Buy-side crisis management road map: Business strategies post-COVID-19
This report aggregates ideas, plans and strategies for conducting business and communicating with employees post-COVID-19.
Buy-side crisis management road map: Business strategies post-COVID-19
Senior executives share insights about business continuity, collaboration, employee engagement and mental health support
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As COVID-19 continues to impact markets around the world, firms are stabilizing business operations and finding new ways to engage employees and support their well-being.
Recent research provides insight into how different businesses have adjusted to the pandemic. In a June 2020 survey from McKinsey & Company, 78% of employees thought that their organization responded appropriately to the COVID-19 lockdown. In a June 2020 PwC survey of the financial services industry, more than 75% said their ability to collaborate was the same or improved under conditions imposed by the pandemic, while 70% of employers said they found the work from home experience to be successful or very successful.
The challenge now: to move beyond crisis response mode and look to the future in preparation for various scenarios, including maintaining business continuity under remote working conditions, or the gradual reopening of certain cities and workplaces as the battle to contain the coronavirus progresses.
Bloomberg’s Buy-Side Enterprise Relationship Management team has conducted in-depth interviews and virtual roundtables with executives from a number of buy-side firms in the U.S. and Europe, including AllianceBernstein, Barings, DWS Group, Lord Abbett and Principal Global Asset Management. These firms have global operations and have taken unique approaches post-COVID-19.
This report aggregates ideas, plans and strategies for conducting business and communicating with employees from those sessions.
Four interrelated areas have emerged as being of key concern:
- Business continuity
- Employee engagement
- Mental health support
While key themes and takeaways are identified and explored in each of the report’s four areas, it is vital to note that COVID-19 has forced and will continue to force changes that will profoundly impact how business is conducted in the future.
How firms are enabling business continuity amid dramatic change
As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, firms in the U.S. and around the world are moving beyond crisis management and into the day-to-day of business continuity.
In this environment, some common concerns and themes include how to support employees to work effectively from home, maintaining robust and relevant technological infrastructure and platforms, and possible scenarios and strategies for a safe and successful reentry of employees into the physical workplace.
Supporting employees as they work from home
Firms have worked to ensure their people have the best setup possible for their home workspace, with some even shipping equipment to their employees. Others provided employees with a one-time payment to cover any unplanned expenses or personal equipment needs to support the transition to working from home. In addition, frequency and innovation around virtual communication and collaboration have increased, and there has been a focus on safeguarding employees’ mental health and well-being with additional communication and resources, such as meditation apps and flexibility in working conditions.
New York–based asset management and research firm AllianceBernstein has pivoted its focus from return-to-office planning to managing and working remotely. Strategies included putting together an engagement working group and developing tools to monitor, measure and manage the performance of the enterprise side of the business, as well as training managers on how to effectively manage people working remotely. The firm has even put together a “virtual camp” to engage the children of employees three mornings a week, with initiatives like magic shows and karate lessons.
Getting the technology right
As people and teams spend more time connecting, collaborating and working online, the importance of having the right infrastructure and end user platforms in place increased exponentially.
For instance, Jersey City–based investment management company Lord Abbett has seen a massive uptick in the use of digital tools, especially video conferencing platforms, during the pandemic. The firm stressed the importance of making sure all employees have the tools and equipment they need to succeed, and looking for ways to drive more virtual collaboration.
To maintain a consistent cadence of communications to maintain a sense of community, global financial services firm Barings launched a weekly newscast with their Chairman, CEO and President in an audio format in early March. In September, a video option was made available.
"The audio was to guarantee that people would be able to join and not have any technical issues from their home setup. Of course, we wanted video as well and we did that late September. We offer a replay and a recap in English, and in some cases, we transcribe the highlights into other languages, such as Japanese and Korean. We just wanted to make sure that we eliminated any issues and that people tuned in and could hear very clearly."
Cheryl Krauss, Chief Communications Officer, Barings.
Some firms already had the infrastructure to support mass remote working from home, thanks to past events that prompted improvements to their VPN (Virtual Private Network) and BDI (Business Data Infrastructure), and robust crisis management plans. AllianceBernstein, for example, had shifted to large-scale remote working environments as a result of the fallout of Hurricane Sandy in Northeast U.S. in 2012.
Others realized they needed to strengthen their bandwidth to optimize working from home and acted quickly. Firms turned to dashboards showing leading and lagging indicators for measures like transactional volume and pricing times, which helped some companies gauge performance and feel confident that continuity is in hand.
Reentry planning: the practicalities
While it looks like working from home is here to stay for now, many firms have dedicated reentry planning teams considering every single aspect of the office space in preparation for having people return to the physical workplace.
Some firms plan to reintroduce employees to the office in teams for week- or fortnight-long shifts. Others are contemplating waves, where team members are reintroduced in subgroups and spend different weeks in the office, in order to protect employees — and operations — from outbreaks. Several also expect to need less office space post-COVID-19.
They are also thinking about everything from temperature screening, health declaration forms and automation of everything that can possibly be automated to social distancing, directional markers on floors and increased sanitizing of the office space. Of course, firms are also looking at compulsory masks while moving around in buildings, and caps on the number of employees who can be in the office at any one time.
Ensuring employees remain mindful of colleagues’ comfort levels in the office is also a major consideration for many firms. Actively encouraging people to ask about, have empathy for and respect colleagues’ meeting preferences is being done at several firms, with options for meeting via phone or video, at desks, in a socially distanced way in a meeting room, with or without masks on, and so on, are all on the table.
Flexibility, clearly documented plans and procedures, and nominating employees to oversee safety are other strategies the executives shared. For example, Des Moines, Iowa-based Principal Global Asset Management is currently working with a flexible, voluntary come-back policy. New York–based asset manager DWS Group has a comprehensive “playbook” for each of its offices that outlines the rules for that location and employees responsible for ensuring the space can accommodate people coming in safely.
The pandemic has driven a dramatic shift in remote work for many companies; it’s clear that they have risen to the occasion. Through careful planning, enabling employees to access the tools they need and a careful approach to reentry, firms can set themselves up for success in the near and longer term.
Finding new ways to collaborate in a virtual world — now and in the future
The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst: pushing firms in the U.S. and around the world to adapt and find new ways to collaborate efficiently with employees and clients.
Some common themes and concerns include how to create connection in a virtual world, maintaining a focus on innovation and a candid contemplation of the future of business collaboration.
Creating connection in a virtual world
Whether they are new to virtual working or well-versed in helping their people connect with each other and with clients remotely, firms are finding new ways to thrive in a virtual world.
Some companies have found virtual mentoring, in which a senior employee builds a connection with and mentors a new recruit through technology.
Other successful strategies employed across the board included engagement through increased video communication with managers and colleagues; virtual rather than email interviews; mentoring and training sessions for new hires; work-from-home webinars for clients; flexible meeting times; a focus on more personal interactions; and setting aside time to just check in with colleagues.
Principal Global Asset Management has found nurturing employee well-being by “doing less talking and more listening” and giving employees flexibility have helped to drive collaboration.
"We’ve focused on creating caring connections and allowed employees to personalize and experiment with the collaboration tools because we’re all in different situations. Our teams are reaching out and understanding each other and many of our leaders have done personal connection types of forums. And that’s been really successful; one of the things that’s come out of this is a better, stronger connection."
Brian Ness, Chief Information Officer, Principal Global Asset Management.
Maintaining a focus on continuous innovation
Keeping innovation at the core of their services and solutions is one way that firms have nurtured collaboration between people working from home.
“We haven't stopped innovating. In some cases, I think this has given us an opportunity to say, ‘Does the way we’re doing this process make sense? Do we need to put a cross-functional team together to collaborate and drive an initiative?’ We’re always focused on experiential learning, so we look to bring together cross-functional teams to provide growth opportunities for our people.”
Rory Melick, Managing Director, Head of Employee Experience, Lord Abbett.
AllianceBernstein has also kept innovating, building on their legacy of keeping employees connected from afar following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The company redeployed programmers, testers and engineers from technology teams into operations to make sure that in the event of losing an offshore provider they could onshore that work. This created opportunities for collaboration and idea generation.
In some cases, the pandemic accelerated delivery of existing innovative projects. At Barings, an improved intranet with mobile capability and enhanced visual features — already in the works pre-COVID-19 — was launched in July. This new tool is instrumental in sharing content globally to foster collaboration and help employees get to know one another. Employee feedback has been positive, and engagement levels are high.
Contemplating the future of business collaboration
Collaboration is vital to successful business operations, and envisioning what it will look like going forward is high on the agenda for many firms.
Many of the practices and strategies that have been developed in response to working conditions imposed by the coronavirus crisis look set to stay. For instance, one executive noted that high-quality video and audio are enabling employees to embrace technology and feel connected when working remotely — and to achieve the same results as meeting in person.
This is especially critical even as employees are beginning to return to the office and many firms impose safety restrictions. For instance, they are limiting the number of people in conference rooms or rethinking in-person collaboration to maintain social distancing and reduce the number of people in places where people tend to congregate.
Virtual working is now seen as more efficient and environmentally friendly and looks set to become part of the new normal.
“It’s interesting to see firms taking it a step forward to say, ‘Maybe this is stuff we should’ve done regardless of the current crisis. These are practices that we want here for the long haul,’” reflected Robert McWilliams, Chief Operating Officer of Global Technology and Operations at AllianceBernstein.
Kristina Theiss, Chief Operating Officer, Client Coverage Americas and Global Head of Client Data Management at asset manager DWS Group, cited communications’ centrality to the firm’s culture as a key element in employees’ rapid and successful adaptation to remote working and collaborating. Theiss reckons COVID-19 has brought about some positive outcomes for her company.
“If I had to find a silver lining in COVID-19, it’s that we have increased communication throughout the organization, and I consider that a big win”, said Theiss. “If we can maintain that increased communication and people continue to feel engaged with their manager and their firm, I believe that can lead to better employee commitment and engagement and retention.”
Opportunities for employee engagement in a virtual environment
While employee engagement was always an important part of a firm’s internal communications strategy, it is now more important than ever.
Buy-side firms reported critical considerations in developing employee engagement strategies post-COVID-19, such as encouraging time out, and the importance of flexibility when planning for the future.
Exploring engagement strategies
Finding new, situation-relevant ways to foster employee engagement has led to the development of a number of new strategies to bring employees together, including virtual town halls, firm newscasts and internal awards.
Many buy-side firms have developed weekly town halls or newscasts that are delivered via audio and/or video stream to employees to boost engagement as they work remotely. Sessions typically focus on the previous and coming weeks, include company and industry news and employee achievements, and end with an open forum for questions. They’re usually delivered by senior leaders and aim to create connection.
Other strategies shared by participants include awards recognizing a particular achievement or initiative, such as someone who has made a difference in the community or taken the initiative on a timely work product. Virtual happy hours and online forums for sharing aspects of home life (for example, pet or prom photos), virtual mentors and training, surveys, vlogs and competitions are also proving effective.
Barings has produced a weekly leadership-led newscast and a more personal series, titled Being, that profiles employees who are excelling in an area outside the workplace, for example in cooking or sports. Both have proved popular ways to engage and connect employees.
At investment management company Lord Abbett, the managing partner conducts weekly town halls for all employees to provide an open communication forum and connect employees to the firm’s strategic priorities. Topics that are critical to their clients, communities and employees are often shared to maintain a strong focus on culture, leadership and firm values.
Celebrating resilience and encouraging time out
Several businesses are prioritizing time out for their people in the form of vacation days, ending their workdays early and bonus days off — all with a strong focus on mental health and well-being.
Taking days off are being encouraged at Lord Abbett, which kept its “Summer Fridays” — an early finish on a Friday afternoon — through the end of 2020.
Principal Global Asset Management is aware of “the collaboration burden” felt by people in leadership and team-building-focused roles and its potential to lead to burnout. This has been addressed by an intentional rebalancing of the load, and the importance of reassessing strategies regularly during trying times.
Recognizing and celebrating resilience in trying times is another way to bring employees together. The focus could be on a contribution made to the business, an endeavor that benefitted the greater community or a personal achievement. Many firms have made an effort to regularly celebrate wins and unsung heroes.
Lord Abbett introduced a new program at its weekly town halls that recognizes an employee from each of its four business areas who has dealt well with a situation of volatility, uncertainty, complexity or ambiguity. It could be related to something in the community, a work or client product or how someone has dealt with mental well-being and rolled out things that are really important for the firm’s people or clients.
Flexibility is key
Keeping an open mind and being as empathetic, consistent and flexible as possible when communicating with employees about returning to the office is a priority. These topics are discussed at town halls, via email and other means — and it often comes from the top down.
Barings is using videos to explain what return-to-work scenarios look like to employees. Daily text messages check on employee health and work schedules for the day and enable the company to engage with employees in a consistent way.
Communication about return-to-work options often comes from the top. At DWS Group, the Global Chief Operating Officer is engaging employees via virtual town halls.
“The Global COO has been very clear that returning to the office is one hundred percent voluntary. If anyone is feeling pressure, they speak with their manager or HR or directly to the COO. I think that commitment speaks volumes, because it’s coming from the top. We have a slide that we show in every town hall with six edicts depicting what we are committed to.”
Kristina Theiss, Chief Operating Officer, Client Coverage Americas and Global Head of Client Data Management, DWS Group.
AllianceBernstein already has a strong culture of virtual engagement in its “muscle memory,” thanks to two years of huddle rooms, open desktops, virtual collaboration and training between New York and its second headquarters in Nashville. Going forward, they will likely do a partial work-from-home schedule, in which employees are in the office for a week and work from home the next, rotating their schedules.
At Principal Global Asset Management, a flexible, leadership-driven “why not” stance is empowering employees and teams to handle returning to work in a way that meets both business and personal needs.
“We’re working with individuals and work teams to have an open dialogue about how our return to work evolves. We’re going to be living with the virus for a long time and there’s not going to be just one way that we work this through. So right now, we have a voluntary come-back-to-the-office situation. We measure how many people are in every day and we make sure we’re accommodating that and have effective space,” said Ness.
Making employee health, particularly mental health, a priority amid work-from-home and return to office
Employee health and well-being
Firms recognize that “work from home” is not a one-size-fits-all experience and can affect different employees in different ways.
Employee health and well-being — both physical and mental — have become a priority as firms seek to enable their people to thrive while working from home.
Recognizing different experiences and new challenges
A key element in enabling employees to remain happy and productive while working from home during COVID-19 has been recognizing that each person’s experience is different.
“We know that in the current environment, everyone has a different situation. We’re working to deliver a number of solutions that are tied to the unique needs of our people and we are empowering our leaders to do the same. We consistently ask ourselves, are we leading with empathy while driving a business result?” said Rory Melick, Managing Director, Head of Employee Experience at Lord Abbett.
COVID-19 has also brought new challenges that need to be addressed — there has been a rise in “video fatigue,” which refers to the unique mental exhaustion associated with the increase in online video conferencing.
Asset manager DWS Group is actively working to alleviate this video fatigue among employees by providing different mediums of collaboration, such as audio calls.
Making health and well-being a priority
Firms have stepped up their overall focus on employee mental health and well-being during this time.
Principal Global Asset Management has found that nurturing personal connection has helped to safeguard employees’ mental health. Aware that employees might have heightened personal needs and be facing additional challenges during this time, the firm homed in on personal interactions with a framework and leadership to extend its existing culture of personal care. The result: employees are sharing more about their personal goals and life challenges with one another, and it’s creating a stronger bond.
Lord Abbett has increased efforts to ensure employees have access to the latest information about their health benefits and employee assistance programs. The business has also provided access to a meditation app and is prioritizing mental well-being support for their people.
At DWS Group, a half-hour mindfulness session during which employees are invited to dial in to a virtual room and meditate is proving a popular way for people to take a step back. The firm has also provided resources to support mental health, meditation, child care and elder care, recognizing that every employee has a different situation. As with other firms, management has been involved and supportive, encouraging people to engage with the available materials.
Planning for the future
Executives at all the firms who shared their plans with Bloomberg agree that reentering the physical workplace is going to be a major challenge for many employees. Leading and planning for the future with empathy is going to be essential to getting it right. Giving employees a significant say in any return-to-work plans was a common theme.
Barings is prepared for when employees feel comfortable returning to the office, whenever they decide it’s the right time.
“We put together a task force of groups from our business continuity team, our legal, HR, communications…” said Chief Communications Officer Cheryl Krauss. “If you want to return to the office, you have to submit a request to be approved by your manager. We have a text message that goes out every morning that says, ‘What are your plans?’ It asks about your health. And then we have a real good tally of everything going on.”
AllianceBernstein has had a number of employees ask whether it’s going to be possible to work from home permanently. It’s a question Robert McWilliams, Chief Operating Officer of Global Technology and Operations, doesn’t have an answer to — and he has been open to that fact.
“Tell them what you don’t know. Don’t try to be an expert when you’re not. People have really appreciated the informal and practical communication that we’ve delivered. It’s helped.”
Robert McWilliams, Chief Operating Officer of Global Technology and Operations, AllianceBernstein.
For many businesses, recovery from and adjustment to the new reality that has followed the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic will be nonlinear given the virus’ unforeseeable progression and impact on the financial industry and world as a whole.
Buy-side firms have been resilient and remained operational during COVID-19 by implementing timely crisis management and business continuity strategies. Their ability to be flexible, maintain business as usual, remain focused on innovation and provide value has enabled them to prepare for how business can be safely and successfully conducted during an unprecedented time.
Looking after employees during the pandemic has been especially important. Firms moved quickly to enable remote working for almost all their people, often across multiple geographic locations — a major undertaking. While many things remained uncertain, keeping strong connections, maintaining employee engagement and collaboration by virtual means and prioritizing physical and mental health were key.
Bloomberg’s Buy-Side Enterprise Relationship Management team convened executives in roundtables and conducted in-depth interviews with senior leaders at numerous buy-side firms in the U.S. and Europe to share initiatives and efforts where they’ve seen success.
Companies recognized that business success is hinged on four interrelated themes: business continuity, collaboration, employee engagement, and employee health and well-being.
This report collated plans and business strategies from financial market players following the impact of the pandemic. While the findings drew from insights shared by buy-side firms, the learnings have universal significance and are relevant to many industries and businesses. The report’s key takeaways include:
- Business continuity — Firms had moved beyond crisis management mode and into the day-to-day of business continuity. Supporting employees to work effectively from home, ensuring robust and relevant technological infrastructure and platforms were in place and exploring options for a safe and successful reentry of employees into the physical workplace were taking priority.
- Collaboration — Finding innovative ways to collaborate with employees and clients now and going forward has been important. The focus has been on creating connection in a virtual world, on continuing to innovate and on being open with employees about the future of business and collaboration.
- Employee engagement — With most employees working remotely during the pandemic, employee engagement has been more important than ever. Firms worked quickly to develop and optimize engagement strategies suited to the new reality, encouraged employees to take time out and emphasized the importance of flexibility when planning for the future.
- Employee health and well-being — Physical and mental well-being have become a priority as firms seek to enable their people to thrive while working from home. Firms recognized that remote working can impact different employees in different ways, upped their focus on mental health, and planned for and communicated about the future with empathy.
Cheryl Krauss, Chief Communications Officer, Barings
Rory Melick, Managing Director, Head of Employee Experience, Lord Abbett
Robert McWilliams, Chief Operating Officer of Global Technology and Operations, AllianceBernstein
Brian Ness, Chief Information Officer, Principal Global Asset Management
Kristina Theiss, Chief Operating Officer, Client Coverage Americas and Global Head of Client Data Management, DWS Group