Amber Coulter and her partner Andrew Lewis set up Britomart-based TRA (The Research Agency) in 2007 in the midst of the GFC. Their job? To help their clients understand human behaviour so they can better focus their organisations. Here, Amber talks to Britomart’s Jeremy Hansen about how Covid-19 might change us – and why she’s still optimistic.  

JEREMY HANSEN Firstly, what’s the situation like for you at home? How are you coping with this sudden shift in your work environment? 

AMBER COULTER Very luckily, Andrew and I are used to working together. We already had desks and technology set up in different areas of the house and were ready to go on day one. We’re both from Christchurch, and after the earthquake people explained to us that from a business continuity point of view, being able to work outside the office is really important. So, our business has been working on Microsoft SharePoint for some time, and all of our work is securely stored in the cloud for that reason.  

The main challenge for us is the extra duties of being full-time nanny and teacher for the kids (10 and 7) and cleaner, cook and gardener – bringing new meaning to the word work-life balance. But I am relishing more time with the kids, and spending time together as a family at home which is lovely. I try to get a 6km run in each day, and I find that really helps with stress levels.  

How has your business been affected so far?  

We have been clear with the 45 staff at TRA we are in this together “as a family” and we are not looking to lose any staff due to COVID-19 during this period. Any sacrifices that would need to be made down the track would be shared across everyone. At the moment we are very privileged in that everyone is still working full-time from home. We’ve developed our own company “alert system” which clearly outlines the stages the company would potentially need to go through, so that everyone knows what the future could look like. Clarity helps, as shown by the Government’s communications plan.  

In times like this, we go back to our core business purpose of “improving the lives of people through the delivery of better products, services and experiences.” At the end of all of this, we believe it will be even more important to “know people” in a post-COVID world – so overall we’re very optimistic. 

Your job, as researchers, is to help organisations navigate societal changes. It may be too early for predictions, but I’d like to encourage you to go there anyway. What kind of world are we going to emerge from lockdown into? 

The world is experiencing a deprivation and this will no doubt lead to significant change. The difference with COVID-19 is the interruption to daily life, so where this leads is unknown. We are currently running a COVID-19 Conversation Monitor which scrapes thousands of pieces of different digital and social media content and makes sense of how Kiwis are feeling about the virus at the moment. People seem to be oscillating between fear and hope. We also study Kiwi Codes of behaviour and Cultural Codes (trends) – they will remain stable, those things that define what it is to be a Kiwi and also part of the world. It’s probably a bit early to say how they will change, but they will morph because of this experience. 

What’s distinctive about the way New Zealanders are responding to this? 

One of the qualities we see around being Kiwi is using humour, and we noticed how that advertisement about COVID-19 with Taika Waititi and other celebrities used humour, even in this environment. There’s this other thing around Kiwis and this idea of the outward world view – we do like to be validated internally, but we’re also looking outward for that connection to the world now. As a country we’re going to be very interested in how we’ve handled the crisis compared to other countries, given our outward world view. 

How are you advising your clients to grapple with this situation? 

What we’ve been saying to clients is, even though it’s pretty much survival mode out there, is what is your purpose? If you’re doing things in this environment that are authentically speaking to your purpose, then you will ultimately be successful. Always go back to that as your North Star. 

But they’ll still be doing business in a different environment, correct? 

Companies will need to go back to their purpose to be relevant. But as far as people go, apparently in Wuhan people have struggled to go back to daily life. Economically, I think the effects will be generational and a felt in a desire for simpler lives. But we could also see mass hedonism, Jazz-age sort of stuff. Or peoples’ behaviour could swing between those two things. And remember, some of the bigger issues haven’t gone away – climate change, for example, is still tracking as being of greater concern to people than COVID-19. 

My observation is that this whole experience is really shining a light on what’s fundamental in human nature. Personally, I think some people will always be materialistic, for example, while others won’t. But, one thing we talk about at work is context. It is everything. The context that we’ve been through is so fundamental it can only shape us as a nation. I’m finding it really interesting on a personal level. I think New Zealanders are going to rediscover tourism in our own backyard. And we may be able to take some of the positivity that New Zealanders feel about our response to the crisis, and use that in creating good ideas for the recovery. There will be people with new ideas and innovations, and companies that can pivot, which will be quite exciting. It’s optimism. We’re optimistic about the future, and unless something radical happens, that won’t change.