The COVID Diaries: SSA 3

The following interview is with two funding executives from a supranational, sovereign and agency sector issuer. It was conducted on 29 March 2020.

Presumably you are now working from home. How challenging has the change been and how is your team dealing with it?

EXECUTIVE 1 We have been working from home for 2.5 weeks, and a week before that we started rotating. We were already set up to work from home, so it was relatively easy. These are times when we really appreciate our IT colleagues – they have been working very hard to make sure everything runs smoothly.

For my team, communication hasn’t been the challenge. We have daily Webex calls and connect via text, WhatsApp and regular calls. The challenge has been being at home with other people – we call them ‘co-workers’. My teenage daughter is completely independent but my son, who is younger, sometimes asks for help to get organised with his schoolwork or asks me to play basketball with him. I’m always on mute on calls when I’m not talking, but you have to be careful due to these interruptions. It’s much more challenging for colleagues with younger children.

EXECUTIVE 2 We run a trading floor, so the information flow needs to be very quick. Without being able to pick up the phone on the floor or call over to a colleague, the information flow is slower because everything requires setting up a Webex or some sort of call. The number of calls has more than quadrupled since we started working this way. I couldn’t imagine working from home and not having access to WhatsApp chats, which enable a quick response. If we had to rely on email, it would be a challenge.

One thing that could improve is how we set up meetings. Before, to set up a meeting you had to find a conference room, and if there weren’t any rooms you had to move the meeting. Now that meetings are virtual, they can be set up much quicker. But colleagues sometimes schedule meetings on top of other ones, which makes it more challenging.

I find I’m working even longer hours. Working from home is like working around the clock. There’s no cut-off point. One example is that there used to be things that would force you to take a break; for example, our cafeteria closes at 2.30pm so I had a time limit on getting lunch. Now that’s not in play I often end up eating very late in the day. Basically, the demarcations between the week and weekend and between the working day and the end of the day are difficult. Some of those things that would force you to have a routine are not there anymore. We need to find creative ways to get into a routine.

How close do you think the market will get to business as usual if we are in a period of social distancing for multiple months?

EXECUTIVE 2 We always had business-continuity plans in place but I’m not sure all investors participating in transactions had that setup. From the feedback we’re getting, more investors are coming online. We are not at 100 per cent, but once we pass through all the cycles – month-end, quarter-end – and all investors are online, we will reach a level of normalcy, even in an abnormal situation.

We generally factor in holidays when we look at issuance windows. Easter, for example, would usually be a time to avoid issuance. Now, because nobody is going anywhere, we have started to consider whether we think about this differently – could holidays now provide a valid issuance window?

EXECUTIVE 1 Where we had meetings already set up, we have tried to do them virtually. We are getting questions from new investors via our website as they look for safe assets. But we have postponed some in-person outreach we had planned. Any outreach we do in the next weeks and months will be virtual. We have done this in the past.

"I haven’t been able to do any personal WhatsApp chats during the day because I’m too busy. At the end of each day, I try to call one older person, like the parents of close friends or ex-colleagues I have not spoken to in a long time. It is great to reconnect with them and they really love this."

What other changes are you making in your personal and professional life?

EXECUTIVE 1 The main difference is having my children at home. I have found myself being more aware of what they are doing for school because they are here and talk about it more. For me, this is a silver lining, being able to spend more time with my children, even if it’s late at night.

Another thing I’m learning is how to be organised in this new way of working. For example, if I have a meeting at 11am, I put an alarm in my phone for 10.45am, with a snooze alarm 10 minutes later so I have time to get ready and I can dial in early. Nobody reminds you there’s a meeting on, you just have to organise yourself to work a bit differently.

I have also had virtual happy hours with some of my groups of friends, to stay connected.

EXECUTIVE 2 I am cooking a lot more – things my mother used to make many years ago. I’ve been cooking more creatively, too – buying food I don’t usually eat so I can experiment. It’s more work but it also feels like exercise. I try to incorporate exercise into my day, so now I do laundry every day, which forces me to run up and down the stairs.

In addition, my home country has been significantly affected; tourism is down, and it comprises more than 80 per cent of the local economy. We don’t have a safety network of stimulus packages from the government. Last week I started trying to figure out how the diaspora could help. I’m working on setting up a website so people can make donations to help some families desperately in need.

I just take it one day at a time. I haven’t been able to do any personal WhatsApp chats during the day because I’m too busy. At the end of each day, I try to call one older person, like the parents of close friends or ex-colleagues I have not spoken to in a long time. It is great to reconnect with them and they really love this.

What are you most worried about in this period, personally or professionally – and how worried are you in general?

EXECUTIVE 1 I don’t think we can allow ourselves to be worried, although that’s hard. We have to keep thinking positively. There’s so much scary news it can get overwhelming. I’m trying to keep humour.

It is a concern, though, to read and hear about so many people who are getting sick and dying. The risk is real, so it’s important to be careful. We are fortunate to work for an organisation that is helping with the impact of the disease around the world.

EXECUTIVE 2 It’s incredible that you can’t find a [definitive] data point – it’s not like 9/11 or the financial crisis. People are trying to extrapolate from some of the data points that are available. Some are calm and say things will be okay, others say there’s no data point to reveal what will happen so they are more worried.

One worry is that when a study is done on the impact of this crisis, I think it will be beyond what we see on the surface. I’m talking about the social and other impacts, in addition to economic ones.

What is the latest article you have read in relation to COVID-19 and what did you like about it? Can you provide a link?

EXECUTIVE 2 There is an incredible website for statistics. You see the numbers in real time and they have full statistics for every country. 

EXECUTIVE 1 For data, I look at Johns Hopkins University. To look behind the data, I read the obituaries section of The New York Times.

I also read the local newspaper in the mornings and various online news.

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