If someone had told me a few months ago that by April some 70 per cent of our 85,000 staff would be working from home, I would have said it was impossible. Like many other companies, we have had to act fast in the face of COVID-19, making unprecedented adjustments to the way we work, so that we can continue to serve our clients without missing a beat.
Putting clients first is our mantra and is the most effective way to drive engagement. However, this crisis requires us to make sure we take care of our colleagues first; without them being safe we are not able to meet client expectations. We knew that not only did we have to adapt our own ways of working, we also needed to respond to the changing needs of the companies and people we serve. As such, we have been busy re-designing our products and services, so that all of our clients can bank from home.
By listening to the needs of our colleagues and clients, and reacting to those needs with focus and urgency, we have been able to develop, experiment and implement new solutions in record time.
Many colleagues have commented that they miss the social connection of working in an office – one of the next frontiers for us to address – but we’re extremely proud to see how hard our teams are working, despite the challenges and ongoing uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus.
Our approach to operations
Our business as usual (BAU) philosophy means that our operations are designed to be very resilient. Tier 1 processes have always operated ‘active-active’ between our centres allowing us to move work globally without service impacts. For example, we run our cash operations out of Malaysia and India, and both markets can run payments on their own, if the other is shut down. This helps us to identify and assess risks continuously. In BAU we make these moves all the time and constantly test our ability to continue processing with the loss of one of those centres.
When COVID-19 first hit China, our operations and technology teams had to act quickly to enable working from home for all staff. As Chinese New Year approached, it became clear that the virus wasn’t slowing. We quickly set up crisis calls with leaders around the Bank. We knew that acting early on the information we had – even if incomplete – would get us ahead of the game.
To enable nearly 60,000 of us to work from home, our teams joined forces again to anticipate and solve challenges, agreeing from the start what 'good' would look like. As well as providing thousands of laptops for those needing to work from home, we had to increase our Virtual Private Network (VPN) capacity by more than 600 per cent. One team created a brand-new app, SC Connect, in just one week to help everyone check in with each other remotely.
We had to achieve all this while maintaining the strictest controls, to ensure all staff were protected from the heightened cyber-security risks that could result from increasing our digital capabilities. We also shared advice on how to navigate these risks with clients and staff.
Getting everyone in one ‘room’
How do you ‘gather together’ to discuss key issues when everyone is working in physical isolation? It was important to us to figure this out early, making sure we were all joined up, and that everyone understood who was responsible for what – particularly in our risk, compliance, technical and security teams.
We have learned that a sequential approach, whereby each team updates the next, usually wastes time. This is particularly true for multinational companies like ours. When we’re able to seek alignment from the start, everyone can take decisions with confidence while staying safe and compliant. The more we empower teams to provide rapid responses to issues, the better choices they make.
"I don’t think that our ability to be creative and solve complex problems should be compromised because we’re not in the same location"
Practically, we’re solving all our big issues remotely now, using new tools and sometimes experimenting with different ways of doing things. The outcomes are as good as if we had all physically been in the same room.
The next-most important thing
Especially during crises, it’s vital that team members figure out the most important task on their list, and then focus hard on getting it done before moving on to the next-most important thing. The next-most important thing is where all our valuable resource and time needs to go. And if we’re not deeply uncomfortable about the things that we’re not doing, it usually means that we haven’t prioritised hard enough.
"If you’re feeling comfortable that everything is ok, you haven’t prioritised effectively. You should feel deeply uncomfortable about the things you’re not doing."
But how do you get the whole organisation to adopt the approach of ‘the next-most important thing’? The answer is: move fast, move early and be comfortable with incomplete information. We went into business continuity planning mode very early and treated decisions as 'lightweight choices' made using the best information we have available. If we get better information, we can change the decisions and course correct. And when it comes to our leaders, we strive to nurture not only the agile, but also those able to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty while keeping their eye on the future.
In a crisis, it’s important not to become exclusively focused on what’s happening right now. We try to build for what our clients and colleagues will need, once we’ve crossed to the other side. COVID-19 compels us to re-energise and re-scope the business we want for the future. And it demands us to act with speed.