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Coronavirus Accelerates Technology Curve: What Lessons Banks Can Learn In A Post COVID World.

Such has been the impact of COVID-19 on planet earth that within 4 months there is hardly an individual or entity that has not been impacted by the pandemic, in some manner or the other. These are perhaps the most unusual times that have no precedence. There has also not been a disaster in preceding 100 years that has touched almost every country in the world. It’s after a period of 80 years that Olympics, scheduled to be held in Japan this year, have been cancelled.

Confined to home, no one is asking when the human will reach Mars, for mankind reaching home after a day’s work is more important for now.

The speed, lethality and impunity with which COVID spread around the world has left Science, Technology, Human wisdom and Gubernatorial Organizations like W.H.O. & global powers largely ineffective. Even at the time of writing this blog, countries that had been impacted most by the pandemic and some of those that have started to feel reduction in pressure from spread and started opening up, can’t say with certainty if the medication administered was the right course and if they really have it under controlled even now.

Each country that has gone through this cycle had worked with maximum precautions (including lockdown, quarantine, testing etc) it thought was possible while hoping to quickly flatten the curve, praying it did not leave the economy in tatters. The continuum of lockdown and other control measures were undoubtedly helpful in developing discipline amongst their population, such as social distancing and heightened sense of hygiene.

Vaccine seems as distant as it was on day 1 when the world admitted the horror of a pandemic after the flip-flopped role of W.H.O. in early days of spread. Several countries are working tirelessly to find a credible cure and vaccine to counter the virus. The process of developing a proven vaccine often takes considerable time as cycle requires careful & sustained testing for effects and desired results.

Performance and response of some of the worst impacted nations by the pandemic has baffled experts. Facts and figures of the pandemic greatly defied the understanding about healthcare systems, access to global pharma supply chain, financial ability to withstand these kind of unforeseen circumstances and massive mismatches in population v/s infected individuals and death rates. Italy, US, Spain and even United Kingdom, all rich G7 industrialized nations, reeled under the severity of pandemic in spite of access to all that was needed to combat the spread.

No clear pattern emerged from experience of nations that were impacted early, such as UK & Italy, and some who had experience to gain from, such as USA and Brazil. Germany, India (at least till now) and Nordic countries (barring Sweden) were clear outliers and did remarkably well, perhaps with sustained lockdown imposed at earlier stage of spread.

Sweden charted its own path. The nation did not implement any lockdown or restriction on movement allowing Restaurants, School & Offices to function normally. The health experts of Sweden decided to go through the phase of Human Natural Response to virus infection and decided to wait for population to develop herd immunity. This may have its long term advantage but the current phase has seen high number of deaths (3200+ at the time of this blog) and rising. Result of Sweden experiment may throw new options, or questions, on future handling of such pandemics.

Battered by lockdowns and halted movement of humans, many industries have been ravaged and some of these will take many years to bounce back, impacting even the lifestyle of people using their services, such as Airline Industry, which will see a paradigm shift in ways it operates. In absence of a method to ensure that passengers don’t get infected while flying, necessitating a social distancing even on an aircraft, will reduce number of seats available and will lead to higher cost of travel. Reduction in leisure travel will put severe pressure on industry.

Well, think about Cruise Ship business. These are just two examples, there are many from hospitality to finance, tourism to education, manufacturing to services; no one will be able to work in the manner prior to pre Covid phase. Period !!

Global Impact Of Pandemic

Needless to mention that sudden disappearance (read forced confinement) of humans and their activities have taken nature by surprise and there are enough stories of harmless animals reclaiming their spaces in small towns and cities, lakes & rivers are cleaner and one can breathe in air with higher proportion of oxygen in it. Reduction in noise pollution is something that all will welcome, no matter however temporary this phase may be. The Ozone layer has also registered a noticeable improvement. Global warming may slow down, albeit briefly. Gains everywhere!

These unplanned gains have come at an enormous cost though. Halted economic activities, which also contribute with negative outcomes such as pollution & mindless urbanization, have left many without jobs and livelihood. Impact on small businesses is most telling since they rarely have large reserve and often lack access to formal credit, in absence of a need that might have not been felt earlier. Agriculture has taken a massive hit with produce failing to reach consumers, often forcing farmers to destroy or dump produce. This may see pockets of food shortages and reduced supplies in some of the important materials. Consumption will remain in-tact but disrupted distribution and logistics may create mismatch in Demand-Supply. Exodus of labour from big cities to their towns will also pose major challenges to businesses when they resume operations.

Every nation has been working tirelessly to revive economies through various measures such as tax breaks, economic stimulus, moratorium in payments of loan instalments and even offering to fund staff salary for few months to help organizations in weathering the storm and survive this crucial phase. Losses galore!!

Global economic growth will take massive hit and some of the strong economies may lose 60-80% of the growth they registered in previous financial years.

Business Crawling Back To Normal

No matter the scale of calamity, it is only natural and logical that world would like to restore normalcy to its affairs. Engine of economic activities steaming back to motion will ensure people get back to jobs, agriculture producers are able to send their produce to markets and credit demand is restored as more industries get back to work.

Some of the nations that were early, and successful, in their fight to survive COVID have started to open up, though very gradually. Governments of several countries have identified industries to let them reopen, linking the progress to the zone (green, amber, red etc…) in which area establishments operate. Big office spaces employing large number of resources have been equipped with guidelines to ensure safety of people coming for work.

Pre & Post COVID – What has changed?

In the past few days, like most of you, I too have had the unwanted luxury of time and free mind to think about impact of COVID on our world, our workplaces, habits and lifestyles.

I would be lying if I were to say, and believe, that COVID19 will be history soon and everything will be back to normal by this or that date. It may never be that normal, yes am referring to Pre Covid period. You may never be comfortable traveling in crowded metro, sharing the cab with 3 other unknown fellow passengers and accepting a dare to be the last person to squeeze in a crowded elevator. You may prefer an open air restaurant to a pub blasting full music and comfortable space of home to watch a movie rather than in theatre with 300 other people. You may like to drive down to office shunning the public transport and may defer your plane journey to sometime later. Is that normal? No! Then what is the new normal and what has changed? A lot!

I have been speaking with some of my industry colleagues and also friends who have shared their various experiences concerning them and organizations / establishments they are associated with. Work from home (WFH) seems to have caught on as a novel solution to beat a novel virus. My workplace collegues, industry experts in my circle have expressed strong opinions on WFH and its advantages.

In addition to that, even few consultants reached out to me wanting to ask how were we managing our organization with most of the staff working from home. They also wanted to discuss my experience with the organizations that I have previously been associated with. Industry is naturally keen to know how organisations are wading through this problem at this period of time when they had no warning and were often ill prepared. A perfectly logical curiosity. It’s a different world!!

Impact Is Different For Each Establishment And Even Industry

In the wake of forced lockdown, most of the establishments were left with no option but to switch over to Work from Home (WFH) for their employees.

Even the organizations that continued to work during the lockdown period such as banks, insurance companies, post offices, ITES companies, municipalities, hospitals, departmental stores distributing essentials, milk and vegetable distribution firms, large medical store chains etc, also asked skeletal staff to come to office. Objective was that only in most essential cases an employee should be asked to travel to office, for his own safety and for safety of others.

The establishments ensured to follow the government guidelines of not allowing more than certain percentage of employees permitted on the floor and social distancing norms were strictly followed. Following the guidelines ensured spread was checked and employees were not exposed unnecessarily.

Challenges Faced In Work From Home Model

WFH has rarely been a regular feature with organizations, barring some in IT sector where nature of jobs often may need an employee to come to office only when required. Generally speaking, concerned over productivity, managers love to see their reportees (or employees reporting to them) in office occupying their workstations. This gives them a sense of control and security. Latter has a connotation of fear of pilferage of important information concerning workspace, customer and any other detail that may harm the organization. Productivity, undeniably, is on top of their mind.

Some of the organizations have had WFH firmly as part of their model and it is often tested with employees seamlessly working from home. One of my close friends, a senior executive in India’s leading private bank said with exuding confidence, “for us this is nothing new, we have been working on this model for long time now.” I am afraid that was not the case with many other organizations, for variety of reasons.

So what are the parameters on which you would evaluate preparedness of your organization to shift to WFH, when needed? (I am limiting this discussion for BFSI industry alone)

1. A WFH policy in place? – First and foremost, does your organization have a WFH policy in place? A policy is the starting point that will ensure all other requirements fall in place. Organization will need to have a clearly documented WFH policy and verticals such as HR, Businesses, IT, Operations, Audit and Information Security Group (ISG) responsible for data security, will need to play an active role in facilitating what is documented.

2. IT Systems – Do your systems allow remote log in? While it may not be necessary to have all the systems compliant with WFH requirements, but does your main transacting system allow seamless remote log In?

3. IT Security – Justifiably so, security of devices and information that they process and store is critical to organization. ISG and IT will need to work together to ensure devices used by employee for WFH are secured and IT policies are regularly updated on the same. Systems should be capable to catch any tampering with devices and alerts should be generated. VPN should be closely monitored for usage and availability.

4. Empower an employee for WFH – Organizations will need to ensure an employee has access to basics required for WFH, such as required bandwidth, power, computing devices etc.

5. Availability of organisation provided devices – if employee needs a laptop, scanner, biometric device for log in, video facility etc, do you have the same in place?

6. Clearly defined Job Descriptions – Work from Home often deprives management of fungibility of resources. Unlike when in office, a resource cannot move to a different desk when he or she operates from home. But to overcome these challenges, it is important to have clearly defined Job Descriptions that take into account the fungible roles that may exist in organization. The employee can seamlessly move to different work profile during the day even while one is working from home.

7. Workflow aligned to WFH model – The biggest challenge that organizations will face is to ensure their system workflows are aligned to the philosophy of WFH. The challenge is toughest for Transaction Processing Areas. Operation Line Manager will need to identify jobs that do not have dependency on other desks for physical informations or papers. Image based processing or transactions that have all the required information as part of system, are ideally the ones that would qualify for WFH.

8. Is HR On-board – WFH model of an organization can’t succeed without an active participation by HR function of the organization. HR will need to work with line managers to decide compensation policies that may have different structures for job roles that can be performed under WFH model. The HR line manager will also need to work on other aspect such as training, counselling and other requirements of employees opting for WFH.

9. Employee welfare – WFH has socio economic issue as well. An employee working from home for longer period of time may have other personal issues to grapple with, including a flagging morale, detachment from work place, low motivation, impact on health and stalled growth for lack of training. HR will need to ensure there is a regular engagement with the employee and a job rotation should ensure an employee is switched between WFH and office.

10. Productivity monitoring tools – This is the most critical component, especially for managers, who are concerned about productivity of the employee. IT will play a critical role in providing information on productivity of employee with system reports such as Log in and Log out report, active session reports, system idle time, number of times biometric device used to log in back into system and so on. Operations line managers would need monitoring for performance of such employees benchmarking against a defined output or comparing it with employees working in office premises.

One thing is very clear, in next few months technology driven organisations will need to invest substantially in augmenting WFH capabilities. This may include strengthening security while allowing access to its employees and contractors, buying new hardware such as laptops, biometric devices and making changes in platforms to provide a seamless access.

Work From Home – Will It Work?

While WFH seems quite simple to look at, it has its own challenges. I feel acceptance of idea is the biggest challenge it faces. In my discussion with some of the industry seniors they opined, and quite vehemently too, that this model is not suitable for their industry. I feel their fear emanates from the same source we discussed earlier, lack of control over employee not visible to them.

Next comes the closed IT & IS structures followed by many organizations. Several organizations that I am aware of, are known for their robust & secure IT systems, strengthened over period of time. These organizations have worked tirelessly to ensure information leakage is never a concern and at the same time their network is secure from external hacking etc… But in the zeal to achieve this objective, their ecosystem has become extremely rigid, close ended, unable to support seamlessly WFH model where an employee will need to access the application from home.

Then comes the need to provide the devices (laptop or desktop) to employees, unless there is already a BYOD (Bring your own device) policy in place and employee has his device and is permitted to connect to office network. But that’s not the case either. With no need felt earlier to provide access to employees from home and sudden requirements of changes in ecosystem not being possible, organizations realized their employees were sitting idle at home. This phase may however be temporary as hardware suppliers resume their deliveries and process to connect to office network streamlines further.

How will office workplace look like post COVID19

It remains to be seen how much would be the learning of organizations in each industry, especially in area of managing their Business Continuity Process (BCP) effectively in times of such disasters. While production lines may have different answers depending upon their reliance on material, components, logistics etc., we are talking here more about industry that operates from desks, on IT systems (laptop, tabs, mobile, desktops), such as BFSI.

Industries have a unique opportunity to take some unprecedented measures to insulate themselves from shocks such as the one posed by COVID19.

It is quite clear that the maximum brunt of spread is felt by big cities and it’s same worldwide. New York, London, Barcelona, Paris, Singapore, Manila, Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata etc. cities were worst affected by pandemic and will perhaps be the last to open up fully, thus increasing the losses that would be incurred by organisations working from these centres.

Giving in to fatigue of waiting amidst lockdown, some of the cities have started opening with an understanding that we may have to live with COVID19 being around for some time to come.

From the experience of pandemic and its impact on big cities, some options are surely emerging. These options can be very useful for organizations from Business Continuity Process point of view, as well as in helping cities with an objective to decongest them. In this context, the biggest input component in BFSI is its resource or employees and it would be the starting point of their being functional or dysfunctional. Organisations may seriously consider some of these options, which I feel are opportunities;

1. Move large work force away from big Tier 1 & 2 to tier 3 & 4 cities. With reliable availability of bandwidth it is now possible to, hypothetically speaking, move operation desks to cities in radius of 200 KMs or may be more. Some of the organizations that I am aware of, have successfully been running this model for few processes.

2. Even in those satellite cities & towns, a combination of WFH and office should be the priority, from day one.

3. Offer relocation to staff to those cities with incentives and growth path of a robust career.

4. Offer different pay structures or compensation making working in satellite towns more lucrative, to encourage employees to choose those options.

5. Hire more resources from places around the satellite towns that are away from big metropolis.

6. To align with WFH culture, organization must revise their IT strategy, even basics such as Laptop for Desktop could be one.

7. It may no longer be a good idea to go for large premises housing thousands of employees at one place, risking a shutdown. A well spread workforce could be an asset in situations like these.

Reducing human (employee) footprints in big cities have cost benefits for organisations and also for employees. Smaller towns will provide better work spaces at much lower cost with options to expand with ease. Employees too can live a better life with shorter commute time, better housing and more affordable lifestyle.

Government should also incentivise organizations taking such steps as benefits will accrue in form of better growth opportunities for these identified small towns and cities. Relocation of resources will also reduce pressure from big cities, which is need of the hour.

There are irrefutable learnings from COVID19 pandemic. Governments and Organizations will need to work on challenges (and opportunities) considering this was not the first such calamity, and it won’t be the last either.

We all need to collectively think about our planet. Mindless growth have created cities bursting at seams. Some of these cities depend so heavily on public transport that even a 30 minute shut down brings city to a halt. Imagine same metros are shut for close to two months now.

It’s time humans realize they just cannot press a reboot button, every time it feels their systems are not responding, it is Nature that has control of the reboot button. Better Act Now.

Author: Sharad Bishnoi, Practice Head, Care Risk Solutions

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