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Navigating Regulatory Waters: Friend or Food? How To Stay Ahead in Financial Services

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Almost every Australian business has just taken an involuntary crash course in crisis management because of COVID-19. Now leaders needs to make sure their team have those skills permanently.

1. Market feedback

Intelligence about the impact of COVID-19 on specific financial services sectors, not published by media. 

A. Working from home (WFH) productivity

The overwhelming majority of you we’ve spoken to have no desire to return to work the way it was. Almost all of you want to preserve the flexibility that you and your colleagues have gained during COVID-19.

Here’s why:

  • You’re telling us productivity has improved thanks to eliminating the commute times and fewer in-person chats
  • While workdays are longer you have more flexibility
  • Performance is become more transparent; it’s clearer who is/ isn’t performing.

Big picture thinking has also increased, including scrutiny of, and potential long-term changes to, market structure, how capital is used, where investors sit in the capital chain, asset ownership, the future of investing and the security of superannuation.

One offshore manager says their Paris and London teams will continue to WFH (work/working from home) with all projects still live and with no damage to the (tech) development program.

Some  teams would prefer to remain WFH permanently, in line with signals from tech giants. By contrast, some teams (such as investor relations) are desperate to get back to a physical office and have face to face contact. This then raises the inconsistency among businesses, as while you may want to see others, such as clients, face to face – what if they now prefer virtual meetings?

During WFH, client/adviser communications remain 1:1 for this manager, and like the rest of us they’re now heavily reliant on virtual events.

Which raises another question: what are we, and our employers, now ‘single point sensitive’ to that were we not before? A simple answer is our home internet: data cabling in the home, on the street and to the ‘hood, internet service providers, virtual meeting providers if you’re only using one.

2. Management responses

This section outlines how CEOs and their leadership teams are responding.

A. “Have you guys returned to the office yet?” Part 2

The same fund manager contact says with the easing of lockdowns [in Paris], there is no plan to rush all teams back to the office – it may not happen even by September. Teams in London, Paris, NYC rely almost entirely on the Tube, Metro and subway or other mass transit to get to work. That’s now their biggest risk and thus the rate limiting step for a return to the office. Some are now expecting to return to the office later than the team in Sydney.

The opposite is true for smaller single location clients and contacts onshore: many have simply gone back to the office because they can avoid or minimise public transport use, there are few others doing the same and they can enjoy a comparatively conducive work environment versus home (eg with small kids) or where colleagues are not as accessible.

A number of large corporates in Sydney are phasing in split teams as of next week, however, some still expect that teams who are ‘in’ the office will remain at home unless they have external meetings scheduled.
Larger professional services firms will phase in senior staff first as they generally have more square meterage / private office spaces. Juniors who share spaces will return last.

All are planning space and process changes: more space between people to meet or exceed the 1.5m guidance, more cleaning, more time with the office empty between teams, hand sanitiser, signage, lift limits and other biosecurity measures.

B. Fund managers

Given it’s still difficult to pitch in unfamiliar/new managers in this environment, and clients tend to hold off procurement processes in times of uncertainty, fund managers are still focussing on current clients and those prospective clients they’re already in conversation with.  

Sector-wise, ESG investments are still performing well, and some opportunities are emerging in real estate with some high-quality assets now discounted.

More broadly however sentiment is fragile compared to April’s optimistic tone thanks to rising China-US tensions.

To judge global recovery, fund managers are still keeping an eye on reopening plans in different regions, whether deaths remain contained with softer confinement measures, and how stimulus is deployed to avoid waves of bankruptcies and defaults.

C. Insurance

Insurers have embraced new internet technologies developed during the WFH phase – e.g. owned mobile apps for communicating with both staff and clients. This reduces travel costs for clients who live in more remote areas.

One international reinsurer is using the opportunity to boost innovation, diversifying its operating ranges into life insurance, general insurance, reinsurance, pensions, asset management, internet insurance and more, and has further internationalised its business to scatter the risk of concentration.

D. SMSF sector

As some of their clients return to work, an SMSF service client will continue to deliver new services launched to clients during the pandemic, recognising there will continue to be a combination of clients who are in and out of offices.

These services include online training given their expectation that while the lockdown may ease, it’s difficult to know when large groups can meet in a single venue again.

They will also add new services to their toolkit product at no extra charge, bringing forward services which are simple and ready to send to clients immediately. Their judgement, in line with many of you, is that now’s not the time to be asking for money from clients under pressure.

Our client says their technology includes a specific feature that will help those working across multiple locations. This is the ability to share a fully or partially completed form with someone rather than sending a completed document, only to it needs work. It sounds simple but it’s a great example of the kind of small, apparently incremental, improvement that can make a big difference to clients with more to do, more steps to get things done, and an expanding workload.

3. CEO guidance regarding coronavirus responses

This section provides our guidance on management and communication responses.

1. Develop a semi-permanent crisis management capability: people and process

The last 90-100 days have given financial services organisations a crash course in crisis management. This is especially true for you as CEO, because more often than not you’re the leader of the crisis team and response. Your skills in incident or crisis management are fresh now, and your processes are as good or better than they’ve ever been.

- Bottle that. Now.

o   Debrief your team

o   Assess your performance honestly, and look for improvements

o   Write or revise your crisis playbook

- As part of the Board and leadership team annual planning and risk management cycle, put in place an annual training exercise (simulation or desktop walkthrough) to update those skills & the playbook

- Hire an outside observer or expert. It doesn’t have to be us. It does have to be someone who’s independent, has crisis management training AND lived experience, and who’ll be candid about your blind spots. Invite them into that space for the greater good, put your ego aside and ask your team to do the same.

There’s much good in what you’ve learned in all this, you tell us. That will fade in time without effort to avoid that. Your skills and process sharpness will dull if not documented, practiced and intentionally developed. Your searing memory of why speed matters, what didn’t work and what did, won’t be what it is now. So think about how to stay present to this sharpness in years to come. There may not be another pandemic – or they may be. But there will be another crisis. It’s just what happens if you live long enough.

2. Think differently about regional opportunities and stakeholders

You’re telling us it’s now easier for staff located in regional/country areas to ‘shine’.  They’re less reliant on public transport so its safe for staff to get to work. Lower rent means less concern about ‘wasting space’, there are no lifts to navigate, and its easier to social distance.  Some of you are re-thinking where you live and work, or expecting your team to.


- Regional branches may return to work more quickly and once set up, can help their ‘city cousins’.

- A thinner regional/city divide thanks to virtual working means you can expand your geographic target markets, including for new hires as well as clients

- Internationally this may be restricted by regulations. Nationally, less so. And within your state? Probably minimally.

4. Appendix: How to help us help you

This briefing is collective intelligence gathered, anonymised and shared with you by my firm for the greater good. We’ve taken the view, based on client feedback, that the collective benefit to you all takes precedence over normal competitive pressures at a time like this.

This is an excerpt from one of our client COVID-19 CEO response briefings. For more COVID-19 response resources and guidance, visit our COVID-19 Response page

If you’d like to discuss adjusting your communication strategy for the current times, please call us or fill out our contact form here.

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