Business As Unusual, Part II

Sanna Marin, Premier Minister of Finland

On the last day of the year, let me share a few thoughts in hindsight on a year that didn’t turn out as anyone expected. The outcome: Not everyone was as lucky as MariaDB Foundation. The pandemic takes longer than expected, and mixes the deck of winners and losers. Sure, most of us lose, a lot. But the forced break can provide lessons for a better post-pandemic life (and business).

Picture: Sanna Marin, PM of Finland, CC BY 4.0 Laura Kotila/Statsrådets kansli 2019 via Wikimedia Commons

Two early pandemic blog entries in March

Background: In March this year (which sometimes feels like yesterday, sometimes like ages ago), I wrote two blog entries about the strange situation caused by the Corona pandemic. In Business As Unusual on 11 March 2020, I wrote »some ideas for how to cope with a world inhibiting travel and social contact as we know it, from someone who has worked from home for 20 years, with colleagues also working from home.» and in Life after this a week later on 18 March 2020, I suggested that »For everyone, it’s wise to prepare for life after this. Sooner or later, we will start rebuilding a society, which after Corona won’t quite be like the one we know today. But it will be worth living in.»

So, how did it turn out?

Encouraged by a colleague, I just reread these blog entries. Of course, I hadn’t forgotten about their general tone, but I was still curious to assess how close to the actual outcome they were, given that they were written in the very first phases of the pandemic. Sure enough, some things have turned out differently.

Less reality horror than I expected!

All in all, the March blog entries captured the overall uncertainty of the situation, and even the unclear duration. I did speak of “many months” of endurance ahead, but I believe I emotionally overestimated the severity and underestimated the duration of the pandemic. I warned against “reality horror”, suggesting people shouldn’t share pictures of the hordes of ambulances picking up elderly neighbours. I wanted to calm down myself (and anyone reading my blog) so as not to have to experience streets where people turn hostile toward each other, in the pursuit of toilet paper. 

Germany (and Finland) have done relatively well

At least in Germany, nothing like that happened. We Germans still talk of Bergamo in Italy as the horror scenario. There are just speculations of whether there will soon be need for triage of patients, but there are still free intensive care unit beds throughout the country. Yet, the situation across the world varies a lot. I am a citizen of two countries – Finland by birth, Germany by choice – and Finland has an even better situation than Germany.

And all is relative. Also in my countries, people suffer and people complain. However, to put human nature in mathematical terms, the correlation between suffering and complaining is way below 1.

Work from home is no longer a MariaDB »privilege»

At the risk of sounding arrogant, the virtual work-from-home MariaDB lifestyle now was adopted by everyone in the developed world. Well, »everyone» whose profession somehow makes it possible. I am not disparaging any »system relevant» tasks, from doctors to garbage collectors.

But to look at work-from-home from the bright side: Perhaps the pandemic has built up emotional readiness and professional competence to avoid a substantial share of the unnecessary travel many of us have been subjecting the world’s climate to? 

Travel is no longer anyone’s privilege …

With the hope of sounding humble, the travel-to-many-conferences MariaDB lifestyle crashed in 2020. Nearly every conference was inhibited. My only travel past FOSDEM in Brussels in February 2020 was between Germany and Finland.

Sure, I miss meeting colleagues and friends.

At the same time, the MariaDB Foundation reached more users, application developers and database administrators than ever before – by adapting to the pandemic and doing a virtual MariaDB Server Fest and a follow-up Server Minifest

… which does come with an upside!

Avoiding travel provides some unexpected advantages, from a business and productivity perspective. Participation in meetings is now possible not just for locals.

At Virtual FOSDEM 2021, the MariaDB Devroom has presenters whose travel cost would otherwise have been prohibitive.

And myself, I just had the honour to be elected to the 2021 board of Wikimedia Finland – whose board meetings I can certainly attend much more frequently as they’re now predominantly virtual and do not require me to travel from Germany to Finland.

Virtual meetings are not all bad

I do get it. Virtual meetings are not the same. They have never been, nor will they ever be. But not all meetings need to be face to face!

The crucial insight is that when a majority of attendees are virtual, meetings aren’t unduly dominated by those physically present.

Is there any lesson in this?

We learn. Hopefully. I hope I won’t take travel for granted any longer. I hope I will forever cherish the moments of physical presence that I am given. I hope I avoid travelling when results can be achieved at a distance, and I hope that I have the insight to understand when a physical meeting really makes a difference.

One more pandemic role model 

In one of my March blog entries, I cited Mannerheim (Finland’s national hero), Niinistö (Finland’s president), Merkel (Germany’s Chancellor), and Zeno (Greek stoic philosopher). All four are still worthy of being quoted.

During the pandemic, I have grown fonder still of the insights and values of Merkel, and although my German exposure to Finland’s premier minister Sanna Marin has been limited, I think Finland can be proud of being led by a 34 year old highly competent and communicative woman. Hence, I chose her as the cover picture of this blog, as a beacon of “new normal”. Attention, non-Nordic readers: Don’t let yourself be misguided by her good looks. I fear she was elected despite them, not because of them.

Getting protected

Human nature is constant, but our environment changes. I expect things to be back to somewhat-normal by the summer.

Like my son, I belong to Germany’s last group of the “under 60 years old” when it comes to getting the Covid vaccine. My daughter, despite not being over 80 years of age, already got hers; as a soon-to-be medical doctor, she inoculates others.

There is hope that all of Germany is protected by the end of May, but nothing is certain. My daughter has shared first-hand war stories of the complexities of the administration of so many inoculations. I certainly don’t envy those involved.

So what is New Normal?

How unusual business will be by the Summer of 2021 remains to be seen.

But inspired by Zeno, Merkel, and Marin, I am as confident as in March that the new normal will be well worth living in.