, I highly recommend reading “Disaster Planning for Less Crazy Folk” by Michał. It offers a very balanced and practical approach to preparing:

Perhaps throwing out old junk, reorganizing the contents of kitchen cabinets, adding earthquake latches, or fixing a broken lock would be a better use of your time than ordering space-age prepper gadgets from Amazon.

He also advises against going deep into the amazon prepper rabbit hole:

Here’s my advice: keep the bulk of your savings in cash, stocks, and other assets you can easily liquidate or put to use today; even if you genuinely worry about the apocalypse, plan to spend no more than 2-4% of your money on essential prepper supplies.

If you need more convincing about validity of his advice, this post was last updated early 2018. Does this sound familiar in 2020?

When it comes to transmittable diseases, your best bet is avoiding exposure: if there’s something really nasty making rounds in your community, stay home – or at the very least, avoid public transport and other crowds. With that in mind, N95 masks ($2 a piece) probably provide adequate protection against most airborne diseases. The other major transmission vector is hand contact, so don’t touch other people, avoid public-use surfaces, wear gloves, and resist the instinct to touch your face without first washing or disinfecting your hands. We subconsciously touch our faces a lot more frequently than we suspect.

Here is what I put on my todo list:

  • Keep wearing that damn mask
  • Get fire extinguishers for my apartment, my mom’s place, and my car. Install smoke detectors.
  • Fill up my car. There is a downside to having your tank full and ready,
  • Stockpile flashlights, basic over the counter medicine, and water (5 gallons per family member)
  • Wear a damn helmet (which I never do) while biking (which I do often).
  • Download a copy of Simple English Wikipedia for offline use (250 MB, choose “pages-meta-current”)

The perils of prepping

I am sure there are many quotes about being prepared and the superiority of prevention over treatment. But all the good-hearted advice is usually missing one key point:

It’s just so damn tedious.

Fire extinguishers will need checkups (I opted for one with 20-year shelf life), batteries will leak (which can even spoil your electronics stash), mice will get into your flour stockpile. Prepping makes you accumulate more stuff. Stuff needs it’s own prepping. You want to have a life, so you opt-out of the prepper treadmill. It has worked out so far, hasn’t it?

On the other end of the spectrum, you have career preppers, who have optimized their lives around being prepared. But for them, the covid epidemic is a little disappointing, because they braced for the exciting future – Zombie Apocalypse and the total collapse of the market. They seem to even be hoping a little bit for the end-of-the-world, so they can feel validated.

Being a practical prepper requires you to do a bare minimum of mundane, common sense things you already know you should be doing.

All the details are there in Michał’s article.

As far as the tediousness goes, put your car oil checkups, fire alarm battery replacements, medicine, and fire extinguisher expiry dates, and all the rest of this mundane stuff on your calendar. And set a reminder.

Deliberate 31 – Infectious diseases and investment basics

In case you are searching frantically in your email spam folder for my previous emails from the last 5 weeks – don’t worry! Nothing is wrong with your inbox, I have indeed skipped them 😱.

My wife and I have been battling COVID infection, hidden away in our cabin to make sure we don’t spread the disease to our neighbors. We are perfectly healthy now – I have even returned to my workout regimen, but the whole ordeal was not fun.

I wouldn’t normally keep you updated about my health, but watch out. We took great care to not contract the virus and despite being in very good shape – the symptoms were not that mild. I know, that you probably have heard enough coverage of both COVID and US Elections to last you for decades, so I’ll keep my takeaways brief:

  • I had very little fever and consider measuring temperature in public places a joke,
  • Loss of taste and smell was complete for both my wife and I,
  • The rest of the sympthoms were flu-like, but I was exhausted for 2 weeks,
  • The “brain fog” took longer to subside, resulting with you lacking the comforting embrace of my newsletter
  • I took 10 000 IU of Vitamin D for a week and I think it helped. This is not considered a safe dose, please don’t change your mind on my word alone, but read up
  • This is all serious. Stay safe, wear a mask.

Investment Basics

Like any normal person struck with an infectious disease, I started reviewing my investments. I considered my strategy pretty solid, but I discovered that due to a law quirk, the tax rate on the dywidends from S&P500 ETF that I own may be 30% instead of 0.

The most infuriating aspect of it all is that this is one of 7 ETFs we have available on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, it took me 3 days of research and I still don’t have an answer!

I consider financial literacy a topic much more important than the crap (putting it mildly) we learn about past battles at school. After oh-god-how-many years of public education, I have to dig and scramble to understand the foundational pieces of how this capitalist country works.

I decided to start collecting the missing “Deliberate Lessons From Dad” so I can pass them on to my future children. If I can start them investing in ETFs by the age of 5, they will be unstoppable!

On to the lessons!

Here is my best advice about investing

  • Choose Index Funds or ETFs with low fees that are automatically managed. Low fees will accelerate your returns and automatic management will remove human error out of the loop. Right now the best funds are SP500 from Black Rock or Vanguard. Holding an index will give you returns as the economy grows. No worse and no better.
  • Compliment with Government Bonds and Gold (Physical)
  • Dollar-Cost Average your entire portfolio
  • Put your Dividend – Yielding stock in your tax-protected retirement accounts. That way, the compound interest from the dividend will be tax-free, and it will compound faster.
  • Rebalance often and mercilessly. If you have a target of 60% stocks in your account – if their price falls, you will buy more to adjust your wallet %. When they rise again, you will sell some and convert to bonds. With rebalancing, the market roller coaster works in your favor!

Read the in-depth tutorial on Piszek.com

Surprising consequences of the Internet

Mars is a Free Planet

Starlink Terms of Service are already prepared to claim “Mars a free planet, that recognizes no authority from an Earth-Based government”.

Lucky Martians.

Coronavirus and working from home – a primer to get your team started

This post is a crash course on Remote Work for a smaller team that is forced into this reality by COVID-19. I am linking some all-encompassing tutorials at the end. This post is meant to get you started with the basic ideas of remote work in 15 minutes.

Switching to a remote environment will take work and won’t be ideal in the beginning. Remote work requires shifting mindsets, and people are not great at that. But you have no other choice. I am using terms “Remote Work” and “Work from Home” interchangeably in this post, because to slow the spread of the virus, your colleagues should stay at home.

Who am I? I am leading a remote team in a company that has been distributed for 10+ years. We have 1200 employees in 76 countries. These are practical tips I learned there.

What’s the deal?

COVID-19 ( / Coronavirus / SARS-CoV-2 ) is an exceptionally infectious virus that can spread „by air.” A long incubation period means that people will infect others before they even realize they are feeling unwell. The virus has already spread to the majority of the world’s countries (a primer on the virus here).

That means a couple of things:

  • One employee can infect the entire office by coughing into the coffee cup cabinet
  • In fact, everybody can be infected right now and not show any symptoms
  • People are stressed with the situation and will be reluctant to work effectively. Most likely, they will be sitting in your office, browsing Twitter, reading up on the virus, and freaking out.
  • The most effective tool we have available right now to cope with the Coronavirus fallout is to slow the spread.

We are pretty sure that hospitals won’t be able to deal with all the cases once we reach pandemic levels. 80% of cases are relatively mild, but 5% requires intensive care. Approximately 1% of people who catch the virus die.

As The Economist has put it: „Flattening the spike of the epidemic means that health systems are less overwhelmed, which saves lives.”

What can YOU do?

If you are a small business owner or a team lead, you need to get on that Remote Work bus ASAP. The most responsible choice you can make is to let your employees work remotely.

  • They will minimize the risk of getting infected during the commute in your office
  • If (god forbid) they get infected, they won’t pass that on to everybody else while sharing a donut
  • They will be able to take care of the loved ones if it comes to that
  • You will help slow down the progress of infections in society.

“To minimize risk, stay home if you can. This may mean canceling meetings, working remotely, or skipping a conference (if it hasn’t been canceled already).” – „How to work during pandemic”

How seriously should you take this?

This is a sample of companies that have closed down entire offices in light of the Coronavirus:

Ok, what is this Remote Work?

I am going to explain to you four pillars of remote work and recommend you another four tools to start doing it ASAP.

If your work happens in front of a computer, it can happen remotely. Yes, face-to-face interaction is the best way to transmit complex ideas, details of the tasks, hilarious jokes, and deadly viruses.

We now have fantastic technology for all of the above except viruses. These tools have been used for a while now – Remote Work was exploding even before the SARS-CoV-2.

 

4 Pillars of Remote Work.

Asynchronous work

Remote work is by design asynchronous. People will take tasks, post updates, have discussions, and go to focus on new tasks.

You can try to keep everybody in sync all the time, but this is exhausting, frustrating, and futile. You won’t know what they are doing at their homes or if they are checking Facebook, and you need to make peace with that.

Newsflash: They probably check Facebook at your office as well.

The biggest challenge with asynchronous work is that you may be blocked by someone else’s task. But you can plan around that – think of what you will need tomorrow and have started working on it today.

It’s challenging but worth it. When you see in the same office, it’s easy to hide inefficiency by looking busy. Remote environment strips that facade, and you are left to confront the reality of your management style.

Making sure nobody is blocked is the biggest challenge as a manager. It will take practice and yield exceptional rewards.

The takeaway is:

Instead of worrying about what your people are doing right this second, try to slice the work so that they can work on pieces independently. And let them have their lunch.

Intrinsic motivation

You can’t just walk in, scold people and control what they do. When you do that online, they can just run away from the computer. You don’t want that. Instead, you want your people to be challenged by the work or at least see the value of it. It’s surprisingly easy – we all want to be useful, challenged and learn new skills.

Remember to provide enough context and give them input into the details of what you need done. You are not as smart as you think, and your employees may be more capable than you imagine.

Takeaway:

They want to do a good job. Let them do a good job.

Communication

Communicate a lot. A massive chunk of what you want to say will be lost in text, and even video calls help only to a certain extent. You will say one thing, and your team will understand something completely different. It’s easier to spot that in person.

Double-check, over-communicate, and write things down. If you feel it takes too much time, you’ll save it by having already written it down and being able to re-use previous notes.

Takeaway:

Write stuff down in Google Docs. Discuss in Slack and Zoom.

Level playing field

If you are letting people work from home, EVERYBODY has to work remotely. If the situation is not the same for everyone, then co-located people will keep their old communication habits, and remote colleagues will be left in the dark. Companies that „failed at remote work” did a half-assed job of choosing a poor soul to be left in the dark and continued to share information face-to-face.

Either your team is in the same space, or it’s at home. This is not quantum physics, where you can be in 2 places at the same time.

Takeaway

Do or do not. There is no try.

 

4 Free Tools to set you up for remote success.

Zoom.

Zoom is the new Skype. It’s more reliable, more dependable, and better suited to remote work than any other video-call software. It has taken over the remote companies by storm because it has unmatched quality. There are other tools, just none worth trying.

Since you don’t see your coworkers in the office, meeting them on video helps to transmit all those non-verbal signals that are lost during voice calls or email exchanges. I recommend you do zoom calls frequently at the beginning.

My best tips for Zoom calls:

  • If you are switching from the office and are on the same timezone, set up a daily check-in call ( say 10 am ). Ask everybody what they worked on yesterday and what they are planning to work on today. Make notes in Google Docs. Use that call to also work on your remote setup. Put that on the Google Calendar and invite your coworkers, so everybody has a link to the call handy.
  • Zoom has a good enough free plan. You need to start paying if you want to have meetings for 3+ people longer than 40 minutes. You can also stop and hop on a new session every 40 minutes. That is what I do.
  • Buy your employees good headphones ($20-$45). Take this seriously. Lousy audio from (god forbid) earbuds they got with their iPhones will be disproportionately frustrating.
  • Back against the wall, light in front. Selfie ring helps. Seth Godin has more advice.
  • The internet does not have to be that fast. Even the one from your iPhone hotspot will be fine.

Slack

This will be your primary communication channel. Since you are no longer communicating in person, you need a central hub and email is not suited for that. Slack is for all those situations where you would come over, say something in the shared space, share a joke, or have a look at what your coworker is doing.

Slack is a shared chat, with different channels. Channels help to separate various concerns and make it easier to manage.

  • Do not require everybody to read everything. Chose one channel with mandatory reading (the typical pattern is „#announcements” ). Every new mandatory thing decreases the chance they will keep up.
  • Once you make a decision or have takeaways, move to more permanent storage. Google Docs is good.
  • Remember to goof off. You need to provide an upbeat environment. If it becomes stressful, your employees will just stop working. The common pattern is to have a „#watercooler” channel and post lots of memes.
  • The free plan will have some limitations. Mainly it has a limited history of conversations. Free is enough.

Google Docs / Drive

You need one place which will be the source of truth, and people will refer to when they are confused. Since they will be working asynchronously, you have to make it easier for them to find information that they need. Shared Google Drive and Docs will help you exchange documents and keep track of your decisions. You are also producing work, which most likely has the shape of documents.

My tips on working with Google Docs

  • Write down as much stuff as possible.
  • Do make a shared folder in Drive and tidy up the structure frequently
  • Make sure to have one place where everything is linked – it can be a Google Doc with a list of running projects and links to docs each describing the progress of the project
  • Update those documents!
  • „Where is X, what the status of Y” should require no answer – it should be apparent where the information is always.
  • You can work using the personal Google Accounts. You don’t need paying for GSuite.

Honorable mention: Trello

Trello is a simple tool to track the progress of the tasks in your team. Who is doing what? How is X doing? Did we finish Y? That’s what Trello is for.

  • You can connect it to Slack so you can always see what your people are working on
  • Again, the free plan is your friend

How to put it all together – your action plan:

  1. Make sure everybody has a computer at home they can use. Buy them headsets. They will need email addresses, but @gmail.com is fine.
  2. They need accounts for Google Docs, Trello, and Zoom. They will also need to install Zoom
  3. Wash your hands
  4. Register a new Slack for your company, invite your team
  5. Start chatting on Slack, make #announcements, #general, and #watercooler channels.
  6. Wash your hands
  7. Start your first Zoom Call. See how it goes
  8. Don’t touch your face
  9. Dump all work into actionable tasks in Trello.
  10. Start writing stuff down in Google Docs.
  11. Wash your hands

Further reading

This list is short on purpose. Sign up to my newsletter to get more resources about remote work:

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Good luck and wash your hands!