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Has COVID changed the world forever?

The COVID-19 crisis has had a profound impact across economies, markets and societies. ANZ and KangaNews, in association with Women in Banking and Finance, recently hosted business and market leaders to talk through the response so far and the wide-reaching nature of future changes.

Participating in the discussion were Jacqueline Chow, Senior Adviser at McKinsey and Nonexecutive Director at Coles, NIB, and the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce; Jen Dalitz, Chief Executive at Women in Banking and Finance; Jen Driscoll, Chief Executive, Australia and New Zealand at AllianceBernstein; Jacki Johnson, Adviser at IAG, non-executive Director at Community First Credit Union, co-chair United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative and The Australian Sustainable Finance Initiative; and  Carol Lydford, Treasurer Toyota Finance Australia, Board Member at Lifeline Northern Beaches and Nonexecutive Director at Toyota Super.

Participants from ANZ included Karen Brown Director, Diversified Industrials; Felicity Emmett, Senior Economist; Gwen Greenberg, Head of Corporate Debt Capital Markets Australia; Katharine Tapley, Head of Sustainable Finance and Christina Tonkin, Managing Director, Corporate Finance. The discussion was moderated by Helen Craig, Head of Operations at Kanagnews.

In part three of a multi-part discussion, we started by asking if  over time things will go back to how they were, or if COVID-19 will permanently alter elements of how we work and live.

CL: I think the importance of flexibility will remain. A good example of this is the global roadshow we were organising along with our teams in the US, the UK and the Netherlands as COVID-19 hit.

As a result of the pandemic, we decided to bring forward the European bond deal we had been planning to launch after this roadshow. The outcome was really pleasing.

More investors than ever participated, without the need for any in-person meetings, and it was one of the most successful transactions in the market at the time.

I think in large part the way of the future depends on the sophistication of some of our investors. Some prefer to meet face-to-face, some are comfortable with web roadshows, still others are content to tick the box on the financials.

My view is we will eventually creep back to how we were, for some investors anyway. It is the nature of people to want to connect and it is just a matter of time.

GG: The market has been incredibly adaptive around roadshows and my view is that the current environment will have implications for the future. One thing of note has been the willingness of investors to engage in online forums, even with new issuers.

Previously, an issuer might have 10 or 12 investors dial in for half- or full-year results, and some of those would do so predominantly out of curiosity. This has now shifted. We are seeing 40-plus investors dial into update calls and they are actively participating and asking questions.

The reception from issuers and investors has been very positive and the uptake is a pleasant surprise. This type of communication is certainly more efficient online, but it is true that there is still a preference for traditional one-on-one meetings.

We are a considerable way from any of these being permanent, structural changes. One just has to look around the world to see this. For the first time in my career, I have witnessed companies not release forecast earnings and, in many cases, postpone dividend payments until further notice.

The uncertainty and ambiguity about the future has been unlike any other time I have known. With previous volatility, there has always been a safety net – whether it be companies, banks or governments. But to whom do we turn now?

Markets seized up at the start of the crisis and it was not until central banks around the world intervened that things started flowing again. Our concern now is what is going to happen when we no longer have central-bank support – the scary part is that central banks cannot afford to pour money into the economy indefinitely.

Tying it back to my concern about experience and opportunities for the younger generation, companies are closing their doors and many will not reopen.

It will be interesting to see what comes to replace those that are not moving forward. It is going to be a challenging environment, especially for new companies and for private-sector evolution in general.

Until there is a vaccine or an acceptance of re-opening the economy and living under the current situation, opportunities seem like they will remain limited for the younger, less experienced generation.

FE I think we have seen an acceleration of the trend toward flexible working. As Jen Dalitz pointed out, we are seeing a great number of roles people said could not be performed at home, such as trading, done from home.

It will open a lot of roles for more flexible options permanently. We will see a higher number of people working from home, for a great proportion of the time. However, while there may not be as much demand for commercial office space in the city, I think eventually workers will return to the office for at least part of the week. I don’t think we can expect the majority of people to work from home for the bulk, or all, of the time.

Research shows while the initial productivity gains from working from home were surprisingly positive, over time some of these get eroded.

Training staff or inexperienced people not having an experienced hand next to them is quite difficult to overcome. Projects and collaboration tend to take a bit longer.

There is less information sharing as well, without water cooler or hallway chat. All these things suggest, over time, we will eventually move back to the office – although some of the changes will be longer-lasting.

CL: Does this apply to men and women equally?

JD: The statistics show overwhelmingly that if it is a male and female, two-income household the shift back to the office is being led by men.

There has been an increase in unpaid work for both genders, according to a study by the University of Melbourne, but disproportionally for women over men – and particularly in childcare responsibilities.

HC: Is a vaccine the only way things can return to normal?

CT: I was on a plane recently and found it quite confronting to arrive at a completely empty Sydney Airport. All the passengers had masks and social-distancing requirements were respected while queueing – in fact, compared with normal, people were relatively polite.

I hope we can keep some of these good habits. Regardless of whether or not a vaccine is developed, I think some changes will remain. This crisis will have a profound impact on the way people interact.

JD: Vaccine or not, this crisis has advanced the gender-balance conversation by at least a decade.

Fathers have been telling me that, for the first time in their careers, they have been taking their children to and from school and they have seen their children more in the past three months than they have in the previous 10 years.

Where companies have policies that either parent can take time off but the father has been reluctant to do so, this will radically shift. Some changes for the better are here to stay.

JC: I could not agree more. The whole theme of diversity and inclusion that brought us together has a significant barrier caused by inequity. It feels like there is a social movement emerging from the citizens of the world albeit, sadly, from crisis. It is happening now in every continent.

This was all bubbling away beneath the surface but, because of the pandemic, it has now erupted. People have had enough and I hope there is now enough of a ‘coalition of the willing’ to create the positive change we have all been talking about.

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