Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Lifestyle (Ambitious people have unrelated hobbies), Science (Next act for messenger RNA could be bigger than Covid-19 vaccines) and Business (Can single-language OTT platforms take on the streaming giants in India?; Making the hybrid workplace fair).

Published: Feb 27, 2021 08:47:17 AM IST
Updated: Feb 26, 2021 04:55:52 PM IST

readingImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Lifestyle (Ambitious people have unrelated hobbies), Science (Next act for messenger RNA could be bigger than Covid-19 vaccines) and Business (Can single-language OTT platforms take on the streaming giants in India?; Making the hybrid workplace fair).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended February 27, 2021.
    
1)     Why ambitious people have (unrelated) hobbies [Source: salon.com
Winston Churchill’s ambition was legendary. Multiple times, he shoved his way to the top of British politics, when Britain was the world’s dominant power. Once he was there, he did not let up. During war-time, it was not uncommon for him to work 110-hour weeks. Between 1940 and 1943, he traveled something like 110,000 miles by air and sea and car. A bodyguard once said that Churchill kept “less schedule than a forest fire and had less peace than a hurricane.” How did he not burn out and die early? How did a man with so many responsibilities that on a piece of notepaper he once sketched himself a pig, loaded down with a twenty thousand-pound weight, not only survive the workload of two wars, five kids, 10 million written words and live into his 80s, but do so without ever losing his trademark joie de vivre?

The answer is simple: The restorative power of a good hobby. As it happens, Churchill believed in the power of hobbies almost as much as he believed in British exceptionalism. He was an avid practitioner too. Writing in one of his lesser known books, "Painting as a Pastime," Churchill explained that, “The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is...a policy of first importance to a public man. To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real.” A few years ago, a study conducted by professors at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh and published in the Psychosomatic Medicine Journal, found that people who made time for leisurely activities — defined as “activities that individuals engage in voluntarily when they are free from the demands of work or other responsibilities” — experiences increased life expectancy and life engagement.

Randall Stutman has been a coach to some of Wall Street’s biggest CEOs for decades. The best, he found, have at least one hobby that gives them peace — things like sailing, long-distance cycling, listening quietly to classical music, scuba diving, riding motorcycles, and fly fishing. There is a surprising commonality between all the hobbies: An absence of voices. For people who make countless high-stakes decisions in the course of a day, a couple hours without chatter, without other people in their ear, where they can simply think (or not think), is essential. Obama played basketball and golf while in office, George W. Bush had running. Tom Cruise, Will Smith, and David Beckham took up fencing together. Peak performance expert and perpetual learner Josh Waitzkin’s latest diversion is foil surfing.    

2)     The next act for messenger RNA could be bigger than Covid-19 vaccines [Source: Economic Times]
When Covid-19 started spreading across the globe, everyone thought that a successful vaccine would take quite a few months. On December 23, as part of a publicity push to encourage people to get vaccinated against covid-19, the University of Pennsylvania released footage of two researchers who developed the science behind the shots, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, getting their inoculations. The vaccines, icy concoctions of fatty spheres and genetic instructions, used a previously unproven technology based on messenger RNA and had been built and tested in under a year, thanks to discoveries the pair made starting 20 years earlier. The eureka moment was when the two scientists determined they could avoid the immune reaction by using chemically modified building blocks to make the RNA.

Unlike traditional vaccines, which use live viruses, dead ones, or bits of the shells that viruses come cloaked in to train the body’s immune system, the new shots use messenger RNA—the short-lived middleman molecule that, in our cells, conveys copies of genes to where they can guide the making of proteins. The message the mRNA vaccine adds to people’s cells is borrowed from the coronavirus itself—the instructions for the crown-like protein, called spike, that it uses to enter cells. This protein alone can’t make a person sick; instead, it prompts a strong immune response that, in large studies concluded in December, prevented about 95% of covid-19 cases. The potency of the shots, and the ease with which they can be reprogrammed, mean researchers are already preparing to go after HIV, herpes, infant respiratory virus, and malaria—all diseases for which there’s no successful vaccine.

The shots from Moderna and BioNTech proved effective by December and were authorized that month in the US. But the record speed was not due only to the novel technology. Another reason was the prevalence of infection. Because so many people were catching covid-19, the studies were able to amass evidence quickly. So, is mRNA really a better vaccine? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. There are some side effects, but both shots are about 95% effective (that is, they stop 95 out of 100 cases), a record so far unmatched by other covid-19 vaccines. Another injection, made by AstraZeneca using an engineered cold virus, is around 75% effective. A shot developed in China using deactivated covid-19 germs protected only half the people who got it, although it did stop severe disease. “This could change how we make vaccines from here on out,” says Ron Renaud, the CEO of Translate Bio, a company working with the technology.

3)     Can single-language OTT platforms take on the streaming giants in India? [Source: Forbes
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only changed our cinema-viewing experience, but has also made the place of OTT in our lives more prominent. According to the Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2020-2024 published by PwC last October, OTT registered a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28.5%, the highest across all entertainment categories in the country, which would make it the sixth-largest OTT market in the world by 2024. OTT in India specifically benefited from the “degrowth of cinemas, as some film studios choose to fast-track new releases to home video platforms”, the report states.

Industry experts state that even with the presence of 40-odd OTT services in India, there is room for more, particularly regional languages. According to a December 2020 report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) along with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), subscription video-on-demand services registered 55-60 percent growth in India in 2020, compared to 2019. Of this, Tier-2,3 and 4 cities and towns added 1.5 times the number of new subscribers in the wake of the pandemic, compared to metros. “Tier-2 and beyond is a land of opportunities,” says Vishnu Mohta, co-founder of Bengali OTT platform Hoichoi. “A single language-focussed platform allows you to aggregate different kinds of content that language has to offer. For a large number of Indians consuming internet content in one language, this helps them get every entertainment option under one platform, rather than having to subscribe to multiple sites.”

For the younger, lesser-known filmmakers, particularly ones from smaller film industries, turning to smaller, single-language streaming services got them greater support and attention that was not overshadowed by bigger digital releases, while getting them closer to their target audiences beyond metros catered to by some of the larger OTT platforms. Some of these single-language platforms also aim to strengthen the might of their respective industries and make them more mainstream. Many of these platforms, including Hoichoi and Neestream, have ambitions of expanding to other regional languages in future, but are currently ramping up the range and frequency of their offerings.

4)     Bitter home truths for migrant workers [Source: Livemint]
As the economies world over are stabilizing from the Covid shock (courtesy successful vaccine launch), one needs to look at the damages that the lockdowns have caused. The blue-collar workers have been affected the most. Last summer, hundreds of thousands made an arduous journey back to their homes in Araria town in northern Bihar, on the India-Nepal border after India announced a stringent lockdown to control the spread of covid-19. Mohammed Imran, 39, is one of the 10 million migrants who returned to their homes across India, as per an official estimate. On clear mornings, Imran can spot the mighty Himalayas from a distance, but in Araria there is little else to look forward to. The district is overwhelmingly rural; it is also among the most impoverished in India with extremely low levels of literacy (55%).  When the lockdown was announced, Imran suddenly found himself without a job.

Imran sold a tiny plot of land and invested ₹2,50,000 to set up shop. But with daily sales of around ₹3,000 Imran now makes about ₹250 a day—an amount lower than what a daily wager earns locally (₹300). “It takes time to establish a business," Imran said. His voice lacked conviction. Nonetheless, Imran treated his new customers with care, smilingly attending to a little girl asking for chewing gum and reminding others that he never cheated on weight. Imran is not alone. The 21-year-old Naser Siddiqui completed his graduation last year from Delhi University, but on the advice of his father, a contractor working on sewage projects, chose to return home instead of scouting for a job in Delhi. His family invested ₹12,50,000 to set up a garment store. But sales could not be more tepid. “My days are spent sitting around. An entire winter passed and so few here purchased new woollens," Siddiqui rued.

According to the Economic Survey 2016-17, internal remittances contributed more than ₹1.5 trillion to household incomes and financed over 30% of consumption expenditure in remittance-receiving households in rural India. Among states, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh accounted for about half of all out-migrants in India. Rural wages in real terms contracted steadily across India between August and November 2020, shows data from the labour bureau. Crop earnings were tepid despite agriculture being the only sector registering a respectable 3.4% growth in the year to March. “The economic slowdown which preceded the pandemic has increased the dependence on petty trade in Bihar due to lack of employment and a collapse in wages," said Himanshu, economist and columnist. “In parts of Bihar where the distress is acute, people are selling land to set up small businesses. The situation is only slightly better elsewhere since the plunge in rural earnings is fairly widespread."

5)     No more fomo: Top firms turn to VR to liven up meetings [Source: The Guardian]
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has been buying thousands of virtual reality headsets to help battle Zoom fatigue and level the playing field for employees barred from entering the same room during the Covid outbreak. It is latest example of how firms are adapting to remote working, after the Covid-19 epidemic cancelled international client meetings and consigned white-collar workers to their kitchen tables. A recent poll by recruiter Robert Half found that 89% of businesses expect hybrid working – split between home and office – to become permanent after the pandemic, prompting investment in new technology, and offices that can offer more to staff than a desk and a wifi signal.

“What’s interesting is you’ve had a bunch of technologies around to enable remote working for quite a while,” Nick South, a partner and expert in the future of work at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), said. “It took this mass shift to remote work in general for firms to say ‘Oh, actually, let’s try and apply it at scale’.” PwC first piloted the use of VR headsets in the UK in 2017, but after the pandemic forced its 22,000 staff to work from home, it accelerated hybrid working plans. “If you’re the only person on [Google] Hangouts, you’re guaranteed new elements of a ‘fear of missing out’,” PwC UK’s chief executive, Kevin Ellis, said. “Therefore, it’s really important that our meeting rooms are able to level the playing field.”

Nicholas Bloom, British economist at Stanford University, has been researching the effects of home working for years before the pandemic hit. He strongly advises that companies offer remote working at least one or two days a week. His own surveys found that staff preferred the arrangement, and would probably demand 8% higher pay if refused. They were also more productive, which was good for the corporate bottom line. Firms that fail to consider hybrid working models not only risk losing talented workers to more progressive employers, but are also cutting themselves off from a more diverse pool of staff, who might – for example – live outside London but would consider commuting twice a week. “The expectations are shifting quite fast, and the examples of people doing things differently are appearing all the time. So actually, [businesses] need to start doing their thinking now,” South said.

6)     Emerging nations are better equipped to survive the pandemic’s economic shock [Source: Financial Times]
While the rich and developed countries are deciding how big the stimulus needs to be in this pandemic, emerging nations are having a different conversation. It’s about how hard to push reform — and they are likely to come out better for it. Ruchir Sharma, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s chief global strategist, points out how this strategy can fire back for the rich and developed nations. After the 2008 crisis, emerging nations offered generous stimulus, almost as generous as the far richer countries. They could afford to because, after years of blockbuster growth, they had money to burn. Yet all that spending produced only a brief flash of growth, and during the 2010s these nations struggled to pay down debt as growth slowed.

When the pandemic struck last year, many emerging nations were still struggling. Now, lacking the money to revive their economies through stimulus, they have little choice but to push productivity-enhancing reform. Instead of debating bigger stimulus packages, emerging nations are advancing a range of reforms to raise productivity and boost growth. India is drawing headlines for its farmer protests against an end to agricultural protections, but that is just one part of a broad effort to promote private competition and shift government spending away from giveaways and towards infrastructure. Indonesia last year cut taxes and regulation, and eased labour rules; now it is moving to open up the financial sector. The Philippines just cut its relatively high corporate taxes to more competitive levels.

The IMF today is advising nations rich and poor to care less about deficits and to spend generously. Only none of the big emerging nations are seeking IMF help, and many are embarking on campaigns of structural reform very similar to what the fund would have proposed in the 1990s. Financial markets are cheering their progress. When the pandemic passes, and the sugar rush of stimulus fades, the effect will not be felt equally. Emerging nations are likely to see their growth prospects continue to improve. Developed nations, by spending massively and putting off reform, are poised for slower growth weighed down by debt. They are likely to confront the same harsh lesson that emerging nations faced after the 2008 crisis: stimulate in haste, and you will repent at leisure.

7)     Making the hybrid workplace fair [Source: hbr.org
The new normal has made us realise that we need to a hybrid model for all companies. Our new reality will be hybridity: working with employees who are co-located in the same physical space as well as employees working remotely. To lead effectively in a hybrid environment, managers must recognize and actively manage the two distinct sources of power that can impede — or facilitate — hybrid work: hybridity positioning and hybridity competence. Hybridity means that, due to where they’re positioned, employees have different access to resources and different levels of visibility — both key sources of power and influence.

Resource access differs depending on whether the employee is located in the office or outside of it. Employees in the office have ready and quick access to technology and infrastructure to support their work. They tend to have faster and easier access to information, and that information tends to be more current and broad (including informal water-cooler conversations), which provides them with an edge when it comes to the rapid changes of today’s environment. In contrast, employees who work remotely often find their weaker technological setup and infrastructure (slow connections, inability to access certain resources from home, a less sophisticated home office setup) makes it more difficult to demonstrate their competence.

Not all individuals are equally skilled at operating within a hybrid environment. The ability to effectively navigate in a hybrid environment is itself a skill and therefore a source of power. Hybridity requires employees to be ambidextrous in a way that fully co-located or fully remote working don’t. Hybridity competence is a separate source of power from hybridity positioning. Someone in a disadvantaged position may still be able to work very effectively if they have high hybridity competence, while someone in an advantaged position may still be ineffective if they have low hybridity competence. For companies to reap the many benefits of hybrid working, managers must be aware of the power dynamics at play. It’s critical that they develop an understanding of hybridity positioning and hybridity competence and take steps to level the playing field for their teams.

8)     3 lessons in avoiding burnout you can steal from emergency room doctors [Source: inc.com]
The pandemic has been very tough for the frontline workers, i.e., doctors, nurses, and support staff in hospitals. Grit and professionalism can take you a long way, but as a fascinating recent Harvard Business Review article from a pair of administrators at the hard-hit Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) lays out, leadership also matters. The article outlines the steps administrators took to help their staff weather a year of unrelenting challenges. 1) Remind yourself you're making a difference: The difference between burnout and perseverance, the administrators note, is often a sense that what you do actually matters. That's why MGH made sure that their staff got regular updates on Covid survivors after they left the hospital to remind them their heroic efforts had a real impact on patient outcomes. Celebrate yourself for doing a job that needs doing.

2) Plug into your community: Social distancing has made it a lonely year. Finding creative ways to plug back into your community even if you have to stay six feet away from people can help you avoid burnout. "Our department launched weekly virtual 'wellness' sessions--generally not attended by leadership--in which employees could freely discuss whatever was on their minds without their managers listening in," report the administrators who also initiated "a series of meetings where people in less hard-hit parts of the hospital could brainstorm ways to provide help and resources to the ED and other units most affected by Covid-19." This is a useful reminder to bosses that you need to proactively work to replace the sense of community that naturally arises when people see each other in person.

3) Reconnect to your values: Various studies indicate that perseverance doesn't come from turning off your emotions and keeping a stiff upper lip. It comes from really caring about what you're doing. The best way to dig deep and find energy reserves you didn't know you had is to frame your actions as a way of living out your values. That's why the leadership at MGH made sure their teams saw the hospital's stated values and day-to-day functioning were aligned. "There is no surer path to a disillusioned workforce than the perception that those in charge are hypocrites," they write. That's very true. It's also a useful reminder that finding space to remind yourself of your values and ways to live up to them is going to help you recharge, more than all the bubble baths and long lunch breaks in the world.

9)     Stanford study into “Zoom Fatigue” explains why video chats are so tiring [Source: newatlas.com]
A new study from Stanford University communications expert Jeremy Bailenson is investigating the very modern phenomenon of "Zoom Fatigue." Bailenson suggests there are four key factors that make videoconferencing so uniquely tiring, and he recommends some simple solutions to reduce exhaustion. Bailenson has comprehensively articulated his ideas in a new peer-reviewed perspective, published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior. Everyone is staring at you…all the time: Unlike an in-person meeting, where participants will shift from looking at a speaker to other activities, such as note taking, on Zoom everyone is always staring at everyone. The anxiety generated by a number of faces staring at you can be likened to the stresses of public speaking but amplified to a degree regardless of who is talking. The short-term solutions to mitigate these issues are to reduce the size of your videoconferencing window, and try to move away from your computer monitor.

The distraction of video: Bailenson says the constant barrage of complex non-verbal cues, both being sent and received, during a Zoom interaction can be a major influence on the novel sense of fatigue generated by the technology. He suggests long Zoom meetings should require audio-only breaks, to help relieve the cognitive load of video interactions. You’re so good looking: Perhaps the strangest part of modern videoconferencing is one’s reflection constantly staring back from the screen. For decades researchers have investigated the effect seeing oneself in a mirror has on prosocial behavior and self-evaluation. In general this body of work suggests there may be a small negative affect generated by intensive mirror image viewing, and this is potentially underpinned by the way a reflection of oneself amplifies critical self-evaluation.

For meetings that need to take place on Zoom, Bailenson recommends creating more distance between oneself and the camera. This can be achieved through the use of an external camera, separate from a computer, generating personal distance that allows for one to move about a room. Bailenson is frank in pointing out many of his conclusions in this new study are entirely hypothetical. But that is part of the point he is trying to make. Over the last year hundreds of millions of people have, on a massive scale, embraced a profoundly new form of communication. And we need to do the research to understand what potential negative effects there may be, and how we can be optimizing our use of this technology.

10)     Why did India do well with Covid? [Source: LinkedIn
In this article, the author points out how India has done well with Covid. India so far has avoided a second wave and the economy seems to have bounced back to normal faster than what most people expected. This is remarkable given that for a few weeks in August and September it felt like India will be the country with largest cumulative Covid infections and Covid-related deaths. (1) In total cases per mn, India is 119th in the world (7,862 infections per mn) and in deaths per mn, India is 108th (112 per mn). (2) Even within this, there are 2 or 3 states that have been badly impacted and some of the larger states have been relatively much better off. So, what are the factors that have helped India?

A few of them that the author highlights are: 1) Demographics: A young population helped India. More than 50% of the population is below 25 years of age (have lower risk and higher recovery) and less than 5% above 65 (highest risk of mortality). 2) Pre-existing immunity: India is a polluted country and people live in unhygienic conditions. As a result Indians are exposed to many germs, microbes, bacteria and viruses and there is some form of natural in-built immunity. 3) Geography: A warm climate provides better protection against the Covid virus. 4) Vaccination: Since the vaccination program for children is quite robust and children get vaccinated for BCG, it may have provided protection against the new virus us well.

Whatever may be the reason, India cannot be complacent. While India seems to have navigated the festival season and New Year festivities well, we do not know what is lurking in the corner. Mumbai suburban trains, the lifeline for workers in Mumbai, opened its services for the general public from 01st February, and there is an increase in infections in Mumbai in the past few days. Let’s hope this is not the beginning of a second wave. Meanwhile vaccination roll out has started and hopefully it will gather pace. Till some 300mn people are vaccinated in the first three phases, the masks, sanitizers and social distancing need to remain in place. It’s not yet time to party like the pre-Covid times.

Click here to see Forbes India's comprehensive coverage on the Covid-19 situation and its impact on life, business and the economy​

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