Working Remotely is a Winning Practice
Presented by Samaha & Associates
COVID-19 has impacted business operations in a manner that hasn’t been experienced before. The way in which business has long been conducted — from customer/member-facing retail banking offerings to all-important back office technology operations — has drastically changed. As a result, more and more employees worked from home in 2020, which may not be a pandemic-related trend.
According to PwC’s “U.S. Remote Work Study” report, employees prefer the option to work from home more frequently. The report surveyed 120 U.S. companies and more than 1,200 employees finding that 83 percent of workers want to work from home at least one day per week and 55 percent of employers anticipate offering remote working options after COVID-19 is no longer a threat.
“Employers and employees will also need to figure out how to make remote work a success. Many employers still see a need for collaborating and community building in a physical space, and are also trying to figure out how to maintain the current high level of productivity once the pandemic recedes,” the survey noted. “The reality is, employees will not be returning to the same office they left behind. There will be fewer people, restricted collaboration spaces and rotating shifts — all of which will require teams to find new ways to connect and collaborate. More than anything else, this need for connections is likely to shape what the office is going to represent.”
While navigating the remote work landscape is a new frontier for many companies and respective employees, there are industry leaders in the financial services space that were well-equipped to address concerns on behalf of their clients. Why? It’s because these professionals have been employing successful remote work practices for decades. This white paper investigates how these seasoned executives successfully navigated the 2020 remote-work terrain and how they are approaching 2021 and beyond.
Pandemic Management Concerns
From an optimistic standpoint, 2020 proved that obstacles can be overcome, albeit in a measured and often slower-than-wanted manner. The pandemic also demonstrated that executives with proven remote work experience were better equipped to manage offsite projects and employees, while ensuring all-important onsite technology platforms remained operational.
“From the inception of our firm, our ‘normal’ has been to provide services remotely,” Sabeh Samaha, CEO of the Miami, Fla. – based Samaha & Associates, Inc., said reflecting on the business conditions resulting from the COVID-19. “It has been our experience before the pandemic that working remotely is extremely effective and that fact has only been underscored throughout 2020 and 2021.”
Samaha & Associates has been in operation for 23 years, explained Managing Consultant, Adam Denbo. And while he said some work-life adjustments were understandably made in 2020, the Samaha team had been conditioned to successfully assist clients remotely.
“It is nice to meet with our clients at their locations, but we have found it is certainly not a requirement. We have found that remote video conferencing actually allows people to be more accessible on-demand. And with travel out of the equation, we find that more time can be spent on the project by the vendor and by us,” said Denbo. “The challenge is to ensure that folks are focused on the calls. Advocating for video usage has actually helped maintain the focus on the meeting topics.”
Denbo further explained that with video-enabled meetings, the option of multi-tasking (e.g., reading email or other activities rather than focusing on the meeting topic) is removed from the equation. “It is becoming more and more commonplace to utilize video, which makes meetings more personable,” he said.
To Denbo’s point regarding work-from-home efficiency, the PwR survey found that executives reported that employees have become more productive (44 percent) while working from home during the crisis. Employees, however, were less confident about productivity rates with 28 percent feeling more productive. These metrics supports the fact that adjustments and expectations have to be accounted for, explained Samaha & Associates’ Senior Consultant, Disa D’Andrea.
“There are inherent challenges of working in a remote environment, such as technical difficulties and distractions like packages being delivered,” D’Andrea reflected. “Every client reacted a bit differently to the pandemic, but within weeks many financial institution employees were working from home. The biggest challenge at first was just being able to get everyone to join conference calls. Our experience allowed us to assist clients with these challenges, and we utilized different conference software based on client needs.”
Making sure daily tasks don’t fall through those proverbial cracks is not only a concern of Samaha & Associates’ consultants and its clients, but a worry employees share as well. The PwR report, for example, found there have been four main work-from-home needs expressed by employees.
- Greater flexibility in work hours would move work hours away from a traditional eight-hour work block and provide some flexibility in when work can be done. Fifty-seven percent of executives plan to provide this.
- Better hardware and equipment, including laptops, monitors, printers and chairs, would help the millions of people who were not set up for remote working before the pandemic. Fifty-five percent of executives plan to provide this.
- Clear rules that establish the times when people must be available would provide common standards for responsiveness. Forty-two percent of executives plan to provide this.
- Help managing workloads would improve cultures where an “always on” mode of work can strain work-life balance. Forty-three percent of executives plan to provide this.
To maximize his team’s input and output, and to ensure that his clients’ expectations are exceeded, Samaha said his team of consultants are constantly in “tight contact” across all communication channels, such as phone, email, instant messaging and video conferencing.
“We have a structured approach and rely heavily on all of our project tools as well as a tightly coupled buddy system, which serves our clients’ needs quite well,” he noted. “The pandemic underscored the importance of team work, topnotch communication and being empathetic to the changing needs of everyone involved in the industry.”
Working through COVID-19
As 2020 came to a close, Denbo had the opportunity to look back to the beginning of the pandemic and in doing so shared how his clients, many of whom were undergoing technology implementations, fared.
“All our clients continued through our process during their respective implementations. They remained confident because of the remote experience we had and the experience of the top vendors we bring to our valued clients,” said Denbo. “Our clients lean on us as their trusted advisor and they know we are strong advocates for our clients supporting them throughout our detailed process. We called for special meetings with top management from the vendor side for all our implementations to ensure that our clients had the additional attention and flexibility if needed.”
For those clients that were in the process of evaluating a possible new technology offering, Denbo said that engaged vendors were prepared for Samaha and Associates’ vetting process, which includes a “lab environment.” As such, each vendor was flexible and offered demonstrations remotely.
“Implementations from core to cards to online banking all have gone live seamlessly,” said Denbo. “And, in many cases, since the travel was removed, vendors were more accessible, which resulted in spending more time with our clients.”
As often is the case, the proof is in the pudding. Denbo noted that Samaha & Associates had many successful implementations in 2020, including a project with the South Pasadena, Calif. – based Priority One Credit Union.
“They went through their implementation process with the last six months of the core conversion completely remote. No vendor was allowed onsite and many of the staff worked remote as well,” Denbo continued. “Their live date was August 1, 2020 and their executive management team was so happy after their live date went off successfully without any issues.”
Priority One Credit Union’s President and CEO, Charles Wiggington, said the credit union experienced a “successful outcome” as a result of working with Samaha & Associates, which he referred to as a “top notch organization.”
While there has always been the need for a financial institution to trust its hired managing consulting firm, COVID-19 has made that trust element all the more important, explained D’Andrea.
“The key to managing a successful implementation is working with experienced consultants and vendors,” she said. “At Samaha & Associates, we have tenured consultants that have done hundreds of core, online banking, card implementations, mergers and other projects, so we have experience conquering any obstacles that are thrown at us.”
Looking Forward to 2021 and Beyond
If there was ever a year that people would like to move on from, 2020 was likely it. And while there have been many professional hardships, there have also been many positive lessons learned. It is from this collectively derived knowledge that the financial services industry will move forward smarter and with unmatched resiliency.
“We believe COVID-19 taught us all how to work more efficiently, and that remote implementations can work very well. There will always be that desire and value-add for traveling onsite, but we believe it will be less frequent,” said Denbo. “Financial institutions may be more cost-conscious in 2021 and one way to curtail expenses is to reduce travel. I believe we will start to see a soft opening of more and more services as we become used to the new norm and/or vaccines become available.”
In D’Andrea’s view, financial service executives should expect a slow, measured return to normalcy. This approach may include clients maintaining a remote workforce after the pandemic to ensure flexibility, while realizing related cost benefits.
“The hope for many of us is that 2021 brings a COVID-19 vaccine and things will start coming back in terms of economic activity. Recovery will take time and we will have to keep adjusting. The infrastructure that has been put in place the last six months allows for change, but many processes are still the same,” said D’Andrea. “We have a vendor vetting and scorecard process that is thorough and sustainable. And, some of our clients have said that they will maintain a remote workforce after the pandemic for workforce flexibility and cost benefits.”
With nearly 35 years of experience in the industry, Samaha said he has seen many things, but nothing as game-changing as the pandemic. And while he believes tough times are still ahead, the financial services industry is headed into a strong, sustained period of prosperity.
“We will offer more choice as the process has proven to be as strong in a remote environment as it is in-person. The vendor vetting will continue to be vigorous and detailed as it always has been,” Samaha noted. “This pandemic has been hard on so many, but as an industry we are learning, growing and I truly believe we will all continue to thrive.”