Economic consultant Graeme Newell adjusts to the online future he helped create
He may not have seen the pandemic coming, but he was at least prepared for the Age of Zoom.
Graeme Newell runs 602 Communications from his house in Montavilla. His stock-in-trade for years was giving speeches about behavioral economics. In 2017, when the price internet connectivity dropped — along with the price of screens, cameras, and servers — it became feasible for him to talk at conferences from home by video link. He could charge less than an in-person appearance, which pleased the conference givers, and it saved him days in stressful business travel.
The going was very good in early 2020, and Newell was outsourcing work to several contractors, from a personal assistant in the Philippines to a video editor in Ukraine.
When the economy went off a cliff in March 2020, however, things changed. Most in-person conferences around the world were canceled. The idea of thousands of people huddling and then flying around the globe became almost criminal in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Newell's subject matter (economics) and his mode of delivery (video link) are both timely.
All he has to do is find people high tech enough to book him as a virtual speaker.
"Right now, there's a lot of people looking for alternatives to the traditional meeting, and it's been really good for me. It's everything from continuing education to facilitating meetings."
These days millions of people have to take training and further education credits as part of their job, and much of that industry has gone online in the last five years. Sitting through a module with no fast forward button and answering a test at the end has become standard procedure in white- and blue-collar fields.
Newell reaches out to associations in financial services, such as credit unions, and pitches doing their continuing education courses.
"I speak a lot on finance and fear. So, I'm doing a lot of webinars that talk about the crazy things that people do during this time."
He's also training others how to take their coursework online.
"This is pro-bono stuff to help other people get their system up and rolling. Most of them have been doing these kinds of webinars where they're sitting on their couch with their cat on their knee and bad lighting. I'm just kind of helping them beef up their presentation."
He advises on lights and microphones, and instructs them how to show a PowerPoint as they talk. He tells meeting administrators to use break-out groups to facilitate discussion.
"Right now, it is just like when people started using telephones — they didn't know how. When we did our first Facetime meetings, we would be moving around with our cameras. When we shot our first selfies, they would be the wrong way. We've got to learn good online meeting hygiene, and most people haven't learned that yet, but they will. Like when you enter a meeting, you always mute your mic."
He knows the rest of 2020 is going to be tough.
"I had a whole bunch of in-person speaking gigs that I won't be doing now. Heaven knows what will happen for the rest of this year? Everybody's not going to be taking the financial risk of planning a meeting in November. They'll just say, 'We'll skip this.' But just as many people have contracts and responsibilities, particularly associations and businesses that are looking to keep their clients and engage them. I'm helping them to do online content."
One thing he's sure about, the world just changed drastically.
"We're never going back to the way it was. Online presentations will grow exponentially, and work-from-home is going to become wildly popular. But unfortunately, you're not going to be an employee. You'll be a contractor."
This will lead to offshoring office jobs.
"Why do I need somebody in Portland? Why not hire somebody for a 10th of the cost out of Indonesia to do my work? Technology is going to demonstrate what you can do remotely, and then the remote is going to go worldwide."
All they will have to be willing to do it be aware of the working hours in the United States. Newell checks in with his assistant every day at 5 p.m. (while on his exercise bike), and she has the work in his inbox the next morning.
"Anything that can be done offshore is going to make that migration. There's just way too many wildly qualified people all over the world."
However, this is a recession. Newell has had to cut some contractors working with media clients.
"Media runs on advertising, and advertising has been absolutely devastated," he said.
He's kept on some of his people in Indonesia and his assistant in the Philippines.
"My offshore folks are still working with me. Everybody is just getting a lot less work now form me. Most of them have other things that they do to make money. But they know this is the new reality for employment now. You're going to have four or five jobs. You'll have a lot more freedom to do the work that you enjoy. But our social services are going to hang us out to dry because there's not health care for them — or unemployment. The workforce is still designed as if we live in the 1950s."
He says although small businesses are the number one way that revenue is created in the U.S., entrepreneurs will hesitate.
"You're going to think real careful: 'I don't know how I'm going to get my family health insurance. I don't know if the Affordable Care Act isn't going to be there. I think I'll need to stay where I am.' Consider all the businesses that don't get started simply because of healthcare."
As platforms like Adobe Connect, WebEx and Zoom improve their security, they will flourish. "No question. These folks swallowed a whale, and they're having a hard time dealing with that right now. But they're going to quickly get their feet under them with all of this money coming in from education and business meetings and conferences."
He cites Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who wrote the book "Sapiens."
"He said, 'My university has been trying to take its courses online for the last four years. We just did it in a week!'"
Newell thinks this will lead to a fluid market in academics, where universities can bring in each other's best teachers and use them remotely.
"I can see the University of Oregon going, 'Well, I can get this fantastic professor from Manchester, so maybe I don't need a professor on campus.' Universities are already struggling to provide — particularly in smaller cities. And these economies of scale are going to be critical for their survival. But we just don't have an infrastructure here in the United States that can embrace this without people really suffering."
Asked how fear is influencing what's going on in the economy right now, Newell says, "It's really bad. Most of our decision making is driven by stuff that was designed for being out on the African savanna in the last 10,000 years. It's fight or flight. Typically, in the money area, what you do is sell all your stocks and leave. And this is the absolute worst time. Or you fight, which is, you hop in the market and say, 'I can fix this, I can do this' (by trading stocks). But what most people don't do is just wait it out. And, and that's what you need to do now."
It's the same with toilet paper hoarding.
"You have got to realize we're all a little bit insane. You've got to make sure that you respect that. Does that mean thinking twice about every decision? Two or three times? Yes. And basing your decisions on data, not on emotion. This is the time you do not want to go with your gut."
He has been keeping himself busy with multiple Zoom meetings, as well as MeetUps, which have mostly gone virtual. He checked in with the Modern Enlightenment Book Club, which reads nonfiction about science and technology, and is based in Vancouver. "They met at five o'clock on a Thursday, and I could never get across the bridge. But now I can get there!"
Owner: Graeme Newell
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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