COVID-19 Lockdown: Sara Watts, Syrah Resources, Australia

Updated: Jul 30


Sara Watts

All of us are locked down somewhere in the world.


As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic handcuffs nations and borders, I continue serving my sentence in Melbourne. All this while, I've been receiving and exchanging more stories of lockdown with friends from all over. I spoke previously with Prithu Srivastava, President Director for DHL Supply Chain in Indonesia,


The COVID-19 Lockdown Series is a cumulation of stories shared with Affluent Society by its members and members of Platinum Circle.

Sara Watts is an Australian company director and audit committee chair, with experience across a range of sectors including technology, higher education, arts, and disability. She is currently a non-executive director of Syrah Resources, Uniting NSW and ACT, LiteracyPlanet and Vision Australia, and a Trustee of the Australian Museum. Sara is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a Fellow of CPA Australia.


Affluent Society (AS) spoke to her about her experience with the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.


AS: What is the lockdown like in Australia?


I am based in Sydney, Australia. The first few weeks of 2020, despite the increase of confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths around the world, were met with a response typical of the Australian psyche: “she’ll be right mate”. To be fair, the nation was still reeling from the devastating bushfires that impacted so many of us across the Australian summer.


As the country realised how serious the pandemic had become, and as our Federal and State Governments moved (seemingly) slowly into lockdown, there was concern, fear, anger. Once the Governments started to act – banning mass gatherings, shutting down sports and performing arts, closing schools, closing national and state borders, working to give health systems the best opportunity to cope - the population largely complied with lockdown and quarantine restrictions.


We have been slowly opening up, hopeful that life will return to some semblance of normality over the coming months, although our national borders are expected to remain closed for some time, and our economy will take years to recover.


AS: What challenges did you face when the lockdown started?


We saw panic buying and hoarding of grocery essentials such as pasta, rice, flour, and toilet paper. No-one admitted to doing this, until one of my colleagues said, “oh yes, I have”. When asked why, she told me that it was a ‘markets’ behaviour – everyone was going to do it, and therefore she chose to get ahead of the curve. My response “if no one did it we’d all have enough” was met with disbelief!


From a business perspective, the immediate challenges were how to implement effective remote working and protecting front-line staff. Across my portfolio that means truck drivers, warehouse operators, aged care workers, disability workers, and childcare workers. Masks and sanitiser gel were in short supply, and we worked across companies and industries to find solutions. Cross-sector collaboration has been one of the bright spots of this period. It has become clear that those organisations with good culture and processes have been able to strengthen employee engagement and outcomes during this period of high uncertainty.


AS: How are you coping with the lockdown?


Fortunately, I spent much of my first career in a global technology company and the shift to working remotely using technology was easy. However, my primary hobby is choral singing. I have been a member of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs for over 20 years and this is the Choirs’ centenary year. We were booked to tour in the UK and Germany in September, but now choirs and orchestras all over the world are silent. While we have online rehearsals and are making virtual recordings of some new Australian compositions, it is not the same as singing in rehearsal or performance. For performing arts organisations everywhere, the complete and instantaneous shutdown of livelihood and artistic expression has been devastating.


AS: Anything positive came out of staying and working from home?


One of the benefits of lockdown has been simplification – most “busy” work has disappeared, I am more focused, and the benefit of no commute and no travel has provided space for meaningful conversation (and cooking). I have been catching up with old friends around the world using virtual meetings and have had time to attend webinars that cover a range of topics – from cyberhealth through to corporate consciousness.


AS: What's happening to return to normalcy?


The Australian governments are slowly easing restrictions, including those on numbers of people allowed indoors or on public transport. Workplaces are using temperature checking, phasing start and finish times, or introducing rostered days in the office to help meet requirements. There remains great emphasis on hand hygiene, cleaning, and social distancing to keep people safe. For me, I didn’t stop working, I just changed the way I was working. I am looking forward to the time when we will be able to safely meet in person again, whether for a meal, a meeting, or a rousing chorus of voices.


Next up: We speak with Jovan Jovanovic, about his COVID-19 lockdown experience in Serbia.


The COVID-19 Lockdown Series is brought to you by the Partners of Affluent Society including

Crown Group, which has carved a reputation as a global property game changer. Its luxury apartment and hotel developments have become talking points worldwide, melding a futuristic vision of a new way of living with inspired architecture and the enviable Australian lifestyle. The company was co-founded by architect Iwan Sunito and engineer Paul Sathio in Sydney in 1996 and has completed 26 projects across Australia. It is now expanding to Brisbane, Melbourne and Los Angeles, USA.

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