Survey Results: Crisis Reinforces Need for Talent

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, banks have relied on their employees to counsel customers and process billions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program loans — not to mention working behind the scenes as they adapt to a virtual work environment.

The crisis reinforces the old adage that good talent is hard to find. “Hire right,” investor Ray Dalio once wrote. “The penalties of hiring wrong are huge.”

Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Compensation Advisors, confirms that talent can be difficult to find in key areas. More than 70% of directors, CEOs, human resources officers and other senior executives responding to the survey point to skills that are particularly difficult to hire and retain, such as information security, technology, lending and risk.

But hiring less-skilled staff also proves challenging: Half indicate that it’s “somewhat” or “very” difficult to attract and retain entry-level employees who fit into the organization’s culture. What’s more, concerns around recruiting younger talent have risen slightly in the past three years: 30% cite this as a top-three challenge this year, compared to 21% in 2017.

Yet, 79% believe their bank offers an effective compensation package that helps attract and retain top talent.

This apparent disconnect could stem from the generation gap between bank leadership and younger staff. Two-thirds of survey respondents are over 55, while more than half of their bank’s workforce is 45 or younger. One can infer that these employees, mostly Gen Z and millennials, primarily occupy entry and mid-level positions.

The survey was distributed in March and April, as the coronavirus forced banks to rapidly shift operations to work-from-home arrangements and adjust branch procedures. Ninety-two percent of respondents indicate their bank instituted or expanded remote work, and 80% introduced or expanded flexible scheduling in response to Covid-19. As the industry emerges from this crisis, how will this impact corporate culture moving forward, as well as expectations from prospective employees?

Key Findings

Covid-19 Response
In addition to adapting to remote and flexible work arrangements, more than half expanded paid leave to encourage staff to stay home if they showed symptoms of the virus. In addition, 81% have limited service to drive-thru only, and 78% limited in-person meetings to appointment only, in order to keep customers and staff safe.

Top Compensation Challenges
The top two compensation challenges that respondents identify remain the same compared to last year: tying compensation to performance (48%), and managing compensation and benefit costs (44%).

Few Measure D&I Progress
Stakeholders have increasingly paid attention to corporate efforts around diversity & inclusion. However, 42% of respondents say their bank lacks a formal D&I program, and doesn’t track progress toward hiring and promoting women, minorities, veterans or individuals with disabilities. Of the metrics most frequently tracked by banks, 58% look at the percentage of women at different levels of the bank, and 51% at the percentage of minorities. Less than half track the gender pay gap, participation of women or minorities in development programs, or participation by employees in D&I-focused education and training.

CEO Retirement
More than 20% expect their CEO to step down within the next three years; an additional 7% are unsure whether their CEO will retire. This metric is, naturally, age dependent: For CEOs over the age of 65, more than half are expected to retire.

CEO, Board Pay Increased
Median total CEO compensation increased in fiscal year 2019, to $649,227. Pay ranged from a median of $251,000 for banks under $250 million to $3.6 million for banks above $10 billion. More than 70% measure CEO performance against the bank’s strategic plan and corporate goals.

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

Adapting Bank Supervision to the Covid-19 Reality

Can a bank socially distance itself from its primary federal regulator?

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the answer is apparently yes.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees nationally chartered banks and thrifts, has been impacted by the virus’ shutdown in much the same way as the institutions it oversees.

In an interview with Bank Director, Acting Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks — who replaced former Comptroller Joseph Otting after his resignation on May 29 — says the pandemic has forced the agency to adapt its preferred method of operation to the restrictions of social distancing.

“One thing that I worry about from a supervision perspective is, historically, bank examiners go on-site,” Brooks says. “Not because it’s convenient, but because being able to be in a room with bankers and sit face to face with people … is a critical tool in identifying fraud and identifying trends that might not make it onto a management report, or might not be raised in a formal presentation. And the longer banks are in a work-from-home environment, the harder it is for us to do that human aspect of bank supervision.”

Brooks says while there are legitimate health reasons why much of the banking industry has operated with a distributed workforce for the last several months, he’s anxious to reintroduce the element of personal contact into bank supervision. “I know that may not happen next month or even this quarter, but we need to start charting that course back, because this method of supervision can’t go on forever,” he says.

The OCC is reopening its facilities on June 21 and is encouraging people who do not have underlying health conditions and would feel comfortable doing so to return to their offices. “That’s our way of showing leadership to the industry of how one can start charting this course back to normalcy,” Brooks explains. “But having said that, we’ve moved to significantly enhanced cleaning schedules. We’re obviously providing face masks and gloves to people who are in mail-handling or public facing positions. We’re changing seating arrangements to maximize the availability of social distancing. And of course, we’re continuing to allow anyone who wants to, to work remotely while making the office … more normalized for everybody else.”

Brooks believes that recent data on the virus suggests that the health risk for most people is manageable. “What the data seem to be showing is that hospitalization rates and fatality rates for people of working age, who don’t have particular risk conditions, seem to be within historic norms,” he says. “Which is not to say that this is not a dangerous disease, but it does appear to be that … people who are under a certain age and who don’t have certain conditions are not at special risk relative to other types of viruses that we’ve seen before.”

And when OCC examiners do return to on-site visits to their banks, they will follow whatever safety protocols the bank has in place.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a crushing blow to the U.S. economy — which entered a recession in February — and the OCC wants national banks to take a hard look at their asset quality. It’s not an easy assessment to make. Banks have granted repayment deferrals of 90 days or greater to many of their borrowers at the same time as the federal government suspended troubled debt restructuring guidance and pumped money into the economy through the Paycheck Protection Program. A clear asset risk profile has yet to emerge for many institutions.

“Some of the traditional metrics that we’ve used to determine asset quality … could be masked by a lot of the relief efforts,” says Maryann Kennedy, senior deputy comptroller for large-bank supervision at the OCC. “Many of our institutions are going back and retooling many of their stress testing models in response to the breadth, depth and velocity of the number of programs that they’re instituting there.” 

Just because OCC examiners don’t have personal contact with their banks doesn’t mean they haven’t been talking to them through the pandemic. Some of those conversations are an effort to triage which banks may need the greatest attention from regulators.

“There is a real time risk-based assessment of what’s happening with our national banks and federal savings associations, so we can try to understand how we move forward and where we focus our attention. [It’s] is very challenging, similar to the challenge [banks have] trying to understand their asset quality and the situation with their loan portfolios,” says Kennedy.

The OCC is essentially trying to assess the pandemic’s economic impact on national banks and thrifts while those institutions make their own credit risk assessments.

“A real-time conversation that’s going on right now, particularly in that in our larger banks, is ‘What is your stress forecasting looking like for provision expense in the second quarter, as well as what could be those potential impacts to earnings, particularly as it relates to any earnings expectations that might be out there?’” Kennedy says. “Those are challenging conversations going on right now … as our bank managements sort of work through the struggle [with] some of those specifics. It’s not a real predictive economy right now.”

Avoiding Pitfalls of Covid-19 Modifications for Swapped Loans

Many banks are modifying commercial loans as they and their commercial borrowers grapple with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Payment relief could include incorporating interest-only periods, principal and interest payment deferrals, and/or loan and swap maturity/amortization extensions. While modifications can provide borrowers with much-needed financial flexibility, they also risk creating unintended accounting, legal and economic consequences.

Don’t forget the swaps
Lenders need to determine whether there is a swap associated with loans when contemplating a modification. Prior to modification, lenders should coordinate efforts with their Treasury or swap desk to address these swapped loans, and ensure that loan and swap documentation are consistent regarding the terms of the modification.

Develop realistic repayment plans
Lenders need to consider how deferred obligations will be repaid when creating a temporary payment deferral plan. The lender may need to offer an interest-only period so a borrower can repay the deferred interest before principal amortization resumes, or deferred interest payments could be added to the principal balance of the loan. Lenders also should consider whether the proposed modification will be sufficient, given the severity of the borrower’s challenges. The costs associated with amending a swapped loan may convince a lender to offer a more substantive longer-term deferral, rather than repeatedly kicking the can down the road with a series of short-term fixes.

Determine whether swap amendment is necessary
The modified loan terms may necessitate an amendment of the associated swap. It may be possible to leave the swap in place without amendment if you are only adding an interest-only period, as long as the borrower is comfortable with their loan being slightly underhedged. But if you are contemplating a full payment deferral, it typically will be desirable to replace the existing swap transaction with a new forward-starting transaction commencing when the borrower is expected to resume making principal and interest payments.

Understand bank or borrower hedge accounting impact of loan modifications
Lenders often hedge the value of their fixed-rate loans or other assets through formalized hedging programs. A popular strategy has been to designate these swaps as fair value hedges using the shortcut method.

This method requires that the economic terms of the asset, such as amortization of principal and timing of interest payments, precisely match those of the hedge. A mismatch due to a loan payment deferral would cause the lender to lose the hedge’s shortcut status. The lender’s hedging program potentially could maintain hedge accounting treatment using the more cumbersome long-haul method if that mismatch scenario was contemplated in the hedge inception documentation.

Borrowers who have taken variable rate loans may have entered into swaps to gain synthetic rate protection. Restructuring  a hedge to defer payments alongside the loan’s deferred payments could jeopardize an accounting-sensitive borrower’s hedge accounting treatment. It is possible for the borrower to reapply hedge accounting under the amended terms, although the restart has additional considerations compared to a new un-amended hedge. If hedge accounting is not restarted, the derivative’s valuation changes thereafter would create earnings volatility per accounting rules. While borrowers should be responsible for their own accounting, lenders’ awareness of these potential issues will only help client relationships in these uncertain times.

Take stock of counterparty derivative exposure
As interest rates plunge to record lows, many lenders have seen their counterparty exposure climb well above initially-approved limits. Hedge modifications may further exacerbate this situation by increasing or extending counterparty credit exposure. We recommend that lenders work with their credit teams to reassess their counterparty exposure and update limits.

Accounting guidance also requires the evaluation of credit valuation adjustments to customer swap portfolios. Lenders should ensure that their assumptions about the creditworthiness of their counterparties reflect current market conditions. These adjustments could also have a material impact on swap valuations.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst
Hopefully, loan modifications will give borrowers the opportunity to regain their financial footing. However, some may face continued financial challenges after the crisis. Lenders should use the modification process to prepare for potential defaults. Loan deferments or modifications should provide for the retention of the lender’s rights to declare a default under the loan documents and any swap agreements. The lender, through consultation with its credit team, may want to take this opportunity to bolster its position through the inclusion of additional guarantors or other credit enhancements.

The economic fallout from the global pandemic continues to have a profound impact upon borrowers and lenders alike. Adopting a thoughtful approach to loan modifications, especially when the financing structure includes a swap or other hedge, may make the process a little less disruptive for all.  

Repatriating Office Employees While the Pandemic Continues

It is the greatest human resources challenge of the modern corporate era.

In early March, U.S. companies — including most banks — sent their employees home to work as the Covid-19 pandemic gained strength and many states issued shelter-in-place requirements and business lockdowns. Most banks kept their branches open for limited customer access, and continued to staff their operations centers, but sent most of the remaining people home. Now, banks are starting to repatriate these employees as state restrictions are eased, and the economy begins to reopen.

There are a number of factors to consider as your bank prepares to repatriate its office staff, including how to keep them safe and changes that will have to be made to the workplace. Some employees may be leery of returning to their old offices since the Covid-19 infection rate is still rising in many states, even though the national rate is slowly declining. New precautions need to be put in place to protect your staff from infections, and these will need to be communicated clearly to them.

It seems highly likely that U.S. companies will have to learn how to live with the Covid-19 virus for the foreseeable future.

Darin Buelow, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and leader of its global location strategy practice, says the only comparable experience in recent memory was the hectic week after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York. Most of lower Manhattan was closed, and the big Wall Street banks had to make alternate plans so they could operate when the financial markets reopened on Sept. 17.

The banks had to figure out how they were going to get ready for the market reopening, and to do so without trying to cram and jam all their employees back into lower Manhattan,” Buelow says. “This prompted them to [move to] their business continuity sites, if they had them, in the suburbs. And if they didn’t, very quickly look for those locations where they could try to get trading desks and phone banks and everything else they needed to occupy offices.”

Of course, this was in the days before widely available video conferencing services. Many households still had dial-up internet service, so relying on a distributed workforce wasn’t an option. “But it was short-lived, and Manhattan was deemed to be okay again,” Buelow says. “What we’re experiencing now is new for all of us.”

Buelow has five suggestions that bank management teams should consider as they prepare to bring their employees back into the office.

Prioritize Employee Health and Safety
To make employees feel safe while the pandemic continues, banks should provide them with personal protection equipment (PPE) while also conforming with new, Covid-19 hygiene standards that have started to emerge. Banks should be stockpiling PPE supplies now, even if they don’t anticipate bringing their people back until the fall or later. Banks that have kept their branches and operations centers open have already had to take these precautions, although they now be applied on a larger scale. “Demand is increasing because there are more companies that are planning on having those stockpiles ready to go for when reentry happens,” Buelow says. “But also, the supply curve has been increasing. We’ve got more companies engaged in producing those products now, and they’re really starting to ramp up.” Of course, this could change if a surge in infections occurs this fall as the economy reopens, leading again to scarcities.

There are various Covid-19 hygiene standards that companies can rely on as they prepare their workplaces for reentry. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has released a set of recommendations — “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for Covid-19” — as have the International Facility Management Association and the Building Owners and Managers Association International. And of course, banks should be checking state and local guidance and requirements as well.

Modify the Workplace
Most offices will have to be reconfigured to provide enough room to maintain social distancing precautions, and this could limit the available space for people to 25% of its normal capacity. “If they try to get up to 50% capacity, most layouts are going to be problematic, and it may be difficult to achieve six-foot distancing,” Buelow says.

Banks with employees in high-rise office towers will have to work closely with their landlords to address a number of issues. “Many [banks] are going to be in multi-tenant situations,” Buelow says. “Landlords have responsibility, oftentimes, for the lobby, for lobby security, maybe lobby temperature testing, maybe lobby hygiene, bathroom hygiene and ventilation. Increasing ventilation is something that’s being debated, the merits of that, the feasibility of that to remove airborne contaminants from offices. Not an easy thing to do, but the landlord has to be part of that conversation. Modifying the workplace is not just what to do in your own space and your cube farm, it’s also engaging with the landlord.”

Elevators in high-rise office towers pose another challenge because they will only be able to take a small number of people at a time to maintain some level of social distancing. “Imagine in a multi-tenant building that has an elevator design platform, which presumes that people are going to pack those elevators [from] 8:00 to 9:00 in the morning,” says Buelow. “Even if your company decides that it’s only going to bring back 10% or 15% [of its employees], if there are other companies that have a much higher number than you and you’re not the only one using those elevator banks, it’s going to slow it down for everyone.” Buelow says that some companies are already modeling how long it will take employees and customers to reach a desired floor using their building’s elevators. He knows of one major company that estimated it would take two hours in the morning and evening for people to enter and exit the building.

Prepare the Workforce
Communication is a critically important piece of the office worker repatriation process. Returning employees will need to be trained on any new Covid-19 safety procedures or mechanisms that have been put in place, as well as proper PPE use. Equally important, employees will need assurances that their health and safety are the bank’s top concern. “I think most companies are going to be very proactive, transparent and genuine in their communications to their employees,” Buelow says. “I think it’s important to communicate with employees that the company is going to place their health and safety above everything else. Be open about the timing of when you think you’re going to be looking at coming back. We’ve seen companies say things like, ‘We know it’s not going to be before Labor Day.’ Or, ‘We know it’s not going to be before 2021.’”

Buelow says some companies have assured employees who are afraid of returning to the office that there will be no repercussions if they continue working from home. “‘And when you feel comfortable coming back, we would love to have you, assuming the state and local regs allow it and we feel like we’ve been able to put in place the changes that we feel are necessary, in order to make it a safer workplace,’” he says. “I think it’s just all about communication and change management, and helping employees understand where the company’s priorities are.”

Develop Pandemic Management Protocols
These involve all the processes the bank will rely on to keep employees and customers safe. Some of these processes will be in response to federal, state and local mandates, while others will be developed by the bank itself.

“We’re already living in a country that has pandemic management protocols [PMPs] in place,” says Buelow. “You have to wear a face mask if you’re going to go to the grocery store. You might be gated on your way in, you might be subject to temperature testing. So those PMPs are a fact of life in many U.S. cities right now. And it could be that way for some protracted period of time. What we’re saying is that companies need to have new protocols and new procedures and new policies to deal with pandemic times.”

Buelow offers one example of a PMP that could become a common occurrence as employees start returning to the workplace. “What if you develop a fever while you’re at work, in the office on the 17th floor, at 3:00 in the afternoon?” he says. “Where do you go? What’s your routing? Who do you notify? What does day one look like on the first day of reentry? What can employees expect? What’s the protocol for testing and screening? What’s the work-at-home policy? I think there’s new policies that have to be written, new procedures and protocols that have to be developed and followed.” 

Use Technology to Enable New Ways of Working
It seems likely that companies will be forced to rotate their office staff until either an effective coronavirus vaccine has been widely distributed, or some level of herd immunity develops and naturally drives down infection rates. And there are a variety of technology tools that can help manage Covid-19 risk in the workplace.

If you’re going to do temperature screening, for example, you’ll need a way to track and manage that information while protecting the employee’s identity. “There are technologies out there to help with … contact tracing or contact awareness so that somebody who has a fever at 3:00 in the afternoon, who were they sitting near?” Buelow says. “Who did they brush up against? Who did they eat lunch with?”

Another technology, deployed either as a wearable or a mobile app, would enable employers to detect who an infected person came in contact with so it wouldn’t be necessary to quarantine an entire floor or department for two weeks out of an abundance of caution. “Deloitte has an application that just hit the street, called MyPath, which does a lot of these things,” Buelow says. “It’s a tool that companies can use for these kinds of self-certifications at home and contact awareness, and case management, and a number of other things to help clients and companies with all of the technological aspects of reentry.”

There is also a technology that monitors how rooms are being used and whether social distancing restrictions are being observed. “Are people congregating in rooms where they shouldn’t be having too many people in a particular room?” says Buelow. “Removing chairs or draping them so that people don’t use them doesn’t do any good. If a meeting is called in a conference room with 20 people and they just roll 20 chairs in there, they’re not socially distant anymore.”

The process of repatriating office workers includes a lot of unknowns. For example, how will they feel about working in a very different environment which may still pose an infection risk despite all the precautions? “We’re not really sure what reentry is going to look like,” Buelow says. “If the employer creates a space that is so antiseptic, and everyone’s wearing masks, and nobody’s in meetings with anyone else, and they’re behind barriers, it could actually discourage integration. If you had to wait in the lobby for an hour-and-a-half for an elevator, on top of all of that, would you really want to come back on Tuesday after your Monday experience? So, that remains to be seen, and it could further delay reopening.”

Pending, Future Bank M&A Challenged by Coronavirus Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated bank M&A, throwing prospective buyers and sellers into limbo.

The crisis and economic fallout have made mergers and acquisitions an even-more tenuous proposition for banks that find themselves in the middle of a uniquely challenging operating environment. Industry experts believe that activity may come to a standstill for the time being but see opportunity for patient buyers once it thaws.

“I think it’s kind of high drama in every situation, if you put yourself on the board of either side of these transactions,” says Curtis Carpenter, principal and head of investment banking at Sheshunoff & Co. Investment Banking. “I’m really surprised that more deals have not fallen apart, quite frankly.”

Deals that have held together so far are most likely situations where both parties have been equally impacted by the economic shutdown and believe that the transaction’s merits will remain unchanged once the pandemic subsides, he says.

But the selloff in the equity markets has weighed on valuations for stock-based deals, making them untenable for some parties. Increasing credit risk, low interest rates, net interest margin compression and high unemployment are all headwinds for bank earnings, creating a potential ceiling on stock valuations. The average share price of an acquirer with an outstanding transaction has dropped about 20% in the last three months, says Crowe partner Rick Childs. If a transaction was all stock, the discount is fully included in the price; a split between cash and stock dilutes the selloff discount.

Half of the eight deals that have been terminated since the start of the year were impacted by the coronavirus crisis, Childs says. The largest of the terminated deals was the proposed $3.3 billion merger between the $36 billion Texas Capital Bancshares, based in Dallas, and Independent Bank Group, which is based in McKinney, Texas, and has $16 billion in assets. Several more have been postponed or renegotiated.

Buyers may try to argue that stock declines are temporary, though some are choosing to renegotiate. San Diego-based Southern California Bancorp, which has $852 million in assets, disclosed in April that it had renegotiated its October 2019 merger agreement with CalWest Bancorp. It lowered its all-cash offer by 19% for the Rancho Santa Margarita, California-based bank, to $25.9 million. The acquisition of the $226 million bank closed June 1.

But there is still risk for cash buyers and other parties committing to closing a deal. For years, credit had been so clean that buyers risked “giving lip service” to doing due diligence on a seller, Childs says. Now, acquirers must take pains to understand the potential risks they might be buying, especially as banks process deferrals and loan forgiveness applications for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Deals may also take longer to close during the pandemic because regulators have limited capacity, though not in every case. Childs is involved in some delayed deals because regulators have shifted their attention away from applications to assisting banks with changing policies and emerging issues or questions. Banks that have announced delays are adding an average of two additional months, he says.

However, some banks have managed to receive timely, or early, approvals. CenterState Bank Corp., which has $19 billion in assets and is based in Winter Haven, Florida, disclosed that it had received all regulatory approvals ahead of schedule for its merger with South State Corp., which has $17 billion in assets and is based in Columbia, South Carolina.

While the environment may be challenging for pending deals, it could be productive for prospective ones. Childs says cash buyers may find management teams with an increased interest in selling because of crisis fatigue and the anticipation of a long road to economic recovery, which could lead to compelling valuations. Carpenter counters that sellers may not want to accept a cash deal because it would be a permanent discounted valuation. Accepting equity gives the seller’s shareholders a way to ride out the recovery and could make a lower initial valuation more palpable. Both Childs and Carpenter are working on deals that have yet to be announced.

Buyers that have stock may want to include struggling fintechs in their search for potential targets, Childs says. Fintechs may have superior technology or capabilities that could add a business line or increase a buyer’s capabilities, but face funding or capital challenges because of the economic crisis.

“Either taking a significant ownership stake or buying it outright might be a heck of a deal for you, and your stock is probably going to be better than their stock,” he says.

In the meantime, Childs advises banks to trim the fat from their financial statements. If a bank has been on the fence about assets, business lines or portfolios it owns, now is an opportunistic time to sell them and raise cash. It is also a good time for cash buyers to establish credit lines or loan arrangements they may use to finance a deal, but cautioned stock buyers against raising equity capital until prices recover.

“I think we’ll have a few more deals called off between now and their expected closing dates, but probably what we’ll see is very few announced deals unless we come back in a big way,” Childs says. “We may end up having a great fourth quarter because of pent-up demand, but there will probably be a dip in the middle part of the year.”

Leading Through Crisis

In the early 2000s, The LEGO Group was on the verge of collapse.

It sounds hard to believe today, since the company is one of the largest and most successful toy sellers in the world. But in 2003, the Denmark-based company was on the brink of insolvency, with massive debt and a negative cash flow of DKK $1 billion.

LEGO needed new leadership. It promoted Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, a former consultant, to CEO. Along with Chief Financial Officer Jesper Ovesen — a former banker — Knudstorp gradually righted the ship by instilling organizational discipline and forming a strong financial foundation for the company.

The new executives were brutally honest with LEGO’s board and employees about the challenges the company faced. To survive, everyone needed to focus on turning things around, correcting the company’s problems so they could plan its future.

That required clear thinking and a dose of reality.

“Before LEGO could even begin to reignite a sense of what was possible for LEGO, they first had to persuade people that decades of unfettered growth offered no assurance that the company would ever get its groove back,” writes David Robertson in “Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry.”

Crises come in all shapes and sizes. They can be small and isolated in a single company, like LEGO’s need to refocus itself after years of mismanagement. Or they can be caused by broader, external factors that affect industries and economies.  

No matter the source, crises call for strong leadership. The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest example.

Carla Harris, vice chairman of wealth management and a senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley, shares what leaders today must do to weather the current crisis in a discussion that kicks off Microsoft’s Envision Virtual Forum for Financial Services.

First, great leaders are visible, says Harris. “There’s something powerful in being able to see the person that you’re following.”

They’re also transparent and empathetic. Employees and other stakeholders “want to see empathy, but they also want to see confidence and positivity,” she says. It’s an uncertain environment, and we’re all feeling a wide range of emotions due to the health and economic consequences of this crisis.

“One of the biggest learning moments for me as a leader was watching financial services leadership during the financial crisis. There were some leaders who didn’t really say anything to their people, and there were some leaders who were out front every day,” she says. Harris has spent over three decades on Wall Street, joining Morgan Stanley in 1987. “There was a regular cadence that people came to rely on, and that was frankly empowering.”

While the unfolding crisis is unique even among crises, with an especially broad range of potential outcomes, leaders have arguably never been better equipped from a technology standpoint to take action. Companies may be locked down for the most part, with employees largely working remotely, but leaders can still communicate directly with staff. For example, Boston-based State Street Corp. uses video conferencing technology to host virtual forums where employees can interact with senior executives to get answers to their questions.

Harris also recommends that leaders be flexible in today’s environment and open themselves up to input from diverse viewpoints. Strategic goals may shift in response to the Covid-19 environment, or leaders may need to consider new ways to achieve their objectives. “Don’t have rigid views of what you think things are going to look like on the other side” of this crisis, she says. “This is the time now to be an inclusive leader, and the hallmark of being an inclusive leader is to solicit other peoples’ voices.”

I’d suggest one addition to the actions Harris outlines, based on my conversations with business leaders like Horst Schulze, the co-founder and former president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.

Lead with purpose.

There is no one-size-fits-all personality for leaders, and leadership skills are developed over time. But all great leaders share one trait: They have a vision and inspire employees to achieve it.

“We need leadership,” says Schulze. “Leadership implies, ‘I have a destination in mind.’ It means, ‘I show my people the destination, and I show them how it’s beautiful for them, how it’s great for them, how it’s exciting for them, how they should join me in reaching that destination.’”

Great leaders are rare. But in times like these, they can be the difference between surviving a crisis or thriving despite it.

CEOs Weigh Challenge of Recalling Workers During Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis at both the personal and corporate level.

Having sent most of their employees to work from home since March, banks are now making plans to gradually re-integrate them into their old work environment. Doing so while infection rates are still high – and in some locations, still rising – is a human resource challenge unlike any faced in the modern corporate era.

Can banks bring their employees back to the workplace and keep them safe – and are they ready to come back?

I’ve had this conversation with a number of bank CEOs and senior executives in recent months; they all treat office worker repatriation as a serious issue that demands a thoughtful and careful approach. To a person, they express reluctance to force employees to return to an office environment if they fear there is a greater chance of being infected there than in their own homes.

And since all of their banks have operated with a distributed work force for three months or more with little — if any — decline in productivity, there’s no sense of urgency to immediately pull everyone back to the office.

Large banks that operate from office towers in big cities may face the biggest logistical challenges in bringing people back.

In an interview for my story in the third-quarter issue of Bank Director magazine – “Surviving the Pandemic” – Bill Demchak, chairman and CEO at Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group, gave voice to the cautiousness that many bank leaders feel.

Demchak says his executive team has discussed the timing of when PNC might reopen its 33-story office tower in downtown Pittsburgh. “Should we start bringing people back sometime in June, given that the government says it’s okay?” he asks. “We ultimately decided not to.”

Demchak lists some of the many considerations. The bank would have to partition off sections of the floor space in Plexiglas to maintain social distancing. The software running the elevators would have to be reprogramed to control the flow of people to upper floors, and the small number of people who would be allowed in each car would have to stand facing the interior walls to protect themselves. Seventy percent of PNC employees in the tower also commute on mass transit, which would increase their risk of infection. And since most summer camps in the Pittsburgh area have been cancelled because of the coronavirus, pulling people back into the office would create an immediate child care issue for many.

There are advantages to having your people in the same place. “You get knowledge transfer; people learn new skills and you maintain the culture of behavior and norms that we want to promote as a firm,” Demchak says. “I don’t know that you get any of that by bringing 30% of the senior people back and ticking them off by surrounding them with Plexiglas and making them ride the elevators backwards.”

Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati has already begun to repatriate some of its employees to their old office locations. About half of the bank’s 22,000 workers remained onsite, either in the branches or operations centers, during the pandemic.

The plan is to bring back the remaining 11,000 in three phases, according to Chairman and CEO Greg Carmichael, beginning with an initial 1,000 in phase one who are onsite now, working in social distancing arrangements. “We want to learn, make sure that’s going to go as well as we would expect it to,” he says. “There’s signage that’s required, how many people in an elevator, how many people in a bathroom, food service, all those types of things.” The remaining 10,000 will be brought back in the next two phases. Fifth Third is following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Covid-19 workplace health and safety, and going beyond them in some instances.

The bank also had to stock up on large quantities of personal protective equipment, and anyone who has tried to purchase facemasks and hand sanitizers knows they are hard to come by even in small numbers. “We’ve got the hand sanitizers. We’re doing the wipe downs of the workstations, and we’ve got face coverings for all 11,000 employees,” Carmichael says.

The bank has also established an employee hotline to report violations of the new safety rules. “If someone sees a situation they’re not comfortable with, we have a hotline they can call immediately and we’ll address it immediately,” Carmichael says. “We want our employees to know that their safety is job one for us, and making sure we’re protecting them the best we can.”

It’s likely that not every employee will want to return to their old office. “The people that I talk to are really in fairly diametrically opposed camps right now,” says Darren King, the chief financial officer at M&T Bank Corp. in Buffalo, New York. “There’s the crowd that says, ‘I love working from home. I never want to go back to the office.’ And there’s an equally passionate crowd that says ‘As soon as the office is open, let me in. I want out of my house.’”

The trick will be offering flexibility to those employees who prefer to remain home-based, while keeping the office crowd safe. Like most banks, the majority of M&T’s staff have been working remotely through the pandemic; because productivity hasn’t suffered, it may be a matter of choice for some.

“We would not force anyone who’s uncomfortable and able to work from home to come back,” King says.

Strengthening Corporate Culture During Covid-19

Before Covid-19, watercooler talk was an integral part of office culture. Groups of workers would gather in the breakroom for coffee and chat about their day, or the latest Netflix binge, or what they planned to do over the weekend. But today, with so many now working remotely and the rest encouraged to socially distance themselves from their coworkers, office culture has temporarily — and perhaps permanently — changed. For many, the big looming question is whether we return to that environment at all, given the potential for cost savings and the possibility of a second and third wave of the coronavirus later in the year.

But employees still need to interact with one another to foster relationships and collaborate. They also need to connect with managers, and create and maintain bonds with mentors.

The technology to enable this existed before the coronavirus struck the U.S., but many companies are only now shifting their practices to take advantage of it. These tools include video conferencing, and scheduling and productivity applications offered by providers like Microsoft Corp., Slack Technologies, Zoom Video Communications and Alphabet, the holding company for Google.

The savviest companies are finding ways to be more effective in the transition. One of these is State Street Corp. Christy Strawbridge, senior vice president and transformation director, shares the Boston-based bank’s experience in a discussion that took place as part of Microsoft’s Envision Virtual Forum for Financial Services.

Most of State Street’s employees are working from home and returning to the office isn’t a top priority, says Strawbridge. “We are not going to be rushing people back into the office; we’re going to help [them] work from home effectively,” she says.

It’s a stressful time, so the company is keeping communication lines open.

“Senior leaders are communicating formally and informally on a regular basis,” Strawbridge says. Employees can dial in to live, virtual forums hosted by senior executives — even CEO Ronald O’Hanley — to get answers on everything from technology needs to mental burnout. “It keeps us all connected,” she says. “It keeps us up to date on what’s going on.”

A number of companies now host virtual employee happy hours and other events using video communications technology. These intentional social interactions are vital to maintaining corporate culture, says Strawbridge. “We’re not running into each other in the elevator, so we need to be more deliberate on those social interactions,” she says, “because they’re not happening ad hoc.”

“It’s really important, now more than ever, that we stay connected,” she adds.

Employees are also encouraged to take time off. Maybe they can’t take the cruise they planned or visit Disney World with their family but taking time to do simple things — a day off for a hike, for example — can help prevent burnout.

Agility has grown increasingly important as the banking industry responds to the shifts and changes the coronavirus crisis has brought to bear on the U.S. economy. Financial institutions are rapidly deploying new technologies and practices to better serve customers and enable employees to work safely. Strawbridge points out that for State Street, their strategic goals remain the same but the path to achieve those aims is being adjusted.

“[Some] priorities have shifted in this environment, so we need to pivot work to other people on the team who might be more freed up,” says Strawbridge. “We have really uncovered the art of the possible here. We are realizing that there were things that we thought maybe we couldn’t do, or would be hugely challenging, or would take us three years to do — and we’ve done them in two months.” She credits more effective communication and collaboration — along with employee initiative — with these achievements. “We have a laser focus on prioritization in this environment that we can’t lose when we go back.” 

The company is empowering and engaging employees to solve problems — something Strawbridge believes will help State Street weather, and emerge stronger, from the crisis.

The foundation for a strong culture was built before the pandemic, but smart companies will foster and strengthen it during this crisis.

On the Radar For the Pandemic’s Next Phase

The banking industry must address and satisfy several competing interests as executives and the workforce adjust to the new normal of life during a pandemic.

Banks across the nation have stepped up as leaders in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Now as the dust settles from the initial shock in mid-March, what are issues that your bank should be prepared to address looking forward?

When and how should we reopen our physical locations?

While banks have continued operations during the pandemic, many limited their services. It is not clear when these services will fully ramp back up. As your bank debates the best course of action for your circumstance, consider the following:

  • Prioritize health and safety by installing physical protection at branches and offices, including sneeze guards at teller windows, medical screening of employees, enhanced cleaning procedures and required use of personal protective equipment.
  • When considering return-to-work policies, be flexible and responsive to employee concerns and location-specific issues.
  • Apply the lessons learned during this period and embrace (or even improve) the technology for working remotely.
  • Task teams with understanding federal, state and local requirements related to the pandemic and the bank’s corresponding compliance obligations. These teams should meet regularly to ensure full compliance at all locations.

The ABA published a free matrix to assist banks in their reopening efforts.

We participated in the Paycheck Protection Program; now what?

There are some important post-lending matters for banks that participated in the Paycheck Protection Program to consider:

Brace for litigation. Some banks have faced lawsuits from applicants that failed to receive PPP funding. While your bank may not be able to avoid a similar lawsuit, it should avoid liability in these suits by following established procedures and demonstrating that your bankers did not deny applicants on a prohibited basis (race, religion, gender, age, among others).

Additionally, banks have encountered complaints filed by agents of borrowers seeking lender fees. You should not face liability in these suits if you did not execute a binding agreement with an agent before loan origination. Your bank’s defense will be even stronger if you mitigated this issue on the front end —for example by requiring borrowers to certify whether they used an agent, and if so, requiring the agent to complete a Form 159.

Stay current on loan forgiveness requirements. The Small Business Administration stated that it would review all PPP loans over $2 million following each loan forgiveness application submission. Thankfully for lenders, banks can rely on borrower certifications on loan forgiveness amounts. Nevertheless, agencies continue to release new guidance, and customers will rely on lenders to help them through the process.

Look for new opportunities to serve your customers and communities. There are rumors that Congress may issue a third round of PPP funding that will apply to more eligible borrowers. The Federal Reserve announced the expansion of its Main Street Lending Program, which can be a valuable source of liquidity as banks seek to meet customer needs. The SBA also released guidance on the sale of participating interests in PPP loans.

What regulatory or supervisory concerns should we be prepared to address?

Credit Decisions. Your bank must continue to balance meeting customer needs and making prudent credit decisions in the current economic environment. Many banks have started tightening credit standards, but this comes with a potential uptick in complaints about harmful lending practices. Regulators have indicated that they will scrutinize lending activity to ensure banks comply with applicable laws and meet customer needs in a safe and sound manner. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency urged banks to “prudently document” their PPP lending decisions. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau instructed small business owners “who believe they were discriminated against based on race, sex, or other protected category” to file complaints. Your decisions on credit parameters must be well thought out and applied uniformly.

Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money laundering Focus. Banks may face heightened risks from new customers or new activities from existing customers. For the first time since 2014, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council released updates to the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) examination manual. While these updates are not directly related to the pandemic, regulators may scrutinize BSA/AML efforts at your next examination. Use this updated guidance as a springboard to assess your BSA/AML compliance program now.

IT and Security Concerns. Banks used technology enabling virtual or remote interactions during the pandemic, increasing risks associated with IT security. The regulators issued a joint statement addressing security risk management, noting that bank management cannot rely on third-party service providers and must actively ensure technological security. Expect this to be an area of focus at your next examination.

The Covid-19 Shift

For many companies, the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated rapid change. Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella noted in late April, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months,” due to the speedy adoption and implementation of new technology by the U.S. business sector to better serve customers and keep employees working safely during the crisis. 

Navigating the short-term impacts of these shifts has bankers working round-the-clock to keep pace, but the long-term effects could differentiate the companies that take advantage of this extraordinary moment to pivot their operations. This transformation makes up the core of the discussions taking place at Microsoft’s Envision Virtual Forum for Financial Services. As part of that event, Bank Director CEO Al Dominick virtually sat down with Luke Thomas, Microsoft’s managing director, U.S. banking and financial providers, to discuss how financial institutions can use this opportunity to modernize their operations.

They address:

  • Accelerated Adoption of Technology
  • Legacy vs. New Core Providers
  • Ensuring Continued Improvement