The COVID Diaries: corporate borrower 2

The following interview is with an Australian-based corporate treasurer. It was conducted on 1 May 2020.

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

We don’t have a fixed timeline although we are planning for a return to the office. As one of the previous diary entries mentioned, one of the challenges will be around transport. Having people safe in and around the office is one thing but getting them to and from the office safely is another challenge.

Some of this can possibly be managed by staggering working hours, but I don’t think this is a complete solution. There may be other options, but I am not sure there is a real solution for it yet.

Even when we do start going back to the office our approach is likely to be that if someone does not feel comfortable – because of the risks of commuting or anything else – they can continue to work from home. We have discovered we can do far more remotely then we ever thought possible.

Like everything else, it will be gradual. We will be on split teams and there will be a few measures put in place in the office. Hand sanitiser will be everywhere and we could even look at things like taking people’s temperatures.

Flexibility with allowing people to keep working from home seems crucial. Has the transition to working from home gone smoothly?

It has. Flexible work has been a part of how we do things for 5-6 years now, so it has not been that unusual. Our IT team was very good in the early days in bumping up our bandwidth and capacity, so we have had very few issues with technology.

On a personal level, the only thing I would note is that I have realised how much you get done in informal interactions and how much this is taken for granted. At home, everything is intermediated by a phone, a screen or a video camera. You spend your days with a headset on staring at a screen and get very little time away from it. This can be fatiguing. I am looking forward to getting back in the office.

“I think the national cabinet has worked quite well because it has inserted some tension into the debate and policymaking. I think this tension has been healthy.”

Has your view of the crisis and the nature of the challenges it presents changed? It seems Australia has prioritised public health over the economy, at least in the medium term. How are you thinking about that trade off?

I am pleasantly surprised by how our governments have acted, particularly after the bushfires earlier this year. If we had a repeat of that performance we could have been in a world of pain.

I think the national cabinet has worked quite well because it has inserted some tension into the debate and policymaking. The federal government is not able to just dictate because the states can disagree and go their own way. I think this tension has been healthy.

My personal view is that public health must be the priority, and then you work out how to deal with the economic fallout. Unless we get past the issues with the virus then the economy will continuously be under threat.

We are in as good a place as you could possibly hope to be and this gives us the opportunity to start to work out how we extract ourselves from the lockdown and open the economy. I am optimistic about Australia, but there are other parts of the world with a lot of work to do.

Do you think Australia should accelerate the easing of restrictions or should we be waiting for something like a sustained period of zero new infections?

I do not think we need to wait until we are down to zero as long as we are continuing to test at high rates. We are not the highest in the world on a per capita basis, but we are in the top tier.

We also need to ensure that when hotspots come up, we can get on top of them quickly. Everyone is looking to South Korea as the model, and they have a proven model that can work. If we are sensible and ease restrictions in a measured way, I do not think we need to wait.

How do you think things will be different when we get back to normal? What changes can you see to work practices, social changes and the economy?

I think we are in for a long transition back to something approximating normal. I am sure there will be changes but my crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s.

I do not subscribe to some of the speculation that everyone will keep working from home or that there will be less demand for office space. For everyone who has been happy to work from home there are people that cannot wait to get back to the office.

I hope that this episode encourages us to think differently about priorities in society. There are a lot of things that are important but we had perhaps forgotten about, such as healthcare and essential workers. We are thinking more about the roles of people in society that we rely on. These are things like supermarkets, cleaners and nurses. These are essential roles and whenever things stop working we notice them.

Hopefully, there will be a reprioritisation of what we see as essential and we focus government spending on healthcare and essential services. These have been under pressure with government spending cuts across a lot of Western countries since the financial crisis. Public services have been watered down significantly and I think we are realising that this can come back and bite us.

We have been asking people what they have been reading relating to the crisis but we think everyone has seen enough by this stage. So what are your entertainment recommendations for lockdown?

On television I have been enjoying The Last Kingdom on Netflix, which is about Alfred the Great in Dark Ages England. Another programme I have been watching is Lucifer, which is based on the devil going to Los Angeles for a holiday, where he partners with a detective to solve crime. It is light-hearted and fun.

I read a lot of fiction and enjoy listening to audiobooks. It all tends to be escapist – thrillers, urban fantasy, historical fiction. I get more than enough seriousness during the day with markets and work.

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