This is the first in a series on the impact of COVID-19 on the Swiss banking industry. We will be publishing our perspectives on its key implications and potential solutions that banks should consider.
COVID-19 is putting great strain on the state infrastructure, businesses and individuals, and despite the incredible efforts of health professionals, there has been much tragic suffering and loss of life.
In recent weeks banks have decided to transition to a (semi-)locked down way of working, to protect their employees and the wider community, despite this not being mandated by government. Many achieved business continuity by operating with a large proportion of employees working from their homes. This response is short-term and not designed to last: business as usual (BAU) operations have been degraded, strategic initiatives disrupted, and risks intensified.
At the time of writing, some countries have already begun to ease their lockdown restrictions and Switzerland plans to begin doing so from 27 April onwards. As communicated on 16 April as part of its de-confinement strategy, restrictions will be gradually eased in three stages: on April 27, May 11 and on June 8. At this stage, Federal Council expects organisations to continue to favour home office where possible and they will decide further easing of lockdown measures in June if situation allows.
We believe that the transition period, which we refer to as the “RECOVER” phase, is likely to last for 12 to 18 months. This means that banks must prepare to operate with fewer employees on their premises, and to serve clients who may no longer wish to visit in person.
Why move back to the office at all?
As the relaxation of restrictions begins, some individuals will prefer to, or will have to, continue working from home. Current experience shows that remote working does not necessarily reduce productivity – which will improve further once children return to school on 11 May.
While we expect remote working to remain at higher levels than before the crisis, there are good reasons pushing us back to the office. These include:
- regulatory requirements: for example, supervision of trading activities, and limitations to cross-border operations;
- security concerns associated with remote access to sensitive data;
- efficiency, where face-to-face exchanges are critical;
- access to facilities that employees may not have at home.
Banks should develop a progressive ‘back to the office’ plan to protect the health of their employees and the wider community. Their arrangements should help decongest public locations, as banks represent a large proportion of the workforce in large cities.
How to make a successful ‘back to the office’ plan
We believe that the plan should reassure staff members about their safety and contribute to protecting the wider community, while enabling efficient run and change the bank operations. Measures should allow for the (unknown) evolution of the virus and responses by authorities, clients and employees.
To prepare for this, we have identified five priorities:
- Create safe and stable working conditions for the staff needed on site: these may include:
- Enabling social distancing, e.g. by reducing the numbers of staff on site, reviewing floor plans and policies, and staggering lunch breaks in cafeterias;
- Reducing contamination risks, e.g. by providing protective equipment (gel, masks), implementing disinfection protocols, avoiding social and business gatherings;
- Supporting ’off-peak’ travel by staff, e.g. by introducing flexible working schedules;
- Facilitating detection measures, e.g. using COVID-19 detection and serological tests.
- Identify those employees most able to return to the office, factoring in their health status. This will be determined by factors such as epidemiology status, age group, and living arrangements. Uncertainty remains around the reliability of testing for COVID-19 and different measures will be needed for the various categories of employees, based on their immunity or symptoms.
- Review BAU activities and strategic initiatives for criticality, as well as how execution might be affected if staff members work from home. The operating model for BAU operations as well as strategic initiatives may need to be adapted to allow for new ways of working within a progressive ’back to the office’ transition. Banks must also consider how to develop their business where travel remains banned or limited, and how to cope with significantly increased levels of sick leave.
- Assess the legal implications of planned measures, for example:
- The balancing of the employer’s duty of care to staff with individual freedom of choice, religious beliefs, e.g. with regard to vaccinations and other medical reasons
- The need to ensure that employees can give their free and informed consent to proposed measures (which may be difficult under a perceived threat of staff reductions).
- Monitor external factors and adjust the plan accordingly. For example:
- Government decisions which, even if non-binding, will have an indirect effect on the banking industry;
- Decisions by other banks and peer organisations that may create de-facto minimum standards;
- Decisions within the broader economy that influence public perception of the measures implemented by individual companies;
- An evolving understanding of COVID-19, e.g. the efficacy and availability of treatment and contamination prevention methods, secondary infection risks (within Switzerland and abroad), vaccine availability, severity of infection by age group, societal strategy.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented actions, and these have been taken in Switzerland and also globally. The extensive tactical measures taken by Swiss banks have enabled the successful continuation of operations, but are they are unlikely to be sustainable in the medium term.
As the government takes progressive measures to release the lockdown restrictions, banks will have to decide for themselves when and how to adjust their operations. The priority should be to define a sustainable adaptable model for an extended RECOVER phase, probably lasting many months.
While we have described the key elements to consider, each institution needs to plan for its specific circumstances. A number of challenges must be met:
- The numerous variables and uncertainties, both external (medical, political, social, legal, economic) and internal (wellbeing of employees, servicing of clients, economic impact on the organisation);
- The inherent flexibility required, in order to allow for adaptation in response to new information;
- The breadth of impact across functions, businesses, or geographies.
As a professional services firm, Deloitte faces challenges similar to those in the banking industry. We are going through our own process to define the model best suited to navigate the RECOVER phase. In doing so, we have the benefit of our global footprint to leverage responses in other countries (in particular China and Italy) and we have set up multiple task forces to remain agile as new information becomes available. We also leverage our strong digital capabilities and partnerships, as well as our extensive scenario planning capabilities to – as much as possible – retain rational and strategic decision-making during these times of emotional distress.
We hope this short document will help you in taking the most appropriate steps towards developing a suitable interim model. Should you have any questions we would of course be happy to share our experiences further.