The Zoom revolution and the Queen’s Vera Lynn moment

Apr 7, 2020

Just to recognise how unparalleled are the times we are living through consider when else would the Secretary of State for Health announce that he was thinking he might ban exercise! Media coverage has been pretty extensive. However, it is worth considering just who is doing all this walking, running and cycling (most of it very responsibly). They are mainly younger and in more skilled jobs. For these are the people for whom the option of working from home is possible. Shop workers, care assistants and refuse or office cleaners cannot, so their ability to adapt is less. For some of us the idea of lunchtime being a brisk walk is something we might continue to do whenever we revert to “normal”. But in the meantime, remember that these changes affect us differentially.

Similarly, being able to use your home as an office requires space and some privacy. Pre the lock down BT had a long-time policy of encouraging home working, the average age of their staff is 39. Trendy Google on the other hand expect staff to come to work. The average age of their London based staff is 27. Not many 27-year olds in London have studies in their flats! So again, generalisations often ignore the differential effects. In public service we should always consider how our policies effect individuals, not just what the average impact will be.

There will be many losers through this crisis, but there will also be a few winners. One such winner is Zoom. Last year hardly any of us had ever heard of the company, now it has over 200 million users per day, we even have had a cabinet meeting by Zoom. Exactly how many Zoom calls you partake in per day will soon define your social status. It is particularly sad then that Clay Christensen dies at the very beginning of the epidemic. For the Zoom story is a real-life demonstration of his disruptive technology thesis. Remember Skype? Skype now looks like joining the ranks of Nokia, Motorola or Blackberry, brands which used to define a now past age. Yet Zoom was a start-up and Skype had been bought out by Microsoft. With all that financial clout it should have been a walkover for the big guy. The truth is that in internet terms Microsoft is the old guy (all of 45 years old). Christensen pointed out that time and again the bigger established company would lose out. His thesis focused on technology, but its relevance is wider, and a reminder that you cannot just buy or graft on innovation.

We face a similar challenge as all the big pharmaceutical companies desperately try to develop a vaccine. There are pretty good reasons why new vaccines take such a long time to come to market. There are also some pretty good reasons why we might like that vaccine development to be rather quicker. Time will tell whether it is one of the established companies that manages to reengineer how it works or whether we need to look for the disrupter.

The Queen had a pretty good press following her speech. Most of that coverage focused on the “Vera Lynn” moment, the brilliant promise that we will meet again This was very effective, but note it was a reference back to the past. A lot of leadership literature talks about the importance of vision, describing the future. I have always been sceptical of this line. Instead what I notice is that great leadership speeches usually draw on the past (quite often reinventing the past).

There is a second element of the speech to notice. For the last two weeks there has been a lot of justified recognition of the critical role of NHS staff, to which local government colleagues have kept saying please add social care. Sometimes people do, sometimes people don’t but the phrase health and social care still has health first and social care second. The Queen never mentioned the NHS nor did she mention social care, and nobody criticised her for failing to so do. Instead she just talked about care workers. That phrase encompasses both health and social care. Finding words and phrases that can bind us together is a key task of leadership.

Joe Simpson


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