Return on Specific Anxiety (ROSA)

Our inability to quickly and effectively manage COVID-19 forced us to create a new measure of organizational success. In the Before Times (2019 and before), profitability was a key metric of economic success for businesses. Today it is a leading indicator of financial survival–for both organizations and individuals. We have many ratios to help measure and compare profitability: Return on Investment (ROI), Return on Assets (ROA), Return on Equity (ROE), and more.

There is a new metric that captures much of the math people perform every day in their decision making. It also factors in some of the economic, social, race, gender, and education inequities in our system.

Return on Specific Anxiety (ROSA) 

Return on Specific Anxiety (ROSA) calculates the “is it worth it?” risk versus reward math for once-normal activities like going to the grocery store, attending a wedding, going to the doctor’s office, or taking a vacation.

Let’s break it down:

  • Return: that which we get back (usually some form of benefit or profit)
  • Specific: caused by an identifiable source (e.g., event, occurrence, condition, stimulus)
  • Anxiety: natural response to stress, or fear of what is to come

Before, this was a simple calculation of benefit minus costs. Today the math is different.

Real Life Examples

Now that some parts of the world and the United States are better able to control COVID spread, we (CultureSync) are getting requests for in-person executive strategy sessions, leadership education sessions, and diversity, equity, and inclusion work. In the Before Times (BTs), it was a question of resource availability and economic return. Airline miles, hotel points, and rental car upgrades were all fringe benefits. The time we had in airline lounges and in-flight to read, clear out inboxes, sleep, and network would also be generally positive factors.

To calculate a traditional return on investment (ROI), you divide the benefit by the cost and multiple by 100.  ROI = (Benefit / Cost) x 100.  Modeling this, the return on specific anxiety (ROSA) is the benefit divided by the risk multiplied by 100.  ROSA = (Benefit / Risk) x 100.

Today the math is different–a little different for the numerator, but entirely different for the denominator. Things that used to be benefits have become risks.  Airports, lounges, airplanes, rental cars or shared ride services, and elevators have all moved below the line into the denominator. They now contribute to the risk and build Specific Anxiety. And the risk isn’t just personal, it is a public health issue.  Participating in these activities increase the likelihood of COVID community transmission by having people breathing, coughing, and sneezing on each other.  Compared to staying home in our family bubble, the risk for ourselves and our communities is significantly greater.

As we increase the number of factors in the denominator, the numerator needs to change to keep pace. We need a significantly greater benefit to outweigh the increased risk.

Even something that was routine pre-Covid, like going to the grocery store, is causing us to do some fancy math. In the BTs, it was a no-brainer. Need something for a recipe? Run out to the market and get it. Today, there is more strategy involved. You need to factor in the time of day (e.g., early or late, senior hours, etc.), the store selection (Trader Joe’s or Costco), the number of people in the store, the store policy and enforcement of mask requirements, etc. There is just more thought and planning involved. All of this gets added to the denominator.

Another example is letting our kids get together with other kids for playdates. Now we have to run through a litany of questions.  How many people have my kids been around in the last two weeks? Are any of the other kids or parents immuno-compromised? Are any of the kids in regular contact with their elderly grandparents? Has anyone in their house traveled lately? To where? Again, all factors that increase the denominator and contribute to a growing sense of Specific Anxiety.

The Zoom Factor 

In our work setting, we have another factor–one that helps the numerator. We are getting better at working and collaborating virtually. Zoom, Teams, Remo, Bluejeans, Meet, FaceTime, MIRO, MURAL, Office 365, Google Suite, Whiteboard, Jamboard, and many others are real-time collaboration tools. These tools help reduce the downside of virtual vs. in-person meetings.

When used properly, many of these tools can make the virtual experience BETTER than the in-person one. For example, sending people to a breakout room during an in-person conference can take 5-10 minutes of transition and bathroom time, and see a melt rate (people opting out of the breakout in favor of the bar or restaurant or email) of 5-10%. In Zoom, as the host, I click a button and <<snap>> everyone is in a breakout instantly, with no melt. Click another button and they are all back in the main session, instantly. With breakouts, polling, real-time document collaboration, individual/ group/everyone chat, I can increase engagement more quickly than walking around a physical room and checking in on people at tables.

Technology is changing our math. We all have significantly more experience with online collaboration tools in the last six months than in the last six years. Tech firms are also investing in these tools more than ever before. Microsoft’s roadmap for their Teams product was greatly accelerated and investment increased as it moved from an eventual SharePoint replacement to critical business infrastructure practically overnight.

So, we are currently at least on-par with in-person and virtual sessions. The online experience is only going to become easier and better as more competitors bring new features. Add to that, when we do have in-person meetings, participants will be masked and distanced. It will be a different experience. We are likely not going back to traveling as before or working as much in person as before. Technology is making it comparatively less necessary and less efficient.

The Necessity Multiplier  

The Necessity Multiplier lives outside of the ROSA equation. The Necessity Multiplier makes the basic benefit vs. risk equation insufficient to explain people’s choices. It might be that they have a calling (e.g., physicians, nurses, caregivers, etc.). It is more likely that their job has been labeled “essential” and requires in-person work (e.g., meat processing).

Some of us have the luxury to limit our risks more than others. There are many more people who do not have a choice as to whether they go to work or not, regardless of how safe they think it is or how much money they make. Many front line and essential workers are going to work despite the risks to themselves, their families, and their communities. This highlights some of our systemic inequities.

The Necessity Multiplier is another indicator of privilege. Education level, family history and network, and access to educational opportunities help reinforce who has to contend with the Necessity Multiplier and who does not.

We have seen white collar professional work rebound to pre-COVID levels now that many companies have realized that can be done remotely, from home. Thus, lowering their risks (the denominator) while keeping the benefits mostly constant. So, their return on specific anxiety has gone down in general, until you start factoring in homeschooling kids, making meals, and exercising less. It is blue collar workers and on-site service workers who have not seen unemployment rebound. Those jobs continue to lag in recovery as restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, and salons remain closed–for valid reasons.

Implications and Remedies 

Now what? Where do we go from here? Our national response is a patchwork of approaches, data sources, philosophies, and opinions.  The best we can do is more personal and local. We cannot look to our national leaders to guide our behavior in a consistent, science-based, apolitical way right now. So, it is up to us–up to us to do our math, look out for one another, shop and spend responsibly and locally, check in our elderly neighbors and friends, and make the decisions we have to. We need to realize that we have crossed the chasm on adopting virtual work, wearing masks, and raising expectations about what it means to be good citizens.  The world will likely never go back to how it was.

In the meantime, recognize that not everyone is doing the same math right now. We may use the same equations and the same math, but our variables are more personal than ever. We are all doing individual ROSA calculations. The best we can do right now is better understand the math your friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers are doing right now and why. It may be different than yours. Data would suggest it’s more similar than we fear. When we understand why people are making the decisions they are, then we can help each other get through this.

One suggestion: Please don’t tell people they shouldn’t feel anxious or nervous, or that their ROSA calculation is wrong. In general, telling someone what they should or shouldn’t feel is not a winning approach to any discussion. Start with trying to understand, then you can help them with their math. Be sure to show your work when you do. 🙂

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