Banks' back-to-the-office playbook

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As states start to lift stay-at-home orders tied to the coronavirus pandemic, banks and other businesses are thinking about bringing employees back into offices.

Financial services firms appear to be taking a slower approach than most. They are contemplating technologies like robotic process automation and contact tracing to help workers be productive and safe.

In a survey conducted in April by PwC, 49% of executives across all industries said they were looking to make remote work permanent, but 60% of those in financial services said they wanted to do this.

Survey of financial services CFO's attitudes about return to work after COVID-19

This might seem surprising since banks have long worried that more remote work could increase the risk of fraud and other security problems, reduce productivity and stifle interactions with clients. But for now, bankers are more worried about health risks, said Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader of PwC's people and organization group.

“If a vaccine appeared on our doorsteps in the next two months that was tried and tested, we would not see those numbers that high," Sethi said. He has spoken with 25 banks in the past two weeks about their return-to-work strategies, he said.

“People do not want to commute in," he said. "People do not want to come to a workplace experience where we have to wear masks and are in conference calls and we're going back to cubicles and we can't have a coffee or a cocktail together.”

Banks instead are focusing a lot of effort on making remote work, including trading activities, more secure and productive, Sethi said.

"Every single bank we've spoken to has said they’ve taken care of the compliance and security aspects of surveilling traders, with secured lines into their apartments," he said. "They’re not going to bring them back because of a compliance or a security issue. And they also don't want to bring them back if they're not in the right health and well-being mindset.”

Call center employees have also worked from home just fine, he said.

BNY Mellon's strategy

Bank of New York Mellon has about 95% of its employees working from home.

"The real barometer for us is whether our clients are happy,” said Bridget Engle, the chief information officer at the $468 billion-asset custody bank. “We talk to our clients frequently, and they tell us we're doing well.”

There are jobs that still require people to get physical mail or look at gauges in a data center. In such cases, the bank seeks to ensure there is social distancing and the areas are fully cleaned.

Most employees were already equipped to work from home with a company-provided laptop with access to the company’s virtual private network, or by using their own computer with a virtualized desktop that looks and feels like the desktop they have in the office.

“A lot of our investment in resiliency over the last couple of years has been to make sure that we have these types of options available to us,” Engle said.

BNY Mellon primarily uses Cisco Webex to for videoconferencing, at home and in its conference rooms.

“Like everybody, when this started there were some hiccups and challenges in terms of meetings starting on time and having some congestion,” Engle said. “But I think as Webex capacity has normalized, that’s dissipated.”

Engle, along with other key roles at the company, has a Cisco DX80 videoconferencing device at her home that makes dialing into video meetings easy. She also has a networking switch from Aruba that connects to the bank’s network, and a Cisco IP phone at home.

Some people had to have some of these devices shipped to their homes with an instruction kit.

BNY Mellon will take a “cautious, prudent approach” to returning staff to the office, Engle said.

“Our clients are happy, and our view is we'll do it for as long as it takes,” she said.

Among its considerations, the bank will study how best to protect employees in the office.

“We are assessing roles that maybe are less optimally done at home," Engle said. "However, there are a lot of factors we want to watch, because from our perspective, we really don't gain anything from moving quickly to put our employees back in the office and potentially exposing them to a second round of this.”

For instance, it is hard for salespeople to meet with their clients.

“You can do some of that visually through videoconferencing, but there is a human dynamic to being out and meeting clients,” Engle said.

A credit union's experience

BlueShore Financial, a credit union in North Vancouver, Canada, closed half its branches when COVID-19 quarantining began; 98% of office staffers have been working from their own homes.

It is now moving to a new phase that includes opening branches and moving some people back into the head office.

“This will not be rushed and until a COVID-19 vaccination is available and we have implemented new on-site behavior protocols,” said Fred Cook, BlueShore's chief information officer. “We will also continue to leverage our digital remote capabilities with what I refer to as a 'blend and extend’ approach, with some department members working on-site and others working off-site. This will allow us to maintain the social distancing between staff, an important defense in managing any potential COVID-19 spread.”

Cook said at his company, the infrastructure was already prepared for work at home.

“As soon as the decision was made to have head office staff work remotely, our infrastructure, business applications and business procedures were able to support this adjusted new way of working,” he said. “We did not have to scramble and seek any new technology to support having two-thirds of our staff moved to remote work.”

As people return to the office, Cook plans to restructure workspaces and possibly invest in collaboration tools.

“I believe we will continue to leverage a combination of this new on-site/off-site blend of department-teams capability,” he said. “As a result, I can see us looking for additional remote planning-collaboration-type software applications.”

Speeding up automation

In PwC’s survey, 40% of respondents overall said they were aiming to accelerate automation.

“Many of these banks have been on a digital journey for three to five years, on the customer side with mobile banking and on the employee side with different productivity tools,” Sethi said. “They're saying, we need to accelerate that digital journey, because if we have people working in the finance function executing the month-end close, or if we have people interfacing with clients through the call center channel, we need to give them the tools that can make them productive at home.”

Engle plans to implement more automation at BNY Mellon as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

“When this first started, my comment to our executive leadership team was, you never waste a crisis,” she said. “We have clients that still fax things and send paper mail, so we have to use this to drive them to more digital means. This is a real opportunity for us to really move to a much more digital environment in our workplace, and in how we work with our clients."

In the call center, such automation leads to investment in chatbots, to take some of the call volume away from humans, Sethi said. For everyone, it means videoconferences, smartboards and other collaboration tools.

Such tools can also make loan officers, finance people and commercial bankers more productive.

“In some elements it's going to drive better innovation as financial institutions think about how they reinvent products and rethink client segments,” Sethi said.

At some of PwC’s bank clients, employees are creating their own bots for things like the reconciliation of two spreadsheets or looking up information for a call center representative.

“It's democratizing some of the technology innovation, teaching people about ways to automate the work, how to use different tools to collaborate," Sethi said.

Contact tracing

PwC’s study found that 32% of financial services CFOs are evaluating the use of contact tracing technology, which tracks employees' movements so they can be alerted if they have been near a co-worker who becomes infected.

Tracing software stirs ethical concerns and emotional reactions, Cook said.

“Is it about protecting the right of privacy of the individual — but what is digital privacy? — or is it about the greater good of protecting society?” he said. “If you invoke tracing for corralling the spread of a disease, does that mean it would be used for that situation and for only the time required? Either case, I don't believe it's a topic that should be led by corporations but by state or provincial health authorities. The collection, access and retention of the data needs to be tightly managed.”

Engle said that as a technologist, she finds contact tracing fascinating. But it is also fractured, with different providers like Apple and Google collaborating on contact tracing apps. Some apps will not work if the user’s phone is locked. In other cases, there are privacy issues to overcome.

As for workplace-only contact tracing apps, “We're watching it, but right now we don't see enough of a demand given the few people we have in the workplace," Engle said. "As the space develops and we see what happens with the virus, perhaps this is something we'll consider."

BNY Mellon already plans to limit employees’ ability to move across floors when they come back to the office.

“When you're in the building, you’ll need to be at your desk or in your area, not wandering around,” Engle said.

When PwC reopens its New York office, it will require all employees in that location to download the company’s contact tracing app onto their phones, Sethi said. The app will be used to track people’s proximity to one another.

If somebody tests positive, the company will be able to trace who that person came in contact with based on beacons placed around the office and the Bluetooth on employees' cellphones.

“Within seconds, the [human resources] leader or whoever has access to that data,” Sethi said. “And we notify those people straightaway so that they can get tested.” Areas the infected person visited could also be shut down or deep-cleaned.

PwC found that financial institution executives were more interested in contact tracing than the corporate landscape at large.

Sethi argued that there is some confusion about contact tracing. Some people think of technology Apple and Google have created that track people through public information.

Workplace-specific contact tracing tools like PwC’s are just for the work environment and do not track employee’s movements outside the office.

“There's been a lot of interest from clients that are bringing back significant amounts of people back to offices,” Sethi said. “The more people you bring people back, the more useful this is because you can surgically identify who's in contact with whom.”

PwC is using this in China and plans to use it in all offices.

“It will help us with that productivity because we don't have to poll the 10,000 people in our office to say, were you on this floor on this particular day, or close down the entire office to deep clean the whole thing,” Sethi said. “It's a more surgical approach.”

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