Around the New Zealand office (and back home) with Stickybeak’s David Brain

The industry veteran talks heading back to the office in New Zealand, then returning temporarily to WFH.

What stage is New Zealand in?
We had been at level one, which has very few restrictions domestically, but the borders are sealed, since June. But Tuesday night in Auckland, we went back to level two, which means that again all schools and offices are closed, and we have to stay at home. 

Wednesday is the first day of that, which is somewhat depressing. Four cases of community spread were detected from no known source, so we are back in lockdown, initially for three days, whilst they try to locate and isolate the source. 

When did New Zealand start to ease restrictions?
We came out of lockdown in mid-June, so we have been ‘free' for three months. Going back in is quite a shock. March to June was full lockdown, and the government here went ‘hard and early’ and the country pretty much fully complied -- and it worked. There was zero community spread of the virus until Tuesday.

So you went from your Auckland office to home to work?
Yes. I have a number of roles. Stickybeak as cofounder and then board roles at Parkable, [media outlet] The Spinoff and Enero, the owner of Frank and Hotwire, and I chair a charity called Spend My Super. But most days, I was in the Stickybeak office, which is shared with Parkable. Then it was all from home.

Your business is international, so weren’t you used to working remotely?
Yes. From 2011 to 2018, I ran Edelman in Asia, the Middle East and Africa from here, so when I was not on a plane, I was working very remotely and across time zones -- big time zones. Abu Dhabi to Auckland is a long way.

In some ways, the global and regional Edelman roles meant I was very used to remote working. Most of that was pre-Zoom, so that meant conference calls. But you learn, I think, to manage relationships from afar after a while. 

It is very much not an easy skill, and I think the world has realized that over the last few months. It is pretty straightforward to manage a business when you can be there. Everyone ‘manages by walking about’ to some extent. Many managers are more informal in their style, and I think not being able to be in the office and with people has affected that style of manager much more. Doing it remotely requires a lot more discipline.

What is your work-at-home situation like?
The big challenge is I don't have a home office -- my wife has that -- so I shuffled about the house, laptop on lap -- I guess where it was designed to be -- looking for peace and to escape from the dog. We have two kids, both of whom were back home from university. I was very grateful for Zoom backgrounds which masked out the domestic dishevelment behind me.

I would try and customize them for cheap laughs. One colleague is a Napoleon expert and so his background was always [Prussian military leader Gebhard Leberecht von] Blucher, the general that defeated him.

Did you rush back to the office in June when the lockdown lifted?
Yes, straight back in.

Did it make a difference?
Yes. I think everyone now knows you can do a lot from home and remotely. But I think also that many now appreciate that being with colleagues has some big benefits. Not just that informal communication is pretty efficient, but many of us have good friends at work.

Parkable and Stickybeak are startups, and the teams are pretty young. They feel very like agencies to me in that regard. The Spinoff is a media company and so a newsroom, and you know how the bustle of a newsroom is quite a rush at times and one of the intangible reasons to be involved in news media. So I think most of the teams were glad to be back, but in all cases, work-from-home policies were liberalized, and those that did not want to come in could stay and work from home.

Just the other night, you were free to go back to the office. Now you are locked down again. Any sense of when it will lift?
Yes. Three days if they can trace the source of the infection of this one family of four. If they can't, or if it is from someone who has not just entered the country, they will assume we have community spread again and, I guess, will lock down again.

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