The COVID Diaries: New Zealand sustainable finance banker 1

The following interview is with a New Zealand-based banker in sustainable finance. It was conducted on 27 May 2020.

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

Actually today is my first day back and it is wonderful to see colleagues and reconnect with the team in person rather than Zoom or on Teams. We have about 40 per cent of the team in the office in the institutional part of the bank.

Working remotely and entirely digitally was, on the whole, effective and I enjoyed the challenge of integrating work with life at home. Although I have learned for absolute certain that parenting, educating kids and working full time does not correlate to a great experience in the long term.

I take my hat off to teachers, care workers, and those many essential workers who kept the economy going while a fortunate few of us could remain employed, stay in our homes and enjoy the safety and security of working remotely. I am acutely aware that, for many, the lockdown experience was a whole lot harder than I had it.

What do you think of the idea that there will be a lot more home working on an ongoing basis? It seems relatively easy to run a continuity business on this basis but it may be that people aren’t taking into account how much more challenging it is to do new things on this basis – like training staff or project work.

I think that’s right. It’s fine with existing relationships – where you’re dealing with people you know, where you already understand their sense of humour, say, or their preferred way of engaging. When you bring someone else into the team or have a new project to kick off… it’s not that easy to brainstorm on Zoom.

I agree that eight weeks is probably a time frame within which people were able to shelve a lot of projects and focus on business as usual, particularly making sure customers were looked after. I’d be interested to see how changes in workforce or new projects fared through this period.

On the other hand, I think this scenario will have encouraged people to think a little more about how they work from home. I also think employers will be more flexible – I think they will have to, because a lot of employees will be asking.

Employers that don’t already have a future of work strategy will have to start thinking about working from home as a larger part of their plans. There is also the aspect of the societal impact of environmental degradation. We are probably going to see more pandemics and we need to be able to adapt and adjust quickly.

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 don’t think it’s binary. Look, the government and the “team of five million” have done an incredible job here. I believe there has been one new case in the past week and we are seeing zero new cases day after day in New Zealand. The US is recording tens of thousands of new cases every day. We dodged a massive bullet and we have a lot to thank the government for.

The health aspects of the crisis seem to be well under control and the economic recovery is more sharply in focus. The sense I get, though, is that it never really lost focus. From day one in most people’s minds was what this means for us: our jobs, our neighbours and communities, and the future – New Zealand’s future.

We are remote and we are dependent on a lot of discretionary spending to keep the economy going. I don’t think that has been lost on people, which is why I don’t think it is a binary shift from only caring about the health aspect to only caring about the economy, in the minds of either government or the community.

From my perspective, I think the staging has been well timed. There hasn’t been a moment when I’ve felt New Zealand was hanging in the wrong alert level. The increased focus on the recovery in the budget was bang on. Our financial system is well placed to support the recovery.

However, we are seeing and will see a lot more financial distress for a significant number of households, businesses and sectors: tourism, hospitality and – one that gets completely forgotten – the arts. Even with a move to level one, households and certain sectors will suffer for some time and will need a lot of support.

“I’m most interested to see how humanity responds to the knowledge that there is now a much stronger and more imminent link between ecosystem decline on one hand and health and economic risks on the other.”

Concern now seems to be coalescing around what happens when the short- and medium-term government stimulus runs out if the economy is not yet strong enough to manage without.

I completely agree. It’s not going to be a V-shaped recovery – and, assuming it’s a U-shape, we don’t know how long the horizontal part of the U is going to last. I think there is going to be more shock when the government payments come out of the system.

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?

When we first went home there was the unknown nervousness with a focus on health, but I felt quite reassured by the swift actions and approach taken by both my employer and the government.

I’m naturally, and was always, optimistic. Settling into working from home and getting normalised to that, and New Zealand seeing such strong success during alert level three and then two made me even more optimistic.

However, now I think the reality is kicking in about the difficulty for companies to recover from this crisis. I went to the mall on Saturday and it was not a pleasant experience seeing so many shops closed – it’s not pleasant being ‘out there’ at the moment.

There will be medium- and longer-term societal impacts for New Zealand families and communities, and we don’t know what this looks like yet. We haven’t seen the worst of joblessness and homelessness, which makes me concerned.

This government and the next one are going to have to take care in managing these two issues in particular so New Zealand’s economy doesn’t decline in the long term, creating a greater divide between those who kept their jobs during COVID-19 and those who didn’t.

Do you subscribe to the view that this crisis will radically reshape our society?

I would love to think this will happen. Operationally, we will see some interesting changes in global supply chains and an accelerated shift towards a more distributed workforce. This will have large flow-on effects on commercial property companies, domestic commercial travel, public transport and therefore local authorities, CBD businesses, postal and courier systems, food delivery and tech companies.

I’m most interested to see how humanity responds to the knowledge that there is now a much stronger and more imminent link between ecosystem decline on one hand and health and economic risks on the other.

Maybe the greed and selfishness that has got us to where we are today in terms of environmental and social degradation will actually be the same characteristics that drive us to change our behaviour – because knowing we faced a threat to our survival has forced us to act. We have seen that with good leadership, collaboration, cooperation and common sense we really can stop imminent danger in its tracks.

Climate change is a massive danger that will cause way more deaths than we are seeing from COVID-19. What people haven’t all clocked is that climate change has a lot of parallels with COVID-19 – although with less urgency.

Unfortunately, humans aren’t very good at thinking in the medium and long term. You only have to look at our political, corporate governance, CEO and strategic planning cycles – they are all around 3-5 years. It’s critical that we prioritise green growth strategies and continue the focus on New Zealand’s – and the world’s – transition to a low carbon and sustainable economy.

Now more than ever, companies need to understand and engage in the vital role sustainable finance can play in shaping this growth by funding sustainable assets and outcomes. Post COVID-19, environmental and social considerations are now forever connected and interdependent – and people understand this. We have the financing tools available to us to bring these considerations into our borrowing decisions.

When do you think you will next get on a plane – for business and pleasure? Are you looking forward to or dreading travelling again?

Within the next quarter for family holiday travel. I really feel the need to both connect with family and support the New Zealand economy in every way we can, so we have plans to head to Taupo in July and to Wanaka in September.

Internationally, in reality a vaccine is probably 18 months away and even that may be optimistic – so maybe 24 months. I am looking forward to travelling again but am also really mindful of the climate impact of international travel. I think we may do more camping around New Zealand for the next few years.

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

It’s probably the same things as everyone else – restaurants, bars, movies, the gym and not having to wait in line to go into the supermarket! The weekly shop has gone from one hour to three and I’m looking forward to that not being the case.

I’m also keen to understand what the new normal looks like around working from home, social distancing – when is it okay to hug someone – and also the reopening of broader activities in the community including the arts – theatres and venues – and family activities.

Finally, I’m looking forward to exploring New Zealand and reconnecting with family and friends around the country, as well as the broader community.

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