When government ordered the temporary closure of all workplaces to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in mid-March, staff at marketing agency Fountainhead reacted much like everyone else.
“We watered the plants, took out the garbage, and we each walked out with our computers and a fistful of pens and said, ‘See you in a couple of weeks’,” says Denise Powers, founder and CEO of the business.
“It wasn’t in our heads that we wouldn’t be coming back.”
Fast forward four months and Fountainhead has become one of the first businesses in Cayman to announce it is going ‘fully remote’.
The lease on the elegantly outfitted glass-walled office in the Bayshore Mall expired and Powers decided not to renew it.
“It was such a hard decision from an emotional perspective, but once I thought about it for a couple of weeks, it was so obvious.”
She canvassed the company’s eight staff members, half of whom already worked remotely from overseas, and a collective decision was taken. The firm no longer needed an office.
A global experiment
The coronavirus forced a global work-from-home experiment that few business leaders would have ever considered in normal times.
Now, as the threat from the virus recedes, many companies, including several in the Cayman Islands, are making the switch permanent.
In a Chamber of Commerce survey, almost half of the companies that responded said they were considering incorporating remote working into their business plans going forward.
Wil Pineau, CEO of the Chamber, said cutting costs was a key motivation. Small businesses, in particular, can eradicate a large portion of their expenses by having employees work from home.
“The office is more than just rent; it is the electric bill, it’s the cleaning, the infrastructure, the whole thing,” he said.
For staff, it can mean more flexibility, convenience, and a greater sense of safety in a world where the coronavirus remains a threat.
“Some people are more productive working from home,” Pineau added.
“They are more comfortable, they can set their own hours, and it allows them not to face the traffic.”
Steve McIntosh, of CML Recruitment, said his business had transitioned so seamlessly to remote working that the company had decided not to proceed with plans to move to a new office at The Grove development on West Bay Road. Instead, it will swap its headquarters at Grand Pavilion for home offices all over the island.
McIntosh said the majority of staff had reported in an anonymous internal survey that their productivity had improved. Only 20%, including McIntosh himself, said they would prefer to continue working in an office.
“I think, for those of us with kids, it is a little bit tougher, but if the staff are more productive, candidates are happy, the clients are happy, what was stopping us?”
As the owner of a recruitment firm and a member of the Chamber of Commerce leadership team, McIntosh is fascinated by the changes being wrought by the coronavirus on the business community.
He believes CML and Fountainhead will be the first of many firms to shuck off the expense and stress of commuting to an office.
“I think a lot of companies are taking a very close look at what they need in terms of office space, and the first ones to take the leap will be companies that were impacted by the crisis in some way.”
Once those companies prove it is possible, he believes more will follow. He expects larger accountancy and law firms to maintain some office presence, but to be looking at reducing space and offering more flexible working environments for their employees.
The end of the 9-5 workday?
It is not just where we work that is going to change in the post-COVID-19 world.
Employees are likely to be granted considerably more autonomy to plan their work day, and leaders will have to adapt management styles to suit a changed environment.
“Part of the experiment has been how do employees respond when they are totally unsupervised,” said McIntosh.
For CML, he said, the answer was that most workers continued to thrive.
He expects to face some challenges in the new environment, especially with ‘on-boarding’ new staff, and he has not given up on the idea of renting office space in the future, especially if the work-from-home trend forces a drop in leasing costs.
But he believes the more important move brought about by COVID-19 is a mindset shift that has got business leaders re-evaluating the way they do things. If the traditional office can go, why not the 9am-to-5pm workday?
“A lot of business practices have persisted for years and they are really just a collection of habits that keep us within boundaries that don’t really exist,” he said.
“That is what this great reassessment is about.”
For other businesses, the centrally-located office remains a vital part of their organisation. Their thoughts are turning to design and workflow considerations that make those spaces safer.
Dart Enterprises has begun bringing its staff back to work.
“As we work to fully reopen our corporate headquarters, we have put in place measures to keep our employees’ health a top priority,” said Joanne Lawson, chief of staff at Dart.
Employees observe social distancing, wear masks and adhere to new health and safety protocols, while technology is used to limit the need for group gatherings and allow some workers to remain at home.
“Although our new normal will look different for the foreseeable future, I know I am looking forward to being able to greet my colleagues once again,” Lawson said.
Chamber CEO Pineau believes the post-COVID workplace in Cayman has room for both approaches.
One limiting factor to the work-from-home trend could be the islands’ tech infrastructure. While dropped Zoom calls and shaky web connections may be acceptable during a pandemic, he believes businesses and their clients will be less tolerant of such issues as the world returns to normal.
“The crisis has forced us to take a hard look at our internet infrastructure generally and how we can deliver services to a residential community when it starts to work remotely,” Pineau said.
The consequences of a shift to remote working could have a profound impact on the economy and on life in the Cayman Islands.
If an employee is working remotely from Savannah or Seven Mile Beach, couldn’t they do so just as easily from Australia or Costa Rica?
“Absolutely,” said Nick Joseph, a partner at HSM law firm specialising in immigration.
“The moment your staff can be at home, they can be at home anywhere on Earth.”
That is a trend that existed pre-COVID, accelerated during the crisis, and will continue to pick up speed in the aftermath, he said.
This could lead, he believes, to a “light bulb” moment for businesses that haven’t grasped this already, when they realise they can bring in expertise without physically relocating staff, applying and paying for work permits, or even making healthcare and pension contributions.
Others are coming to the conclusion that workers “stuck” overseas during the COVID-19 crisis can meet the needs of their employers while remaining where they are.
All of that has significant consequences, he said, for the economic wellbeing of the islands. And while political and social media narratives may not always favour importation of people from overseas, he said Cayman’s economy relies on it.
For every work-permit holder that leaves, he said, that is an apartment that goes empty, kids no longer in private school, less money for CUC, grocery stores, restaurants and bars, and fewer fees for the government.
“It has this cascading effect across the economy,” he said. “As a country, we are in the business of having consumers and taxing consumers.”
‘The world is flat’
A move towards more globally-dispersed but digitally-connected workplaces need not be a bad thing for Cayman, Joseph said.
The shifting winds that may cause some businesses to move jobs overseas, may also entice others to come to the islands.
“The world is flat and tech works both ways. A company executive in Cayman can have a personal assistant working in India, but a fund manager in New York may decide he would rather be working from a condo on Seven Mile Beach,” he said.
“We are fishing in the whole world and while we might lose 25% of our current work-permit holders, if we gain 0.01% of what else is out there, we will be very successful.”
In that respect, the post-COVID world could make Cayman an even more attractive proposition.
“I have heard Manhattan described, a little unkindly, as a 75-storey cruise ship. Who wants to be on that right now?,” he asked.
Joseph said he has had multiple calls from clients wanting to relocate to Cayman, some permanently, some looking for a luxury bolthole to hide from the pandemic in “splendid isolation”.
Currently, Cayman lacks the quarantine capacity to maximise the opportunities in those categories.
With the borders effectively closed, there is presently little scope for people to come to Cayman to shelter from the storm of the coronavirus, though that could change in the coming months.
It is already possible for people to live in Cayman and work for companies overseas, said Joseph.
He believes minor adjustments to policies and regulations could make Cayman a more attractive destination for what, in effect, would be long-term visitors.
“What you are probably going to see is this arbitrage between jurisdictions as to where is the best place to live. In such a contest, Cayman will usually be the winner,” he said.
Sun, sea and standard of living
While Cayman has much to recommend it in terms of sun, sea, and standard of living, other islands have the same ideas.
Barbados just announced plans to introduce a 12-month ‘welcome stamp’ to allow visitors to work remotely from the eastern Caribbean isle.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley said the aim was to attract long-stay working tourists to the island.
“This will allow people from the United States, Europe and Latin America to come and do their jobs digitally for a couple of months and then go back home, if they feel they can work better in a more relaxed atmosphere, such as next to a beach,” she said.
CML’s McIntosh believes similar measures in Cayman could make it simpler and more attractive for people to relocate here and work overseas.
He also believes new ‘economic substance’ regulations, requiring companies based offshore to have a physical presence, could bring more employees to Cayman.
Similar regulations are impacting the entire offshore sector and he suspects companies with corporate addresses in Curacao or St. Kitts may look at Cayman’s infrastructure and standard of living and decide that this may be the place to domicile their company.
The changing world of work is likely to have global winners and losers, he said.
In the new environment, it is less a case of only the strong survive and more that the innovative and the flexible will thrive.