How are financial services firms navigating COVID-19? Look at their workforce.

April 24, 2020

Bhushan Sethi Principal, Joint Global Leader, People and Organization, PwC US - Email
Julien Courbe Financial Services Advisory Leader, PwC US - Email
Julia Lamm Partner, Financial Services People & Organization, PwC US - Email

 

As the pandemic spread this spring, financial services (FS) firms were juggling many competing priorities. What to do about risks emerging at their business partners? What should they focus on first, a rise in cybersecurity threats, or challenges in keeping operations running? How to value their portfolios, when market volatility was soaring? What about customers who may be in financial distress? Or rates near zero, when interest is linked to profitability? Which of these might have the biggest impact?

Well, we asked. It turns out FS firms were even more concerned about something else—their people.

This is an industry actively protecting the health and well-being of its people and its institutions, and ultimately playing its part in protecting our economy and society.

The survey results came from COVID-19 Navigator, an online, interactive diagnostic tool we built to help organizations around the world benchmark their efforts against the virus.1 Executives who participate receive a summary report that shows how they stack up against their peers, and some ideas on how they can address areas where they need improvement.

1 - Survey results discussed here include 213 respondents from financial services firms in the US and Mexico, as of April 16, 2020. We encourage you to take the COVID-19 Navigator and see how your organization stacks up to its peers.

People deliver financial services. We asked survey takers if human interaction is necessary in delivering their products and services. For FS firms, 39% said this was true to a significant extent, and another 28% said this was true to a moderate extent. So, in an industry that has undergone intense digitization, roughly two-thirds (67%) felt people are still a key part of the process. We’ve frequently observed that automation frees people up to focus on work with more value. It’s no wonder firms are concerned about employee wellness initiatives.

67% of respondents say human interaction is necessary in delivering financial products and services.

Travel is a big part of the job. Are employees heavily reliant on travel to conduct their business? In FS, nearly half (42%) of those we asked agreed (14% said they relied on travel to a “significant extent,” and 28% said to a “moderate extent”). Given the widespread restrictions on travel, that means a huge part of the workforce is scrambling to find new ways to work. This is true for investment bankers who jump on planes to close deals. But it’s also true for insurance adjusters, branch managers and even some workers in data centers. Productivity will almost certainly take a hit, and this could even affect the way some key people on the team are compensated.

Work from home? Maybe. The last time FS firms had to work remotely was after 9/11. A lot has changed since then. In FS, only 17% felt their workforce would not be able to effectively work remotely if needed (6% agreed “to a significant extent” and 11% said “to a moderate extent”). While this is far lower than other sectors—in industrial manufacturing and automotive, for example, the total figure is 67% (32% significant, 35% moderate)—many firms are already thinking about how to rewrite their crisis management playbooks.

This could mean changes to the operating model. For example, certain supervisory and compliance jobs may need to be redesigned to enable remote work. Eventually, some firms may re-evaluate their real estate footprint and look to consolidate or move physical locations. But some firms are still dealing with stabilizing certain functions: shoring up infrastructure for remote workers, improving processes to onboard customers from a distance or finding tools to retrain workers quickly. (Here’s a way PwC can help: We’ve opened our Digital Fitness application to everyone, for free. We’ve already used it to train more than half our own staff on new technology and new ways of working. It now includes content about COVID-19, too.)

Avoid layoffs if you can. Among those in FS who completed the COVID-19 Navigator, roughly a quarter expect to make headcount adjustments (7% “to a significant extent” and 16% “to a moderate extent”), which is lower than in most other sectors. This is heartening, and it fits with what we’ve heard from clients. Tim Ryan, PwC’s chairman for the US and Mexico, recently called on companies to do all they can to keep people employed during this crisis. Tim reminds us that firms often have many other levers available to manage resources—and that by putting people first, we can ultimately make our economy stronger and more resilient.

Keep on operating. FS firms generally rated themselves well for preparing and responding to COVID-19 with their operations and supply chain efforts. Only 17% said they were just getting started, and 43% felt they were “on [their] way.” We think this undersells their achievements. Let’s face it: An entire industry has reconfigured itself in weeks. Calls are still being answered. Funds are still being traded—in fact, at record levels. Claims are being paid. FS firms are playing a critical role in supporting other industries through CARES Act provisions. Yes, there have been rough patches, and there will be more. But unlike the crisis of 2008-9, the FS industry is proving itself to be remarkably resilient, and many view it as part of the solution.

The adrenaline rush is fading, and the next few months will be complicated. As firms start thinking about when to reopen offices, they’re addressing new human capital issues: how should they balance factors such as health and regulation? Can social distancing be maintained within the current office configuration? If a worker gets sick, how can they identify who else might have been exposed? Which functions should transition back onsite: branch staff? The contact center? Traders? How do we sequence the transition to prevent the risk of infection? How should management factor in worker preference when deciding where people work? Even though FS firms have been quite resilient with the use of remote work, can it be made more effective? We’re moving from stabilizing to strategizing. That’s a good sign.

So what can FS executives learn from this? The way you handle this situation can pay dividends for years. Every day is an opportunity to start over and approach the situation with empathy. Employees may be on edge, worried about their health and that of their loved ones. Many are changing the way they work. They may not have all the tools they need. They could be concerned about job security. They’re trying to address their clients’ needs with grace and professionalism, even as a water gun battle breaks out on camera behind them. Let’s keep looking for ways to help our people stay healthy and productive. We’ll all be better off as a result.

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