The COVID Diaries: sustainable finance banker 4

The following interview is with an Australia-based banker in sustainable finance. It was conducted on 24 June 2020.

Australasia has fared extremely well on a relative basis in the public-health stage of the crisis, but we are now seeing diverging performance between New Zealand and Western Australia (WA) at one end of the spectrum and Victoria at the other. What do you think about the prospects for further easing of restrictions from here, and do you think we might actually be entering the most challenging phase of the crisis from a policy perspective?

It’s very challenging. We all knew there would be some form of second wave because this was prefaced by health experts. Having the wherewithal to deal with it and put the right approaches in place is difficult, and as you suggest creates further challenges given the state-by-state approach.

We just have to live with the fact that each state will do things differently, which will have flow-on complications for cross-border business activity. Our organisation has people in multiple states and we are navigating that complexity right now as we look to return people to the office. .

Where is your business on the spectrum of returning to office work, and what is the plan from here?

We are still working from home where I am located. In WA and South Australia staff have been returned to the office in rotations. It looks like we’ll be doing this in New South Wales after mid-July, with no word on Victoria yet – understandably. In any case, we are supported to work from home if that is a personal preference

Is it the case that you can do meetings in person if counterparties prefer, but at this stage no one is asking for them?

I am not seeing clients asking for in-person meetings as a rule yet. My experience is that clients have become very comfortable with using VC and the phone. Virtual meetings seem to be becoming the norm. But we are able to have in-person meetings so long as they are on external premises and on a socially distanced basis.

We are also being very mindful of the way our people actually want to interact – the health and safety of our staff continues to be our first and foremost concern as we work out our approach to all of this.

“I ascribe to the view that this pandemic – on top of ongoing drought and the summer of bushfires and floods – is a practice run for much greater climate-change impacts to come. This scares the hell out of me.”

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 more optimistic than I was three months ago because we know what we know now. There is more clarity on how the virus performs and – mostly – we have become used to how we need to behave in order to keep it under control. This makes me excited about the future of work within corporate life. Undoubtedly this will change, giving us all more flexibility which has to be a good thing.

Less optimistically, I do think we will be living with this virus in our community for a long time, and potentially forever, so we simply need to get used to living our personal and work lives like this even when vaccines and antibody tests exist.

Like most people I know, I am also gravely concerned about the back end of this year and start of next, when government stimulus is unwound and we see the real economic impact of the pandemic. My heartbreak is the inevitable widening of the inequality gap.

Do you subscribe to the view that this crisis will radically reshape our society? What do you think will change and what will areas that some might think will change will actually revert to previous norms?

I think there has to be a new normal and we have to recognise that COVID-19 has given us a unique opportunity to reshape.

What I have been excited about through this period is the acceleration of a technology-driven society, particularly for corporate working life. The ability to conduct work without having to fly or commute, and still get as much done in a productive and beneficial manner, has been a revelation for our organisation. And then there are the carbon savings too.

I am also heartened by the increasing understanding of the connection between disease outbreak and environmental degradation. I ascribe to the view that this pandemic – on top of ongoing drought and the summer of bushfires and floods – is a practice run for much greater climate-change impacts to come. This scares the hell out of me, but at least we are seeing a greater understanding of climate change risk and what it does to our society.

How confident are you that gains we have made in reducing carbon emissions can stick even as economies around the world are reopened?

The economy inevitably has to open and the savings in emissions that have been made will of course be eroded to some degree. I am more interested in how the pandemic may have caused a permanent shift in people’s behaviour, and that making even a small immediate change in their lives when taken on a societal scale can make a big difference in the medium-to-long term.

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

Hopefully within the next 2-3 months. I am looking forward to travelling again because I love it. However, I am intent to not return to the levels of business travel I was engaging in prior to COVID-19. I just do not think it is necessary and, actually, I think it will become socially unacceptable.

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

For me, seeing family again is what I am most looking forward to. The knowledge that I can’t do this easily at the moment feels restrictive. It is good to have some freedom to go out again, but I have to confess to having enjoyed a quieter life. I am comfortable being a bit of a hermit!

I am also looking forward to how the new normal at work rolls out – I hope my organisation will look to use some of the COVID-19 norms to embed our culture around working flexible even further into our business. COVID-19 has taught us that there really is no excuse anymore – I think it’s a watershed moment for corporate life and it’s fun to be living it.

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