Hiller underscores his concern about what he sees as an ongoing information crisis by articulating that, while everyone has access to copious amounts of information they, however, lack the ability to accurately determine its validity and therefore cannot effectively utilize this information. Hiller concludes by offering his perception of a silver lining behind the COVID-19 pandemic: that people will learn to appreciate the things that they may have taken for granted and that businesses will learn to embrace new management methods that do not require face-to-face meetings.
Ryan Morfin: Welcome to NON-BETA ALPHA. I’m Ryan Morfin. On today’s episode, we have Jakob [inaudible 00:00:14] who’s an executive at a multinational company based in London where he oversees 12 countries strategy and operations in Europe. Today, he’s going to talk to us a little bit about his personal experience up front with the virus, as well as what’s going on on the ground in London and in Europe, in boardrooms, and on main street. This is NON-BETA ALPHA.
Jakob, welcome to the show. Thanks for coming on.
Jakob: Hi Ryan. It’s good to see you.
Ryan Morfin: Well, we appreciate you making the time. I know you’re very busy right now in your role, but wanted to talk to you a little bit about your personal experience sitting in London, not only professionally, but also personally, and what life’s been like on the ground in the UK during this epidemic, given you guys are a few weeks ahead of us in the U.S. How are you doing?
Jakob: Yeah. Welcome to day 19 in the compound, if you will. We’ve been under lockdown for about two weeks here now, and everyone’s adjusting to new ways of working and new daily routines.
Ryan Morfin: And I hear the police are out and about making sure people are going about their business in an organized fashion, but they’re also providing tickets is what I hear.
Jakob: Yeah, the new rules are you’re allowed out to go shopping. You’re allowed out to take your daily exercise, once a day. And the police have been given authority to stop anyone and enforce those measures.
Ryan Morfin: And how is the food supply and food access? How is that going? And do you guys feel that the shelves are completely stocked or are you still having a hard time finding some goods on the shelves?
Jakob: As all of this was building, I think you probably had a similar experience in the U.S., there were a number of things that sold out right away. You couldn’t find toilet paper for about a week or two without some difficulty, which is a bit of a challenge if you’re legitimately down to your last roll. And then the other kinds of things that got sold out were some of the dry goods, basics, pasta, rice flour, also things like canned tomatoes. Those can still be pretty hard to find.
But in the last couple of weeks, they’ve introduced some new measures. The first hour of shopping is reserved for elderly people, people in vulnerable populations. And it’s kind of given the grocery stores a chance to catch up with their supply chain a little bit. And we can still get fresh vegetables and fresh fruits. Sometimes which meat is available in the grocery store is a bit of a question, but I’m lucky enough, I’ve got a grocery store I’m right downstairs on the corner so I can kind of see with my window when they’re getting a delivery and then pop down there.
Ryan Morfin: And what’s the kind of common sentiment on the street, in the professional community in London. Are people happy with the government response? Has it been thorough and communication been good or is there a lot to be desired?
Jakob: I think the communication from the government has definitely been clear. Boris Johnson is absolutely living his Winston Churchill moment right now. I mean, besides a world war, the best thing that you could wish for, if your somebody like him is a global pandemic, if you want to make your mark on history. He went on TV and said, “You know what? I have a simple message. Stay home. If your friends invite you to come over and visit, say no.” That’s been the official response from [inaudible 00:00:04:27]. I think he’s got the virus itself.
On the health side, that’s also been pretty clear as well. There’s been a lot of pressure on the facilities and resources available in the NHS, the national health service. They were pretty clear about what you’re supposed to do if you’ve come into contact with somebody who has the virus or if you develop symptoms yourself.
Ryan Morfin: I got a text message from a doctor today in New York City that they’re stopping to see patients that are over 70 years old this weekend, unfortunately. You have a nationalized health system in the UK. We don’t have that in the U.S. Do you think there’s going to be shortage of care or is the rationing on care that’s starting to pop up on conversations?
Jakob: Yeah, the only evidence, if you will, that I could share is obviously anecdotal, but I think one of the real differences when you have a national health service versus a more of a mixed model like there is in the U.S., is that the healthcare decisions get driven by optimizing the public health outcome. As opposed to necessarily … Obviously you choose what’s best for your patients, but there’s another consideration is as well. I think that definitely affects the way things that are being managed.
I remember, I think it was in February, listening to Radio 4, which is the news channel here for the BBC, they had someone from the NHS on who said that the NHS was fully prepared for any eventuality that could happen with respect to the virus. And I just remember thinking to myself, we might as well start nominating the commissioners now for the inquiry into the Holy foreseeable disaster that’s about to hit.
But I think people have been … There’s been a lot of public support for the health service. Every Thursday evening, everyone goes outside and from their isolated balconies, cheers, for all the health workers and that’s actually quite cool because you can hear everyone from around the city just erupting into applause and ringing their bells. That’s quite good.
Ryan Morfin: No, that is. You sit in an interesting seat looking across Europe for your business. How is the UK response at all different, or the same, what’s going on across the different countries you guys operate in.
Jakob: Yeah, I can give you a couple of examples. I think that the initial view is that the UK could have introduced measures a little bit sooner. The initial days when things were starting to happen here, people were still going out and not really taking it seriously. They really cracked down pretty quickly when that happened. And the other places that I can give a couple of anecdotal examples from, just speaking to colleagues in different countries, Italy is one of the countries that’s really been hit the hardest. Their health systems have been overwhelmed just by the spike in volume in patients who need hospital care. I was reading in the Italian news this morning, they’ve had to close one of the crematories in Milan, so they’re having these challenges where they just don’t have capacity for not only patients, but also people who have died as a result of the disease.
And their police measures are also quite strict. If you live in Italy, you are not allowed outside, full stop. If you want to go shopping, you need to fill in a form online, ahead of time, to get police authorization. You say, where you’re going, when, for how long. If you are stopped and you don’t have that with you, you get a fine of one thousand euros.
Ryan Morfin: Wow.
Jakob: For some of my colleagues there, they’ve started to also ask for additional documentation, because we still have some essential workers who can’t do their work at home, they need to do it on location. They’re really being pretty strict.
Ryan Morfin: Speaking of essential workers, have the Brits figured out what that definition is? Because everybody in the U.S. thinks they’re essential workers.
Jakob: Everyone thinks they’re essential, but I think people also kind of like having this blitz mentality of we’re all pulling in together, and staying home, and that kind of thing.
Ryan Morfin: And so obviously everybody’s using Zoom and WebEx chats and video conferencing. How do you see this changing the economy in the UK, or Europe for that matter, do you think there’ll be some structural changes because of this?
Jakob: The initial reports from the people in my team have been actually they find their communication, working remotely, to be as good, if not better than being in the office.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah.
Jakob: And people have been able to stay connected that way. I think just at a kind of personal, daily routine level, if you’re on 10 hours of video calls a day, that’s pretty draining. It’s one of those things that really kind of cuts both ways. And everybody’s having some version of the same conversation with the people they live with, how are we going to tweak our routine on a day to day basis to make this work for everybody in the house?
As far as longer term effects on the economy, besides broadly, there’s a lot of production that’s not happening at the moment that’s going to have a longterm effect, but I know that a lot of companies are putting in measures to be able to pick up the slack and operate again at full capacity as soon as possible as. As soon as they’re able to.
Ryan Morfin: What kind of problems is this going to cause for … I know Brexit, you guys left the EU. How much additional stress is this going to put on the potential fracture of the European union do you think?
Jakob: One of the things that I think has been a real silver lining of this epidemic is that that’s a word that I haven’t heard for a couple of weeks, Brexit. We’ll have to see, it really has fallen out of the news. I don’t have an update on how that’s affecting the timeline of those things. Obviously, for the prime minister, he’s focused on other things right now, but that was his platform at the last election and he won a huge majority on that platform to get Brexit done. Whether you like it or not, that seems to be the direction that the country’s heading. Something could change, but then there would have to be some kind of formal mechanism to effect that change in government as well.
Ryan Morfin: And you’ve mentioned to me prior to the call about a concept called an infodemic, and I thought it was a genius view into how the world’s changed and maybe what’s causing some of this, we’ll call it panic that may or may not be warranted. Share a little bit about your thoughts on that. I think it’s a fascinating point that not a lot of people are talking about.
Jakob: Yeah. The summary is, we have a situation post globalization, post social media, where there a lot of people who have information. Which, one, they don’t know what to do with. And two, they’re not in a position to make any kind of judgment about the quality of that information. Wind back to our last major epidemic like this. SARS happened in 2002, 2003, that was my first year of college. And I’m the same age as Mark Zuckerberg. This is before Facebook. This time that we’re having, this coronavirus epidemic, this is the first time that we’re experiencing post globalization, this kind of a global phenomenon and global situation where that sort of information, good or bad, it gets out there and it’s getting in the wrong hands faster than people are able to make sense of it. And it’s an onslaught of maybe not bad information, but questionable information.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah, there’s a great [inaudible 00:13:41] out there that says, don’t let your medical degree get in the way of my Google search. And we’ve all become experts because of Google, or perceived experts at least. And so I do think you’re right. I think editorial filters are more important now than ever. And I think for the most part, journalism has been corrupted by politics. And trying to figure out what is a good editorial filter to get your news is getting harder and harder to identify today. But it’s fascinating.
Jakob: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a learning experience. It’s a learning experience for the globalized generation. And I think we’re all going to be a lot wiser, and I think we’re all going to be taking the information that we get with a bit of a grain of salt, a bit more conscientiously after this.
Ryan Morfin: You do know a lot about Europe. Germany has done a great job keeping mortality rates low, and you’ve had a lot of business experience through Germany. What are your thoughts about that from a … Is it a cultural thing? Is it society is more rigid there? They believe in their politicians and they act faster? What do you think is driving that?
Jakob: It’s a good question. The question there is, why is the mortality rates in Germany so much lower than in other countries? And obviously, I’m not a public health expert by any means, but there were a couple of things that people were seeing as that situation has developed. One, a lot of the people who were initially affected in Germany were people who were returning from skiing holidays. Because the epicenter of a lot of these European infections was the [inaudible 00:15:30] in Austria, which has a number of popular ski resorts. I think it was last weekend, half of the cases in Norway were traceable back to one village in Austria, because that’s where people had gone skiing. The way that sort of translates into some of the numbers in Germany is that the people who are going on the skiing vacations are likely to be younger, more fit, more active so they’re not going to be as vulnerable to disinfection as older people are. That’s one thing.
Second thing, Germany was just a lot better at testing people. And this goes back to you when the guy on the radio is saying we’re fully prepared in UK for any eventuality. You may think you are, but what that actually means is in an entirely different question depending on the criteria that you have for that. In addition, I think what we’ve been seeing … I was reading the German news this morning, that those numbers have been evolving a little bit. The rate of infections has been increasing in Germany. It is catching up a little bit, if you will. But one of the other big differences about Germany is, like you said, it’s a structural thing. The Germans are just more organized and their health system is also more regionally devolved. There are medical centers of excellence throughout the German federal states, whereas the UK operates on one single centralized model. Those kinds of resources just aren’t available in the UK in the way that they are in Germany.
Ryan Morfin: And I know you have a lot of friends in business, in Turkey. What are you hearing on the ground in Turkey?
Jakob: Yeah. One of the most fun things I heard actually is … Turkey is a country with a great culture of hospitality. And whenever you go to someone’s home, they welcome you with a sort of scented cologne, lemon scented, or rose scented cologne on your hands, which has a high alcohol content. And some doctor in Turkey announced to the world that that cologne was good enough to sanitize your hands. The thing that they had shortages of in Turkey was, was cologne, as soon as this thing erupted. Toilet paper, not. As one of my friends there mentioned to me, we’re civilized, we have bidets.
Ryan Morfin: That’s true. The middle east is a big fan of the bidet.
Jakob: The infection there is spreading. And I think in a country like that, there are also some, some rural areas where I think it’s going to be a lot harder to impose some of these measures.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah, no doubt. It’s a very large population as well. You’ve had some personal experience with the virus. Do you mind sharing a little bit about your story on a personal side?
Jakob: Yeah, I can. We were talking earlier, and I think some of the interest is just what’s going to happen if I get it? And two weeks ago, my boyfriend and I, and a number of our friends all came down with the virus around the same time. And about half of us had very mild symptoms, a flash of fever, you take a Tylenol and have a snack, and you’d feel fine. The other half, we’re in bed for a couple of days with fever and then after the fever broke, there was still the cough and the headache. And it seemed like it ran its course over the course of about five days or so. But that’s tough because at that time I didn’t have any other friends or family who’d had it yet and I didn’t know exactly how this thing was going to evolve.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah. Are there talks about getting folks like yourselves tested for antibodies? It’s a big thing here in the U.S. that we’re trying. We haven’t got organized yet to start executing on it, but I’m imagining in the weeks to come we’re going to be getting a lot of blood drawn from people who have had it and survived.
Jakob: I saw a headline on that in the Italian news this morning. In the UK, we’re still at the point where we’re trying to get enough tests available to be able to test more of the population. Right now in the UK, you only get tested if your symptoms are severe enough that you need to be admitted to hospital.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah. And that lack of testing is baffling to me why it’s taken so long globally to get that rolled out. That’s, I think, the most important thing they could be focusing on.
Jakob: Sometimes it just comes down to supplies. One of my colleagues in Iceland, she was saying they were really good at testing. And then I asked her a couple of days later, how that situation was going, and she said, they ran out of swabs. That was the limiting factor on their ability to test. It’s all these little steps in the supply chain that really add up because of the pressure happening all at once.
Ryan Morfin: That’s a good point. People thinking through that single point failure on the process.
Jakob: Yeah, exactly.
Ryan Morfin: You’re a pretty optimistic guy, what are some of the silver linings you think that come out of this when this is all over with and we go back to some type of new normal?
Jakob: Yeah. I think one of the real silver lining is just people are enjoying their day to day lives because they have the time and someone, at the level of the entire society in a way, has really hit pause. And so I think people are genuinely looking forward to something as simple as taking a walk with a friend or having some friends over for dinner. Those kinds of simple day to day life things are things that I think people have a new appreciation for. A new appreciation for things like just waiting for something to happen.
I think those are all really good things. I don’t have a whole lot of optimism that people will retain that attitude of gratitude, if you will, for that long after we get back to our daily lives. But I think those are a couple of good things from this, for sure.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah. I hear you, Jakob. I don’t think it’ll last long, but it has been interesting to be at home every night for dinner or try to get home every night for dinner, which is, when you’re a road warrior and getting on planes all the time … I think it’s going to be a lot harder for me to justify getting on a plane unless it’s really important because Zoom works pretty good. I had to get used to having business conversations over Zoom. Rolling into someone’s office is great, but I think the bar’s going to move that much higher going forward so I don’t have the travel.
Jakob: I think you still need that initial personal contact. There’s so much information that we convey that even with video just doesn’t get across just through body language. And you can pick up some of that, but once you’ve made that initial contact, you’d be like, I’ve met everybody in our team. I sort of feel like if I didn’t take the time to go to all of those countries and meet everybody, it would be a lot harder to do my job.
Ryan Morfin: Jakob, as it relates to the future, I guess, of the UK kind of societal impact here, one thought we have in the U.S. is that office space, and kind of the way we work is going to permanently change after this. People are talking … I’m seeing our team work very productively. And I don’t know if that’s because of the unemployment rate skyrocketing and people are making sure they’re adding value so they can be accounted for, or if it’s just a better way to live, being at home in a comfortable place, not having to commute, not having to go to an office environment you may or may not like. What are some of your thoughts? Because you guys run a big organization.
Jakob: Yeah. That’s true. We run an organization that involves quite a lot of flexible working, or working on clients sites. And so we have an organization that’s already set up for that pretty well, which in this particular instance has been helpful because it makes that transition to working at home on a regular basis, fairly seamless. There are definitely advantages to being able to control your own environment, which is something that you don’t always have the opportunity of doing an in an office. And so I think for a lot of people, that definitely is a plus and just helps … Those kinds of things do have a massive effect on job satisfaction.
From a management standpoint, we’ve already got most of our team in other countries, that’s something that we have to be able to do anyway, in the first place. Some of the interesting questions have come up right now where you literally can’t go in the office is, okay, I need to hire a new person who maybe I’ve met only online, but that person needs stuff like a laptop. And at least, at the beginning, will benefit from sitting right next to a colleague and being able to say, “I have a question about this.” Or overhearing some of those conversations. I think it’s one of those things where there are benefits on both sides.
Obviously in a place like London, pressure on the cost of office space and desk space is at a premium and it’s rising. I do know from a management perspective, they’re having that ease a little bit will definitely be a benefit. And I think that as a result of this … You’re getting people who are used to working in quite a way, you’re learning new management skills and becoming a lot more comfortable with being able to manage their teams in different kinds of ways.
Ryan Morfin: And one final question, Jakob, do you think the folks in the UK are upset with the Chinese government for delaying accurate data, which we still think is flawed that they continue to say they have no new cases. Is there a conversation going on in the UK or in Europe that China could have given the world a warning to get better prepared for what was coming?
Jakob: [inaudible 00:27:24] an article in the Telegraph to that effect from their chief defense and foreign affairs correspondent. I think that question, it’s something that I don’t have enough information to be able to comment on really at this point. One of the things that I also want to be very careful about is kind of ugly [inaudible 00:27:53] xenophobia as well. Those kinds of things tend to come out in times of national difficulty, and that’s really not something that we need to see more of. Those kinds of questions, I think, need to be dealt with very conscientiously.
Ryan Morfin: As it relates to civil liberties and privacy in the UK, one of the birthplaces of constitutional law that we have here in the states, how has this crisis given the government an opportunity to change daily life in the UK, if at all?
Jakob: It’s a really good question. That question about just being conscientious about how easily our civil liberties are given up when these are things that people fought for, really desperately for, for a long time. I think that’s something we really need to be aware of. And I’ll give you a couple of contrasting examples.
In the UK, you are not required to carry an ID card the way you are in a lot of European countries. If you’re in Germany, the police stop you, they ask for your ID, you have to be registered at a particular address. And all of that stuff can be tracked. Here in the UK, the police stop you, they can ask for your address, obviously you’re required to give them your actual address, but there is no documentation to prove that. They can’t look up and say, okay, you’ve already had your daily exercise today, this is your second one and [inaudible 00:29:35] a fine. Because of that system of trust that there is in UK I think that it is still a concern. There are some practical barriers to it.
But the other example I want to give is in Iceland, for example, one of my colleagues there was saying that everyone is being encouraged to download an app, which will track your location. And that’s a country with a population of 300,000, the size of Zurich 15 years ago. That kind of question, that ability to do surveillance on the population, just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should. Will it save lives? Maybe. But these are all questions that you need to examine them in advance, because if you’re examining them afterwards, it’s too late.
Ryan Morfin: Fair enough. Jakob, thank you so much for your time and sharing your story with us and our viewers. And we’ll hope to hear back from you in a few months, maybe after this virus has passed and we’re seeing what happens to the global economy and how things are getting back to normal. I appreciate your time.
Jakob: Thanks Ryan, as always, it’s been a pleasure.
Ryan Morfin: Thanks a lot.
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