The COVID Diaries: DCM originator 7

The following interview is with an Australian-based debt capital markets originator. It was conducted on 11 May 2020.

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

Like a lot of organisations, there isn’t a set timeline about when people return to the office. Working away from the office seems to be going better than anyone could reasonably have expected, but at the same time it has been going on long enough now that we’re all keen to get back together. That’s because of the intangible factors of social contact, but also because it is more efficient to have everyone in one place.

I think we are all watching the numbers and the government directives, and at this point that means turning our minds to how we get people back to work safely and within the guidelines. There is a lot to work out around use of common space, people in lifts and all the other things involved in making it a practical return to work for everyone.

You were in the car when we started speaking – it sounds like you are already in the office at least some of the time.

We have been working on an ‘as needed’ basis. Initially we were looking at splitting teams, but that coincided with the direction to work from home where possible so we reverted to as needed. This means practical things like signing documents or some video conferencing that is more readily done from the office.

Your view that working from home has worked better than might have been expected seems to be a common one. It seems, though, that there would have to be challenges around doing new or innovative things when working from home – even tasks as routine as training new staff must be much harder without a centralised workplace. What do you think of this?

I don’t think anyone is seriously talking about a more permanent work-from-home approach. As you point out, more specialised or one-off events are harder to manage remotely and we probably haven’t had to confront this much during this time. People have been focused on trying to do the best job of what they were doing before on an ongoing basis under these circumstances.

Everyone would say there are a lot of benefits of people being together and sharing information face to face. There isn’t really a substitute for it, no matter how well video conferencing facilities work.

At the same time, our organisation has always been pretty supportive of people working remotely. I have always found that, on the occasions when I did it, I often got different things done when working from home. I think what we have seen recently has proved the technology works and driven an acceptance across organisations that working from home is working and not taking a day off.

Do I think there will be a seismic shift? I tend to think the pace of change is often overstated and people have an amazing propensity to return to the mean. Markets are no different.

Perhaps we can move to a more task-based environment where people work where it makes most sense for them to deliver what they have in front of them. Even 25 per cent fewer commuting journeys could change things a lot.

For sure. I think people have also found a degree of relief in being away from the office – not having to commute or worry about shaving, putting on makeup, ironing shirts or whatever. At the end of the day, though, there is a good and valid reason to congregate together, even if we don’t need to do it every day.

“After September 11, there was lots of commentary about how companies won’t want to be based in New York and no-one would want to work in a tall office building. That seemed rational at the time, but of course it has proved not to be the case.”

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?

It’s a difficult question. To be frank, at the beginning of the crisis I think I was perhaps focused on the economic impact. But then I heard something that resonated with me, which was that if you don’t deal with the health aspect you can’t deal with the economic aspect. Like all generalisations it is not perfect, but I think there is an element of truth to it.

We tend to deal with the most immediate crisis, and I think that would look very different in cities that have been really deeply affected by the health side compared with those where the main impact is economic.

On balance, I think Australia has done a pretty good job – perhaps by good fortune as well as good management. This makes us naturally quite focused on the economic side, and that some people may – and I hope this is wrong – underestimate what the scale of that economic impact ultimately will be.

This seems to be the challenge: trying to lift restrictions as quickly as possible but in a situation where no-one really knows the likely consequences of their actions. It is interesting that the Australian government is saying it wants only to lift restrictions it does not think it might have to reimpose.

The greatest pace we can manage, in other words. We have also seen some pockets of the economy and some businesses doing reasonably well through this period, including some that have adapted to new conditions very quickly. Others were always going to find it incredibly challenging regardless of what they did.

I think the finance industry should broadly be quite pleased with the state of market activity we have had through this period. I am quite pleasantly surprised by how functional and active the market has been.

People are naturally inclined to compare crises and clearly the one most recently in our memories is the global financial crisis. But the two are really different: that was a slow-moving challenge that began in credit markets and which, from an Australian perspective at least, did not seep into the broader economy and community to anything like the extent this latest crisis has done.

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?

It’s hard to judge whether one is optimistic or pessimistic at the moment. I am inherently optimistic, I think, but cautiously so. I think, right now, I am finely balanced. I am certainly optimistic at present about how functional financial markets are but I am also conscious of how much data and news there is to come on the economy and, more to the point, on what this means for people.

I am hopeful that the bad news yet to come will not be as bad as it could have been. On the other hand, I am also mindful that what we are in could be a calm patch ahead of rougher weather.

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

It’s a great question and it’s a huge one. We could probably talk about this for five hours. Trying to get that down to some key points, I think people and the community change at a fairly gradual rate. It’s amazing to see how much things do change over years and decades, but I think people tend to revert to mean to a large extent. In other words, huge change in a very short time is relatively uncommon.

I am sure we will look back on this time as one that was remarkable in our lives – at least I certainly hope we do. Speaking to people across all age ranges, everyone finds this to be remarkable. If something was going to instigate a material change it would be an event like this.

I think about what people are craving, and I think it is getting back to what they view as normality. There will be a lasting psychological impact but I’m not sure it will be as big as some people say in the sense of how we operate.

After September 11, there was lots of commentary about how companies won’t want to be based in New York and no-one would want to work in a tall office building. That seemed rational at the time, but of course it has proved not to be the case. The world has cities built on earthquake fault lines, and when an earthquake happens it is tragic but we rebuild them in the same spot.

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?

I’ve been out riding with the kids quite a lot, which has been fantastic – it has recaptured a sense of adventure for which there was no time before. I’ve very much enjoyed The Last Dance on Netflix, as well as Ozark. And I am eagerly awaiting the next series of Schitt’s Creek for a bit of light entertainment. That’s how I’ve been filling down time, as well as a few glasses of wine and some cooking.

One thing I hope is that we keep up with some of the simple things in life that I think people have recaptured. We can enjoy going for a walk with family or a friend, or playing with a ball in the park. It doesn’t always have to be going to a bar or a restaurant, much as those are enjoyable.

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