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The COVID Diaries: securitisation banker 1

The following interview is with an Australia-based securitisation banker. It was conducted on 28 May 2020.

Does your business have a timeline for returning to office working – and are you looking forward to it?

I believe there will be some limited return to work from mid-June – probably just a couple of team members. We should be able to send more in over the coming months.

Yes, I am absolutely looking forward to it. I miss my team, and there are people in it who I have never met – we have had a couple of new starters during this period. It has been particularly challenging for them.

As a team, we genuinely miss each other. Working in a market environment, there is no substitute for the learning by osmosis that goes on when you’re all together – and the office banter. I think we’ll have a new appreciation for each other when we go back.

The comment about new starters is interesting – it raises the issue of how we do new things in a working-from-home environment. How has your business coped with integrating new people? Are you talking about people with plenty of experience in the sector, at least?

Not really – these are people who have been in the industry but one of them is fairly junior and of course they are both new to how our organisation operates. Even if you are fairly experienced, learning how an organisation works – especially one as complex as a large bank – is a challenge.

My team has been amazing at embracing new starters. They all call and check in, and we divide up our key tasks so each member of the team has run a training session for the new starters. This also helps them get to know each other.

Communication is key. You really can’t communicate too much via the avenues available to us – phone and video. But it must still be hard for new starters. I’m sure they are looking forward to getting into the office and getting to know their colleagues personally. That’s hard to do via Zoom.

It’s not efficient, is it? It is so much quicker when you can lean over a desk and involve someone else in an ongoing conversation compared with having to dial them in.

Exactly. That’s what I mean when I talk about learning by osmosis – and it’s particularly challenging for new starters and more junior people. If a client calls me it’s hard to say ‘hang on, let me just patch in another two or three people’. You just can’t replace that gap in the learning process, in my view.

Clients are presumably going to call the person in your team they are most familiar with and have dealt with longest. That has to make it hard to build new relationships.

We are feeling that. We are doing the best we can to involve everyone in learning, but there are things about being in the office that can’t be replaced – just listening in to conversations and learning.

“It’s particularly challenging for new starters and more junior people. If a client calls me it’s hard to say ‘hang on, let me just patch in another two or three people’. You just can’t replace that gap in the learning process, in my view.”

It is commonly accepted at this stage that Australia and New Zealand have done relatively well in the phase of the crisis where public health was the number one priority. Is it now time – at the margin at least – to change the emphasis towards reopening the economy?

I think so, yes. It has been interesting to see how different countries have approached the economy versus public health piece, and I find it very uncomfortable to think about that as a trade off.

It’s not a black and white, one thing or the other issue, though – it is very complex. I think there will be other health consequences as a result of the economic damage. I read, for example, that some people expect the suicide rate to increase to significantly more than the coronavirus death rate [in Australia] because of the economic downturn.

Having said that, it’s very positive that the virus appears to be under control. There will probably be clusters, but it sounds like the system is designed to cope with those. There are dire consequences every day the economy is not operating properly and it is time to focus on that issue. We need to get the cities buzzing again and to get people spending.

It’s sad to think that our children’s children will be repaying the debt we are accumulating now. But it is also a reminder of how lucky we are to live in Australia – not just how we have handled the health aspect but how the government has helped people through this period.

The big challenge seems to be that we taking something linear – the economy – and overlaying something potentially exponential – the virus. That makes it hard to make a straightforward judgement on what is an acceptable level of health risk – because there is always the chance of accelerating to what we saw in Italy in March.

I don’t know how you make those decisions. It’s very uncomfortable to contemplate and I’m not sure there is a right or wrong answer at this stage. We just have to see how things play out.

Are you more or less optimistic about the crisis than you were during the early acceleration period of moving to home working and adding social distancing measures?

I am definitely more optimistic than I was back in March. Things could have gone either way back then whereas now it feels like the virus is under control. We are talking about getting out and about. My son went to the park for the first time yesterday and it was like he was at Disneyland – a cheaper version, and I’m not sure he’ll be going to the actual Disneyland any time soon!

From an economic standpoint, businesses will be able to start getting things moving. Short of a second wave, which is the big unknown, I really believe it should be onwards and upwards from here.

Do you subscribe to the view that this crisis will radically reshape our society? What do you think will change and what will areas that some might think will change will actually revert to previous norms?

I have been thinking a lot about this. If we think this is a once in a hundred years event, why do we need to adapt our society fundamentally for it? Having said that, the impact has been so dramatic that we can’t help but think about things differently.

Take the example of going back to the office. Things will be quite different. We can’t have 15 people crammed into a lift or communal kitchen areas the way they were. I believe even our meeting rooms are being closed off – we may have to book a desk to sit at. I think these types of things will be around for a while.

When there is a vaccine – touch wood – and the virus is totally under control I think things will start to creep back towards normal. Even then, I don’t think things will ever be exactly the same. There will be much stricter controls around numbers, and we will be much more used to things like wearing face masks.

When do you think you will next get on a plane? Are you looking forward to or dreading travelling again?

I’m in two minds. I used to travel a lot and I haven’t missed it as much as I thought. It’s almost a novelty to hear a plane in the sky now, and I’m not rushing to get back on one. It’s not because of the risk but because I think we were over-travelling. I would do the Sydney-Melbourne return for one or two, one-hour meetings that, when I reflect, could have been done by video.

On the other hand, I am looking forward to travelling to see teammates, colleagues and clients. I will travel, I just think I will do so less often than I used to.

What else are you most looking forward to being able to do again as restrictions ease in the coming weeks and months?

I’m looking forward to being able to take my kids out and about – back to the zoo, to see family and friends in a larger setting and so forth. I have also been missing gym classes. I haven’t quite got into the habit of just going for a run outside.

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