COVID-19: The State and Future of Pandemics

Singularity University experts address concerns and impacts of this unprecedented event

Researchers around the world are working around the clock to find better ways of testing and treating COVID-19—and, ultimately, develop a cure. In the meantime, researchers and experts have practical advice to offer about how to navigate this unprecedented event that has disrupted all facets of our lives. In the spirit of social distancing, Singularity University hosted a virtual summit in March where more than a dozen experts shared facts, facilitated discussions, answered questions, and addressed concerns around COVID-19. You can watch the entire summit online from the comfort of your home at—maybe share it with colleagues and make it a work “conference.” Disruption spoke with some of the participants to share practical steps to manage some of the uncertainty that has emerged surrounding health and work.

Everything you need to know about COVID-19

Dr. Divya Chander | Faculty Chair, Neuroscience, SingularityU

A virus is a weird particle, it’s a living/not living thing. It’s genetic code that just runs around hoping to find a host. Until it fuses with a host, it doesn’t come to life. This virus really gets around, it’s promiscuous. If you transmit this virus, you’re getting two to three more people sick, whereas with the flu it’s likely to be just one other person sick. In exponential terms, it means that after five cycles of infection the flu will get 45-50 people sick, COVID-19 will get about 500 people sick—that’s like one shopping line at Costco [laughs.] This kind of spread is why it’s turned into a pandemic so rapidly. Our brains are so programmed for linear thinking, that when there were very few cases it was hard for our minds to perceive how this could turn so awful so fast.

It’s so important to following healthcare guidelines like hand washing and physical distancing. If democracies don’t do a good job with social distancing on their own, we’ll end up with more Draconian measures. COVID-19 is not just a risk to our health, there is a real risk to our freedom and civil liberties. The trade off to save us should not be privacy.

Emerging digital technologies for pandemic management

Dr. Sonny Kohli | Physician and SingularityU Canada Faculty

What are some of the emerging technologies you’re seeing during COVID-19?

There’s more of a focus on vaccine development and treatment with existing drugs. We’ve seen some great success stories already treating patients, and also with getting test results faster. There’s been a lot of technological development for vaccines and treatment and diagnostic care, in addition to virtual care. When you put all those things together it bodes well how we can react to the rest of COVID-19 and handle pandemics in the future. I’ve been developing a smartphone application that could test patients for viruses simply by listening to the sound of their cough. That’s still speculative and we need to work more on that technology, but I’m continually pushing forward on these new developments. There is some trepidation about having a potentially infected person cough directly onto a smart phone, even if precautions are taken. It’s going to be challenging to test and develop any really cutting-edge technology in response to COVID-19, as they require potentially more dangerous testing methods, so we’re going to have to rely on existing technologies in the meantime. We’re also seeing more and more uptake of virtual healthcare visits.

Is there an opportunity for new technologies to be further developed and tested post-COVID-19?

Yes, I hope we won’t stop here now that we’ve started development. That way when there are future crises or pandemics, we’re ready for them and can mass-deploy technologies. In the middle of a pandemic, people don’t have the time or the bandwidth, and aren’t always very trusting of new technologies so organizations are going with the old ways of doing things. My company CloudDx is offering our virtual care platform Connected Health free to practitioners, it’s a way of helping people and also introducing practitioners to different technology that they can use beyond the pandemic and incorporated into their practice. In an era where things are changing so rapidly because of digital technologies in every industry, we need to view digital technology with the same lens in the healthcare industry.

Prior to the pandemic, how was your virtual healthcare system being used?
In Ontario there are several hospitals that are very innovative and looking for ways to combat the issue of “hallway medicine,” trying to find ways to keep high-risk patients like the elderly or those with chronic issues out of hospitals. By deploying digital technology for virtual visits, we can consistently monitor symptoms at home. By using virtual healthcare we can dramatically reduce the number of patients who require ER visits or hospitalization. Several hospitals in Ontario are using our system, and healthcare providers in Yukon are using it as well. Virtual visits are so useful when mobility and transit are issues.

Ways Your Leadership Must Change to Thrive with Disrupted and Distributed Teams

Charlene Li | Guest Speaker, Leadership and Disruption

What are the biggest challenges facing leaders as their teams are moving to remote work?

Leaders are very ill-prepared to work with distributed teams that they don’t see on a day-to-day basis face-to-face. They don’t know how to gauge how much work is being done, how to communicate with people without the ability to just walk up and ask a colleague something. Physically not being in proximity to their team is going to be a new challenge for many leaders. There’s a challenge of creating a feeling of community and connection when everyone is spread out all over the place. Many leaders have not had an opportunity to develop these skills and are now being thrown into it and asked to figure it out immediately. In some environments, not everyone will be working remotely and that’s especially challenging.

Remember that people aren’t asking you to have all the answers. People are expecting you to provide direction: how should your team be working? Provide as much structure to clarify what work is going to look like. How will your team stay in touch? What technologies will be used to communicate? How will meetings work, and are they even possible? With the chaos that’s happening right now, it might not be possible to have regular meetings. Short, quick daily and weekly check-ins might be a better option.

I don’t think this is a temporary situation. I think we’re in this for the long haul. Leaders should take this opportunity to practice flexibility, collaboration, and agility and that will give the workplace more resilience following this disruption.

How can leaders implement short-term action while thinking long-term?

Clearly identify how you will share information and make decisions. When you’re working in a distributed way, you really have to break everything down. You can’t assume that everyone knows where everything is, so all communication must be recorded and shared in a way that’s easily available to everyone who needs it. When you can’t see what people are working on, you have to tell people what they should be working on or ask what they’re working on. During daily check-ins create the knowledge so that everybody knows what everybody is working on. It’s a very different way of working but openness is a good thing. When you make a decision relevant to your team, no matter how small or inconsequential, make sure everybody knows about it. Put it in a place where everyone can reference it.

Onboarding will change. Typically onboarding involves working with a colleague and hoping that they go through all the basics the new employee needs to know. Now you’ll need to write a list of everything new employees need to know. That structure and process is going to really help standardize things and force businesses to go through a transformation.

What advice do you have for employees who will need to be more independent as they’re working remotely?

Overcommunicate. Be really clear about everything you’re working and adamant about when you’re having a problem. It’s important that each person play a role and advocate for themselves. That can be really hard because we don’t like to admit when we don’t know what’s going on or need help. But openness and transparency creates accountability and reduces a fear of failure. This is no time to hide. When everybody knows everything, everyone can do better work.

What do you think a long-term change in the workforce might look like once the need to work remotely because of COVID-19 ends?

I think more employees will want to work from home when they can work successfully in a distributed fashion. We might start to think of our offices as weekly places for check-ins or collaborations, but not places to do all of our work. I think it’s going to open up a lot of questions: maybe the way we’ve always worked isn’t the best way. I’m a firm believer that disruption is an opportunity for change, so how can we change for the better? We should use this time to think about how we can work differently and better.

How should leaders use this time to think about the potential for change?

Leaders are often concerned that if they let people work from home they’re not in control. But what do you think you’re in control of? You’ve actually never been in control. It’s going to cause a lot of soul-searching for these leaders. A leader is more than a title, a leader is somebody who creates change and rallies people to their cause. If you’re a manager and just overseeing output, you’re not creating change, you’re not a leader.

Leadership in a Time of COVID-19

Elie Losleben | Faculty, Diversity & Inclusion, Leadership, Health

How has the role of a leader changed in response to COVID-19?
In times of stress people look to their leaders. In the past hundred years when we’ve gone through similar situations businesses have taken a massive lead in terms of public health victories. If it wasn’t for business leaders we wouldn’t have the kind of supply chain cooperation and innovation cooperation that we’re starting to see with COVID-19 globally right now. Businesses are already part of a community and essential systems, so workers look to leaders for meaning in what’s happening. Emails that come out from a manager or CEO have a lot of resonance with people in a time like this, and a lot of connection can happen in a workplace. The most leveraged action a business leader can take would be to show proactive and compassionate leadership in their response. Along with government and healthcare workers, unspoken heroes of this pandemic will be business leaders.

What should a leader avoid doing when everyone’s in a rush for answers?
They should have proactive policies for people to stay at home. The response needs to be long-term, because this will likely be months not just a few weeks. We need to be thinking long-term. A mistake might be following the news cycles and getting locked into thinking that this is about needing more information. Leaders already have the information they need to make decisions for their workforce, business, and communities that they serve. They have the information they need to know what an adequate response looks like now, which is a compassionate policy that allows people to be remote and strategies essential staff and core functions. How do you continue to do those functions while undertaking social distancing, isolation, and quarantine? We are going to have to look at how we re-imagine all of our systems. This is the new normal. If businesses are not paying attention and adapting, they’re going to be left behind. Don’t wait and see what happens.

How can leaders practice self-care and avoid burnout while maintaining effective leadership?

Most leaders don’t realize how much self-care should be a focus of what they do. Leadership that comes from a place of self-care and presence is more responsive. Self-care is not just physical practices like meditation, diet and sleep, though that is very important. We’re moving into a place of true challenge and needing to be adaptive, and so chronic stress is possible. Leaders often think they’re doing something wrong if they’re stressed, but a stress response is a tremendous asset if it’s understood and recognized. If you recognize you’re stressed, you can better resource yourself and delegate. Managers and supervisors are a direct link between corporate leadership and the workforce so the tone and way they communicate—how, when—is going to make the difference between people feeling supported and empowered and part of the solution in their own communities, or depressed and uncertain about the future. Without self-care, leaders are not going to be able to respond to this for very long.

What are some public health actions that corporate leaders can take?

Respond and recognize the severity of what’s happening and the speed at which it’s happening. Recognize the potential to impact their communities in a really positive way by paying attention to how they’re responding. It’s essential that people recognize that social distancing is here to stay. If you can stay home, you should stay home. We know globally that the places that are able to do this are better off, and being able to stay home is a function of how we decide to work. Bringing new technologies and ways to collaborate into our daily lives will help with this remote work transition. The essential role of leaders at this point is to amplify good and actionable information and speak from a place of power and presence. People are afraid, anxious, and isolated, and we need to create as much support, safety, and community as we can. We all need each other to be fully present at this time. The solutions are going to be emergent; they’re not going to be things that we’ve tried before.

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