Pandemic brings challenges, opportunities & some permanent changes to the way we work.

By Chris Keall

It was a day that changed New Zealand forever - and the first thing most of us did was reach for our phone to talk to friends, loved ones and colleagues.

Within minutes of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's March 23 announcement that New Zealand would move to a level 4 lockdown, phone calls hit an all-time record.

Over the days and weeks that followed, we got used to a "new normal" where video chat replaced meeting rooms, Slack messaging took the place of meerkating over an office divider and Friday afternoon work drinks and weekend get-togethers went virtual with Houseparty.

You probably had times when you felt like you were living in Zoom. If so, spare a thought for the Vodafone NZ executive who clocked 123 video calls by week four of the lockdown - or nine a day. Overall, the telco's use of video conferencing increased 688 per cent during the level 4 lockdown, with calls averaging 32 minutes.

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That echoes many companies' experience - though Vodafone will be near the top of the heap for its record attendance on a single video call: 534 staff.

Even now, as we ease into slightly more freedom, telecommunications use remains huge. During the first days of Level 2, Tony Baird from Vodafone says voice calls were still 50 per cent higher than their pre-lockdown level, having peaked at 70 per cent higher than normal in Level 4.

Vodafone NZ Technology Director Tony Baird. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Vodafone NZ Technology Director Tony Baird. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

Mobile broadband under the early days of level 2 was 23 per cent higher than pre-Covid times - interestingly, slightly higher than level 4 as we start to get out and about a bit more. Fixed line broadband was 15 per cent higher than normal but below its Level 4 peak - again an indicator that we're starting to move around more.

Facebook and Vodafone TV use continues to be around 20 per cent higher than normal but Netflix usage during the day has dropped sharply - a sign our kids are taking to lessons online.

Many companies are hurting; almost none has been immune from the effects of Covid-19 on some level. Even though telcos have seen huge usage spikes, that has been offset by costs associated with unlimited data and other relief measures.

"Staggered shifts, enforced flexitime, and 24/7 operations may become the norm, along with working remotely," says AUT Associate Professor Rachel Morrison. Photo / Supplied

Analyst Peter Wise noted that the near-total closure of our borders, and the subsequent evaporation of international tourism and business travel, will cost Vodafone NZ and its peers some $120m in lost revenue over the next 12 months.

But there are also a number of success stories – all with a common theme: a focus on flexible working, remote-working and virtual ways of doing business. There's a new realisation by the general public and business partners that more can be done online, more easily than they thought, after what Vodafone NZ CEO Jason Paris calls two years' of digital adoption crunched into just a few weeks.

Wellington-based Mobi2Go say its business increased three-fold as level 3 approached; many retailers sought an online ordering system for the first time.

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Auckland-based BoardPro has seen sign-ups surge for its software helping company directors manage meetings, integrating with the likes of Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Meet. Homegrown e-scooter rideshare company Flamingo hired hundreds of riders to deliver food. Earlier this month, Dunedin's TracPlus, which makes cellular and GPS tracking solutions for first-responders, raised $5m to help accelerate its international growth.

Auckland rich lister Murray Bolton poured $33m into a start-up called Verteva which hopes to offer Australians and New Zealanders an all-online home mortgage application service next year. North Shore developer Putti Apps created a check-in app for Fletcher Building in just three days - also helping the construction giant digitise more of its site management systems overall, something that will persist long after the pandemic is gone.

Putti Apps boss Bruce Howe says being forced to work remotely has given people new respect for technology. They've realised many mobile and remote-working apps are more capable than they've given them credit for.

Just as well given that, for most workers, there will be no going back to the old ways.

Dr Rachel Morrison, an Associate Professor at AUT's business school and expert in workplace behaviour and psychology, says: "Worldwide, there will undoubtedly be fewer people in the office – now workers have tried working from home, they may find they like it. Organisations may have little choice but to limit the numbers of workers on-site.

Staggered shifts, enforced flexitime, and 24/7 operations may become the norm, along with working remotely."

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Luckily for New Zealand, we're well-placed to take advantage of these trends, thanks to some of the best fixed and mobile broadband in the work. We became one of the first countries to get mobile 5G, for example, when Vodafone NZ began its rollout in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown last December.

Many elements of life and business will still be difficult over the months and years ahead. There's no way to sugar-coat it.

However, Technology Investment Network head Greg Shanahan notes that the new ways of doing things we've adopted over the past two months will see some tangible benefits as well - and will help power our recovery.

"The absolute necessity to work remotely has forced thousands of businesses to use technology to enable their staff to be productive from home," he says.

"As a result, I think in future we will see far more flexibility around where people work with improved efficiency, higher productivity and greater work-life balance."