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2020’s Silver Linings

by John McBain, Joint CEO

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m reflecting on the year that was 2020.

Rewind 12 months and I was far away from my desk as the bushfires threatened the horizon above my farm together with the entire Eastern seaboard of the country. As a Kiwi, I hadn’t any appreciation of the scale of destruction these fires can wreak in Australia. If that wasn’t enough, the drought broke and delivered three metres of water over most of the property within weeks of the fires subsiding. This was not – as I learnt quickly – time for a swim.

After all that, I foolishly thought any calamities for the year were over… I should have remembered the saying, “things happen in threes” and we met a new and deadly challenge – COVID-19.

I’m extremely proud of the way our team at Centuria handled the lock-downs and the work from home challenges – it has brought us closer together.

I believe the challenges brought on throughout this persistent pandemic have delivered some lasting changes to the Australian way of life. Some good, some bad.

Below are my top, positive takeaways from 2020.

  1. Revival of Watercooler Chats

Having been shut out of the office from March for nine weeks, the Centuria team couldn’t wait to return to the workplace and we were genuinely concerned for our Melbourne colleagues who are only now able to return to the office. Maybe we are the exception, but I doubt it.

I know I’m not the only one who has a new-found appreciation for the chitchats when grabbing a glass of water or making a cup of tea. Whereas pre-pandemic we may have been less mindful about colleagues’ welfare, I feel today our workforces seem to have come together more. I believe the isolation and distancing has taught us to appreciate collaboration, creating stronger, “stickier” teams. Also, the information gained in real time during these quick conversations is invaluable and can’t be gained over a crackly connection.

  1. Work from Home and Commuting

The media has certainly embraced a view that the workforce would like to avoid a return to office-based work. This still has some time to work through. I believe the half year and full year financial reports of those entities with massive stay-at-home contingents will disclose a direct and inverse link between productivity and social interaction on one hand and work form on the other.

We know there will be some changes to work habits but I think it will be a huge disappointment for some commentators when the office market occupancy climbs up – this will occur for a number of reasons, eg vaccine introduction, but we are certain there will be a strong recovery and most people simply won’t see it coming.

A recurring topic of conversation during those early days, when we were partly in the office and partly working from home, was the speed of the daily commute. Roads were quieter. Buses and trains arrived on time – sometimes even early! What this highlighted to me, was a preference amongst some for working closer to home but not necessarily at home. One outcome we may see is a trend towards the hub-and-spoke model for some groups but again it will take time to let this work through.

  1. Online Bonanza

While most of our expensive video conferencing systems broke down because of poor home internet speeds and too many meeting guests, one part of the online experience that didn’t fail us – what to do when we are hungry and can’t leave home!

The pizza providers started it, followed by other takeaway outlets, and now we’ve discovered we don’t need to browse the shopping aisles or battle for a shopping centre car park – everything we want can be delivered to us. The rise in online retailing has exploded this year. As reported in the SMH, the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data revealed nearly ‘a million residences shopped online for the first time this year.’ It also stated, in December online purchases increased 42% compared to the same time last year. This habit might have started with a feeling of staying safe indoors, but I believe the convenience of purchasing non-discretionary items online is here to stay. To that end, I believe logistical infrastructure is on the eve of a renaissance with a bright horizon.

  1. Healthcare help

I also think never before have we appreciated our own health as such an asset. A sniffly nose, a tickle in the throat or random, raspy cough has sent us to the queues at pop-up COVID testing centres. And rightly so! I’m proud to live in a country that, as a whole, follows the rules and acts in the best interests of their fellow countrymen/women. Equally, I have an elevated respect for the scientists and medical personnel who’ve worked tirelessly, striving to find a vaccine. Not to mention, the thousands upon thousands of healthcare workers working overtime to process test results along with administration staff associated with the COVID response. Humbly, you’ve shown you are world-class leaders. I can foretell focus on our healthcare systems is likely to remain top of mind in the years to come.

  1. Leadership and 2021

Some of you know that we have been busy merging in the Augusta real estate business in New Zealand. The whole transaction and integration has occurred remotely due to COVID-19 and it’s a real credit to my co-CEO, Jason Huljich, the New Zealand MD – Mark Francis, and the senior teams in both countries that we have not only completed the integration but have entered into one of the largest (NZ$180 million) real estate acquisitions of the year in New Zealand.

Leadership has everything to do with corporate success. But when we look at our political leaders, we are often disappointed. Although we have witnessed the juvenile antics of some of the State leaders there have been some notable winners out of the crisis.

Granted that even good performers still make mistakes – and from a completely non-partisan perspective, the way Gladys has handled herself in NSW and Morrison has acquitted himself has been impressive. In a quieter moment over the break I’ll try and avoid contemplating the outcome if different individuals (of any party) had been in their roles. That’s a well done!

To conclude, Australia remains ‘the lucky country.’ And on this summer Christmas eve, I remain forever the optimist who looks forward to a bright 2021.

Stay safe, enjoy the festive season and have a great New Year.