Emerging from the Covid crisis
For Bermuda to be successful in the future with a healthy, economically viable community, it is critical it plays to its strength as an excellent and welcoming host for tourists, and for guest workers and individuals who have chosen to work from Bermuda.
That was among the messages shared during a web conversation between three business leaders who took part in a video meeting, titled “An Hour with the RG”, to discuss how Bermuda has coped with the Covid-19 pandemic, and how it is emerging from the crisis.
Architect Colin Campbell, director of OBMI Bermuda, Malika Taylor, managing director, Bermuda, for employment services firm Expertise Group, and Alison Hill, chief executive of health insurance and financial services company Argus Group, participated in The Royal Gazette-hosted conversation.
They were asked about the Bermuda economy and how the island moves forward following the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Campbell said the crisis had brought changes in Hamilton, notably with less traffic and an increase of restaurants offering al fresco dining.
He said: “But because of the pandemic and people working from home, they have found that their wants and needs have changed quite dramatically.”
Regarding the retail sector, he said more packages have been sent to Bermuda during the last three months, than are sent during the Christmas period.
“So already consumer patterning has been changing,” he said.
He added that office buildings are also being used at only a fraction of their occupancy level as many staff work from home. For some businesses, faced with the cost of making offices “Covid safe” are finding it more cost effective to tell staff to continue working from home.
Looking ahead, Mr Campbell said: “Even with the notion of a vaccine, there is going to be this transformational change in the market place.
“Working from home is going to put pressure on offices, rents, a whole lot of things. We'll probably see the cost of office rental space go down in a couple of key areas.”
He believes offices will become social meeting platforms, with staff continuing to do the majority of their work from home. And he said remote working offers savings in terms of daily commutes no longer being required, and less need for a “big wardrobe” as business and client meetings are increasingly conducted online using video platforms such as Zoom.
“The effect of Covid is negative to the way we were living in January, but opens up a whole new line of opportunities. I see it as a positive thing. We are going to be okay.”
Beyond Covid-19, Mr Campbell said the big shift in Hamilton within the next 50 years will be as a result of global warming, potentially bringing more hurricanes, rising sea levels.
Meanwhile, Ms Taylor said that while for some who have the luxury of being able to work from home there are a lot of benefits, for Bermuda and many Bermudians “this is an exceptionally scary time because there is a lot of unemployment still”.
She spoke about those who work in hospitality or in other jobs that can't be done from home.
“A significant portion of our population have been affected by the pandemic. Not withstanding our Government's fantastic handling of the health crisis,” she said.
Ms Taylor warned that the economic damage being experienced today will continue for a number of years.
She believes the shift to working for home will continue, and added: “Technology is moving us in this direction. The pandemic has just accelerated this. However, there are certain elements of working and socialising that do require you to be with your colleagues, or be with your clients.”
Although meetings that require air travel have now been replaced with video conferencing, face-to-face meetings between those working in insurance and reinsurance and clients are still happening in Bermuda in outdoor settings.
Ms Taylor also said a lot of new employees joining companies are doing so virtually.
“Those organisations have done a really good job of orienting the new hire from a virtual stand point, they are ensuring that they have a proper and decent home set-up so they can do their jobs effectively, and they are finding new and creative ways to introduce them to their colleagues,” she said.
She added that many offices are still working remotely, or are operating a hybrid system with people in the office on some days of the week, and working from home on the other days.
For those working from home, some have started to think seriously about making alterations to their property to have a better purposed home office.
Mr Campbell said: “Many people have found that their home is not really structurally set up to have an office, so we anticipate that part of the evolving architecture here in Bermuda is going to be a separate space for a home office. I'm seeing that already.”
He also expects offices to transform with more purpose-built video-conference facilities, and for offices to become multifunctional to allow for meetings and team building “and when all those activities are done, everyone disperses back to their corners”.
Meanwhile, Ms Hill said Argus Group had implemented Microsoft Teams online communications technology just before the lockdown and managed to get 90 per cent of its global workforce up and running remotely within five days.
She said: “We shut the office to protect everyone, but we didn't skip a beat, we went straight into using video-conferencing for all of our client meetings, board meetings, and management team meetings.
She said remote-working had been stressful for some employees. She said: “You're at home with your spouse, with your kids, you're trying to be an educator, you're trying to work, you're trying to protect vulnerable people in your family. You're queuing for food.”
Ms Hill said people had been more productive, and the company has become more flexible, doing away with nine-to-five working.
“This is the new normal. We won't be returning to the office environment in the way we were pre-Covid. If you want to come into the office that's okay. But nothing is shared. We all have our own laptops, our own kit,” she said.
Some people who will choose always to work from home, she said, others who will always work from the office, and some will do a mixture of home and office working.
The company set up daily, half-hour “Let's stay connected” calls allowing staff to come together and check how everyone was. Ms Hill also did a weekly video message to staff that was not about corporate matters, but about the world in general, from the Covid situation to the Black Lives Matter movement. She also shared her own vulnerability to the strain the pandemic situation has caused. She said: “You've got to be human, particularly when you are using quite inhumane tools and media. You've got to find a way of being human in the midst of that.”
The guests agreed that even if a vaccine for Covid-19 arrives, many of the changes that have taken place in the way we live and work will continue as the “new normal”.
Ms Hill said: “This has expedited some of the digital, contactless business models that everyone has been considering.
“Speaking from personal experience, we fast-tracked into that contactless way of working, which is a more efficient and more flexible for our clients and customers. We won't go back. That is a benefit and something valuable.”
Mr Campbell said: “Our economy will change, in some cases for the better, more efficient working from home. This is a sea change. Our humanity will be tested to see how quickly we can pick up those persons at the bottom end of the economic cycle and reabsorb the back into our economy.”
Ms Taylor said the unemployment Bermuda is experiencing is not short-term temporary, but a medium-term situation that is going to significantly impact the community.
She said the pandemic had changed how people work.
“We will maintain a work-from-home element. In some aspects, we have a very sophisticated workforce that, if you listen to Alison's example, has been able to seamlessly work from home. Which means they can seamlessly work from anywhere in the world, and they do not need to be in Bermuda to continue to do their job well,” she said.
Ms Taylor added: “For Bermuda to be successful in the future and maintain a healthy, economically viable community, it needs to get back to being excellent hosts.
“The critical point for Bermuda to recognise is that everybody who is working from home in Bermuda, does not need to be here.
“We can successfully host tourists who come to Bermuda — a safe environment in this Covid world. We have to pay just as much attention and be just as great hosts to guest workers and individuals who right now are choosing to work from Bermuda.”
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