As we start 2021, hopefully well rested from a good December break, we approach 2021 with trepidation of what it may hold from a personal and work perspective.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced most industries to quickly adopt working from home (WFH) policies. Some industries were better suited to this adoption than others, and there were growing pains for all in the process, but technological advancements over the last few years at least made the shift possible. For many it just accelerated adoption of existing technologies. For example, Laurium was already using Zoom to integrate our Johannesburg, Cape Town and London offices with real-time video walls, which made our transition to virtual staff meetings, and eventually client webinars, seamless. The larger looming question is how the world of work looks when the dust settles.
Is work something we do or somewhere we go? Are we working from home or living at work? We at Laurium cannot opine on the broader impact on all industries, but we can comment on the impact on our own industry and some aspects that are closer to home.
The investment management industry was fortunate to be able to adapt quite easily to WFH. Our management interactions and investment conferences all shifted online to virtual forums with great success. In fact, it’s likely that upon reflection our management access has indeed improved, as virtual meetings are far less disruptive to all parties involved. The days of management teams from offshore companies flying to SA to do multiple roadshow meetings in Johannesburg and Cape Town, traversing airports and rush-hour traffic, might be behind us. Many of the corporates we engaged with also confirmed they have substantially reduced their travel budgets, not just for 2020 but possibly forever. While we enjoy the convenience, we are concerned about the long-term impact on business flights, car rentals and hotels.
An additional negative is that it’s difficult to build and maintain human connection over a screen. Onboarding of new staff and inculcating a team culture without physical engagement is hard, as is managing marketing and networking events, without the potential for serendipitous discussions between strangers. Allocators and investment managers also had to navigate the process of due diligence processes without face-to-face interaction.
As we mentioned, some of the impacts are also quite literally closer to home. With schools and universities adopting online tuition, and companies allowing WFH, the impact on residential real estate markets could be material. Gone are the days where proximity to good schools and office nodes were the main attractions for a residential area and could command a premium. And if physical proximity to an office is not important anymore, and employers fully adopt WFH, does this also mean firms could recruit top talent from other geographies? The best or cheapest skills might not be in their current city or even country.
Some of the impacts of WFH will merely be ephemeral, while other changes will endure, and it remains to be seen which is which. For now, all of us that can productively WFH should be grateful for the industries and technologies that enable this, while remaining cognisant of the heavy toll the pandemic is taking on the broader economy.