The COVID Diaries: bank issuer 2

The following interview is with an Australian-based bank treasury executive. It was conducted on 25 May 2020.

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

The organisation has a near-term target for returning a certain percentage of corporate staff to their respective sites. This will prioritise particular people and roles that require the infrastructure to support what they do.

The initial phase is unlikely to include myself or anyone else in my team. We will be working remotely a while longer and the timeline for us returning to the office is still to be determined.

It has been remarkable how well we have been able to manage working remotely but it is not a sustainable solution in the medium-to-long term. I think everyone is looking forward to a resolution in time and finding out what the new normal will be.

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?

Personally, I do think the time is right. The policy response to the health crisis was rapid and has clearly reaped significant benefits. The focus has obviously been on flattening the curve and reducing transmission rates to near zero and the outcome achieved has been a tremendous benefit to the nation.

Now is the right time to turn the focus to people’s wellbeing and livelihood. We are clearly not going to be immediately back to the economy we had prior to this. Perhaps that is a good thing – there will be opportunities and challenges. But now is the time to focus attention on what the pathway to the recovery part of the crisis looks like.

There are obviously risks in this but there needs to be more discussion around risk-accepted measures and the reward. We can’t stay in this type of hibernation until a medical solution is in place.

“There are obviously risks but there needs to be more discussion around risk-accepted measures and the reward. We can’t stay in this type of hibernation until a medical solution is in place.”

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 somewhat balanced. I am trying to be optimistic about where economic activity returns to, what productivity gains there can be and consumer sentiment returning to a more normal level. But I think it will be challenging as the real impact on jobs and businesses comes through in the data.

It is has been an unprecedented event and indicators such as business confidence and conditions have fallen off a cliff. Structurally and psychologically, it will be difficult to achieve a rapid economic recovery.

The pillars of government, central bank and regulators have done a very good job responding to the crisis for Australia, and relative to other countries we are on a good footing to launch a recovery and reshape our economy to face the challenges that likely lie ahead.

Clearly, there will be people that are worse off than they were before the crisis. This is upsetting but, on the whole, I am optimistic about how we can evolve and become better out of this.

Do you subscribe to the view that this crisis will radically reshape our society or do you think there will be a reversion to previous norms over time?

I don’t subscribe to the radical change theory. I certainly hope it is not the case that we will live an isolated and remote lifestyle as a result of this pandemic. I enjoy social interaction professionally and personally so I think this would be a shame.

In the near term there are obviously challenges. The efforts around reopening the economy will be difficult to execute while keeping policies like social distancing in place. There will be an interim period where it is not clear what the end state looks like.

Parts of the economy and sectors were not as efficient as they perhaps could have been prior to the crisis and these will be forced to be more creative and adaptive, and make tough decisions to get through. But on the whole I do not think society will be radically changed.

Businesses have seen how quickly staff can adapt to working remotely so I imagine the push to do more of this will be a significant outcome, but this was already taking place. It will just be accelerated now.

When do you think you will next get on a plane?

We recently completed a set of virtual meetings with offshore investors. They were very appreciative of us taking the time and it was well worth doing, but the connection and rapport you build in physical meetings is far greater than it is in virtual meetings.

I hope it is not the case that people are permanently dissuaded from traveling. I like to have my mind opened by experiencing different cultures, places, and perspectives so I am hoping to jump on a plane as soon as possible. It does, however, seem like more a medium to longer term proposition than anything in the immediate future.

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

Taking a holiday somewhere warm – or warmer than here! Like many others in the office I had holidays planned that have been cancelled, and in the meantime we have been very busy with work. We typically only have one or two holidays per year so if we miss one it means we have been working towards that holiday for a while. It is difficult when these plans get delayed.

I also reiterate the social aspect. It has been a challenge for many people with the ebbs and flows based on how you feel working remotely, so getting back together with friends and family, as well as my work colleagues, is very much on the agenda.

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