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Opinion Editorials

A different case for canceling SXSW in Austin

(EDITORIAL) SXSW is a massive conference that draws an international crowd, but one mega-population won’t attend amidst coronavirus fears. Time to cancel.

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Internationally, the coronavirus is forcing everyone to adjust their plans – how often they interact in public, and most definitely whether or not they go to crowded places.

Major conferences are being cancelled, the NCAA basketball tournament could be audience-free and televised only, and there are talks regarding whether or not to allow viewers to attend the olympics or if they should be cancelled altogether.

And from March 13-22, there’s SXSW in Austin, Texas where we are headquartered. The organizers have publicly stated, even up to today, that plans will move forward, despite a “handful” of speaker cancellations (including Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey).

A petition to cancel SXSW has spread, garnering over 15K signatures so far. That list of names is snowballing as people are asking their bosses if they can work remotely, buying frozen food in bulk, and worrying about the endless unknowns about the coronavirus (incubation periods, treatments, vaccines, recurring cases).

But is a petition and fear enough to cancel an international conference that boosts a city’s bottom line (and pours billions of dollars into a dependent ecosystem) enough to shut down SXSW? Are we simply overreacting?

Maybe.

Regardless, SXSW is still announcing new featured speakers like Adam Schiff, Beto O’Rourke, and Hillary Clinton. Ignore the theme of that list, and focus on the point that this film, tech, and music mega-conference has done little to assuage fears aside from updating their “safety resources” page to encourage folks to take “precautions” recommended by the World Health Organization.

“SXSW is working closely on a daily basis with local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event,” organizers said in a statement yesterday. “As a result of this dialogue and the recommendations of Austin Public Health [available here], the 2020 event is proceeding with safety as a top priority.”

The conference organizers added, “At this time, no health departments in the state have requested the cancellation of any gatherings as the current risk of person-to-person spread in their jurisdictions remains low. Historically, March is not a peak international travel month in Austin, but we will continue to monitor. Information and practices are changing during this rapidly evolving situation and we will continue to follow national guidelines. This being said, there are no imminent plans to postpone any current events.”

As an event organizer myself, I can tell you that there’s nothing more terrifying than a threat, be it health or otherwise. Peoples’ livelihoods depend on this event, and I promise there is fear and frustration at the SXSW corporate offices. I still think there is a chance the event will be pared back, but at this point, it doesn’t look like a cancellation is likely.

What will be different this year (besides fear and the fact that coronavirus will be part of every single in-person discussion), is that for the first time since it’s inception, the festival will likely be absent of locals which typically accounts for a huge portion of attendance and which populates their massive army of volunteers.

I personally spoke with nearly 100 people to gauge sentiment in Austin regarding SXSW, and unanimously, folks were surprised it wasn’t cancelled, and indicated they had changed their plans to attend, noting that they would be avoiding downtown for the duration of the conference. Unanimously.

There are a lot of jokes online about SXSW being the reason Austin will be host to a major wave of coronavirus after the conference, and that feeling is no surprise…

If you’ve shopped in the past week in Austin, you know that it is very hard to find hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, and even less common items like deep freezers, and ammo.

Locals are not taking any risks. And that includes attending SXSW.

Therefore, this begs the question – will locals excluding themselves cripple SXSW’s earning capacity? Fears may be overblown, I grant you that, especially given that no communal cases have hit the Austin area, but people are opting out because they’d rather live than hear a surprise concert from a famous rapper, learn about cool robots, or watch a screening of an indie film.

It is my personal opinion that SXSW is literally the best conference on the planet. We’ve been involved for over a decade. And the organizers are in an impossible situation. Truly.

But with so many unknowns about the coronavirus, shoving thousands of people into close proximity is running more and more people off, be they speakers, performers, attendees, or just about everyone that lives in Austin. It’s time for SXSW organizers to make the painful call to cancel. Or at least postpone for the fall.

But they won’t.

Here are some recent reactions from the ol’ internets:

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius - she has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

Opinion Editorials

How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) We’re months into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are still fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.

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Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms.

Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.

The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.

And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.

We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.

That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

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Opinion Editorials

Declutter your quarantine workspace (and brain)

(EDITORIAL) Can’t focus? Decluttering your workspace can help you increase productivity, save money, and reduce stress.

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It’s safe to say that we’ve all been spending a lot more time in our homes these last few months. This leads us to fixate on the things we didn’t have time for before – like a loose doorknob or an un-alphabetized bookshelf.

The same goes for our workspaces. Many of us have had to designate a spot at home to use for work purposes. For those of you who still need to remain on-site, you’ve likely been too busy to focus on your surroundings.

Cleaning and organizing your workspace every so often is important, regardless of the state of the world, and with so much out of our control right now, this is one of the few things we can control.

Whether you’re working from a home office or an on-site office, take some time for quarantine decluttering. According to The Washington Post, decluttering can increase your productivity, lower stress, and save money (I don’t know about you, but just reading those three things makes me feel better already).

Clutter can cause us to feel overwhelmed and make us feel a bit frazzled. Having an office space filled with piles of paper containing irrelevant memos from five years ago or 50 different types of pens, has got to go – recycle that mess and reduce your stress. The same goes with clearing files from your computer; everything will run faster.

Speaking of running faster, decluttering and creating a cleaner workspace will also help you be more efficient and productive. Build this habit by starting small: try tidying up a bit at the end of every workday, setting yourself up for a ready-to-roll morning.

Cleaning also helps you take stock of stuff that you have so that you don’t end up buying more of it. Create a designated spot for your tools and supplies so that they’re more visible – this way, you’ll always know what you have and what needs to be replenished. This will help you stop buying more of the same product that you already have and save you money.

So, if you’ve been looking to improve your focus and clearing a little bit of that ‘quarantine brain’, start by getting your workspace in order. You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to declutter and be “out with the old”; you may even be inspired to do the same for your whole house. Regardless, doing this consistently will create a positive shift in your life, increasing productivity, reducing stress, and saving you money.

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Opinion Editorials

How to ask your manager for better work equipment

(EDITORIAL) Old computer slowing you down? Does it make a simple job harder? Here’s how to make a case to your manager for new equipment to improve your productivity.

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What is an employee to do when the work equipment bites.

Let’s be frank, working on old, crappy computers with inefficient applications can make the easiest tasks a chore. Yet, what do you do? You know you need better equipment to do your job efficiently, but how to ask the boss without looking like a whiner who wants to blow the department budget.

In her “Ask A Manager” column, Alison Green says an employee should ask for better equipment if it is needed. For example, the employee in her column has to attend meetings, but has no laptop and has to take a ton of notes and then transcribe them. Green says, it’s important to make the case for the benefits of having newer or updated equipment.

The key is showing a ROI. If you know a specific computer would be a decent upgrade, give your supervisor the specific model and cost, along with the expected outcomes.

In addition, it may be worth talking to someone from the IT department to see what options might be available – if you’re in a larger company.

IT professionals who commented on Green’s column made a few suggestions. Often because organizations have contracts with specific computer companies or suppliers, talking with IT about what is needed to get the job done and what options are available might make it easier to ask a manager, by saying, “I need a new computer and IT says there are a few options. Here are my three preferences.” A boss is more likely to be receptive and discuss options.

If the budget doesn’t allow for brand new equipment, there might be the option to upgrade the RAM, for example. In a “Workplace” discussion on StackExchange.com an employee explained the boss thinks if you keep a computer clean – no added applications – and maintained it will perform for years. Respondents said, it’s important to make clear the cost-benefit of purchasing updated equipment. Completing a ROI analysis to show how much more efficiently with the work be done may also be useful. Also, explaining to a boss how much might be saved in repair costs could also help an employee get the point across.

Managers may want to take note because, according to results of a Gallup survey, when employees are asked to meet a goal but not given the necessary equipment, credibility is lost.

Gallup says that workgroups that have the most effectively managed materials and equipment tend to have better customer engagement, higher productivity, better safety records and employees that are less likely to jump ship than their peers.

And, no surprise, if a boss presents equipment and says: “Here’s what you get. Deal with it,” employees are less likely to be engaged and pleased than those employees who have a supervisor who provides some improvements and goes to bat to get better equipment when needed.

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