As 2020 comes to an end and the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc with Hawaii’s economy, business leaders across a variety of sectors foresee long-term changes in the way people work and businesses operate.
Changing job descriptions, increased working from home, and a change in the relationship between landlords and tenants are some of the changes business executives said they foresee during a panel discussion Friday as part of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii’s 170th Annual Luncheon and Virtual Summit.
Civil Beat moderated the discussion, which included John De Fries, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority; Garrett Marrero, owner and founder of Maui Brewing Co., and Kimberly Lord, senior managing director of the real estate management and advisory firm CBRE.
The panel discussion, like the full day event, was held remotely, a sign of the times amidst the pandemic and the call by public health officials for people to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
The panelists brought a spectrum of views: De Fries from tourism, Marrero from manufacturing and retail food and beverage, and Lord from commercial real estate and the sectors it touches.
Even as much remains uncertain about the future of the economy and the path to recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, one thing seems almost certain. The panelists foresee change as inevitable, and in some cases, long-term.
For example, Lord foresees a continuation of the practice of businesses allowing employees to work from home even after the pandemic. Creating a sense of place and community within an office still will be key, Lord said. Workers want that sense of camaraderie, but also want autonomy and the ability to balance work and family, she said.
“Most employees want to have some flexibility to work from home,” she said.
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Concerning tourism, De Fries envisions a change in job descriptions. Bell staff workers, for example, are likely to take on entirely new duties involving sanitation. Some high-contact positions, like valet parking attendants, could go away. But there’s greater demand for sanitation and sterilization.
“It’s like the pandemic has put the hospital into the hospitality industry,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges facing all businesses, those in the retail and restaurants, involves making lease payments at a time when businesses have been shut down for months and now must operate with limited capacity.
Because of generally low profit margins, restaurants typically need a large volume of customers to make money. But social distancing requirements have reduced capacity for restaurants, making it harder for eateries to get the crowds they need.
One change Marrero foresees involves standard leases, which often require business operators to pay a percentage of revenue to the landlord plus a base rent. Such provisions ensure landlords a base of revenue and allow them to participate in the success of their tenants’ business. The problem, Marrero said, is that they are simply too onerous.
Marrero thinks landlords will need to decide either to receive a fixed monthly fee, or a percentage of revenue, but not both.
He also sees a change in operations. One looming trend: technology that will let diners order food and pay for it using their phones. Servers will simply bring food to the table. That may mean less contact between patrons and staff, something public health policies favor. But it also means less demand for workers.
“We’re not going to be returning to an employment level that we had before,” Marrero said.