Before COVID-19, banks’ disaster plans typically covered outages affecting 10% to 20% of their workforce. No bank had a scenario for 100% disruption. But with the pandemic closing offices and branches around the globe and requiring nearly all employees to work from home, the need to enable employees with remote access has overwhelmed even the most detailed continuity plans.

As retail and commercial banks manage an array of pandemic concerns, they’re striving to balance risk and security with employee productivity and customer service. Equally important, they’re beginning to cast an eye toward plans and platforms that enable end-to-end digital operating models that could emerge much more quickly than anyone – banks and consumers alike – had anticipated. 

Smartphone Batteries and Home WiFi 

There’s no doubt that many bank leaders are losing sleep over the large swaths of their operations running on smartphone batteries and home WiFi networks – elements that, at best, are beyond their control and, at worst, unsecure. Worse, thanks to Downdetector.com, banks’ service issues and outages make headlines just as cloud-based gaming platform and streaming provider outages do.

Slowly but surely, however, banks are finding their footing in the new world order of working from home (WFH). One bank I work with recently went ahead with its annual general meeting, hosting it online for the first time ever.

Some clients tell us they view the wide-scale remote work as temporary, and expect their business to return to pre-shutdown norms once the crisis abates. An equal number see the current crisis as a tipping point. Their ability to conduct business during the shutdown is the proof they’ve been waiting for that the transition to digital banking – including the work of subcontractors, third-party suppliers and call centers – is real and permanent. To them, branches are relics of the past. The lure of digital operating models’ ability to reduce expenses and improve their cost-to-income ratio and continue to serve their customers is too great to ignore.

Potential Risks in the Rush to Remote Work

As they seek to stabilize remote-access operations, banks are working through an array of policy, process and architectural factors that affect remote workers’ productivity. Challenges run the gamut from wide-scale provisioning of laptops to security obstacles, including managing the onslaught of newly issued two-factor authentication devices.

Real-time collaboration tools have become a sticking point. Videoconferencing apps have soared in use and misuse, highlighting security risks such as Zoombombing and outages.  

In the rush to get everyone working remotely, it’s been tempting to permit employees to share Excel worksheets and even email containing proprietary information, whether customer- or banking-related, over home WiFi networks. Some employees request two system IDs, keeping one as a spare in the event that a network overload forces them to use an alternate entry point.

Missteps to Avoid 

By avoiding common missteps, banks can transition more smoothly from crisis management to an end-to-end re-evaluation of their digital capabilities:

  1. Not everyone needs a laptop at home. Many employees can likely perform their work on tablets or even smartphones rather than laptops, at least in the short term. People in functions such as management, human resources and other shared services can forego large-screen tasks like working with spreadsheets and Powerpoints. By matching the work to the tools, banks can reduce the burden of provisioning everyone a laptop.
  1. Don’t skimp on fraud protection and cybersecurity. With many banks seeing a 500% increase in cyber and fraud activity, it’s key to monitor not just your own bank’s processes but also those of third parties. Many banks contract out mission-critical functions to external partners such as managed services providers and individual subcontractors, including small companies and code developers. It’s not uncommon for these third parties to then subcontract out work they’re unable to perform. Given their strained resources and the spike in changes to manage, many banks are now consolidating the number of partners and subcontractors to a trusted few.
  1. Know your WFH limitations. It’s critical to identify the processes your bank can’t move to digital, at least in the short term. As an essential business, banks are allowed to maintain workers on-site in most areas, but it’s vital to ensure these employees adhere to social-distance requirements at work.

    For example, some specialized functions like fraud protection aren’t ready for WFH, nor are some middle- and back-office functions for wealth management and capital markets. Fraud monitoring, like trading, is an always-on function, and no blips in the network are tolerated. When one bank found that work-from-home limited its fraud organization’s productivity, it restored 60% of its fraud department to on-site work, which enabled staff to both resume productivity and maintain social distance to safeguard their health.

  1. Carefully map the remote work journey. Creating a remote-work roadmap is an intricate, mission-critical process that involves multiple dependencies. By designing one, you can flag not only security vulnerabilities but also oversight issues and areas requiring platform and process optimization. Mapping the remote-work journey will move your organization from ad hoc emergency measures to a secure digital operating model.
  1. It’s not too early to start thinking about talent management. Dramatic changes in the banking workplace could lead to a surge in employee departures, a potentially thorny problem for traditional banks that are still in the early stages of adopting digital operating models. We work with one large bank that has received early-retirement requests from several hundred employees. Start planning now for a talent redesign. Emphasize knowledge capture and transfer so insights and standard processes are institutionalized. Equally important, begin developing a strategy to train and acquire employees who are comfortable working with digital tools and online channels.

From the ‘Now’ to the Future

Getting secure, remote access right is a challenge for banks. The key is to balance workable, short-term solutions with an eye toward creating an overall, permanent strategy for digital operations. Banks can then focus on the next two stages: improving their WFH collaboration platform to drive productivity and a better experience for employees, partners and customers; and designing the end-to-end digitization of their business.

Solving the COVID-19 challenge is the ultimate digital use case for banks because its operational impact will live on.  To emerge in a better place once the virus recedes, banks must step up their digital thinking and execution to enable employees to operate from wherever they need to be.

Douglas McCuaig

Douglas McCuaig

Douglas McCuaig is SVP and Country Leader for Canada. Prior to joining Cognizant, Doug spent 14 years in a number of leadership... Read more