Leading Financial Services Teams In The COVID-19 Era

This article was first published on March 26, 2020.

In discussions with over 50 of our clients on how to respond to the new coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), we heard repeatedly about the challenges leaders are experiencing in managing their teams through an extended period of disruption. The challenges are many, but concerns around new risks, productivity, and mental health kept recurring in our conversations.   

First, there is apprehension over how to manage in a heightened risk environment. Initial concerns touched on complications of working from home, such as: limitations on running surveillance and compliance support; scenarios in which a flat-mate or spouse belongs on the opposite side of an information barrier; and temptation to use home email rather than a slow VPN connection. The controls in place may not be equipped to handle atypical risks presented by working outside the office environment. Furthermore, firms are operating with reduced capacity, and customer demand and markets may be volatile and unpredictable. More broadly, leaders are worried over heightened cyber and operational risk, as well as concerns over speed to respond if things go wrong.

Then there is the stress that can arise from working under abnormal conditions. Traders, for example, accustomed to using multiple screens, may find themselves reduced to one or two in an offsite or home office environment and with slower technology. Call-center employees might need to deliver focused service with family noise in the background. Teams may be further challenged within the context of rapidly evolving client needs and tough market conditions. Productivity is under pressure on several fronts. In addition to managing feelings of anxiety, people face the challenge of adjusting to new ways of communicating and a different work day. Some are confronting additional pressure due to school closings and a need to care for family members.  Finally, there is the challenge in dealing with the blurring lines between work life and home life and being unable to switch off at the end of day.

As shared client experiences in Asia demonstrate, the impact of COVID-19 on employee mental health is a critical issue. The rapidly changing news broadcasts about the pandemic can be unnerving, and fears of illness or delays in sourcing household supplies trigger fight-or-flight emotions in an individual and diminish capacity to operate as usual. Then, there’s the sense of isolation that comes with remote working and social distancing: loneliness is not conducive to wellbeing.


Every firm and establishment faces similar challenges. Reach out to the broader business community for help solving immediate challenges
Catherine Brown, Partner , Finance and Risk

Here are five tips for leaders in navigating this:

Tip #1: Acknowledge the new risk environment. Get a grip on the new risk landscape: The new environment has exacerbated certain threats (operational risk, cyber risk and opportunistic phishing, conduct risks, and collusion, to name but a few). Remind staff to raise issues and concerns promptly. Keep track of staff location, and capacity (well, unwell, and ability to work as usual), as well as reliance on any third parties. Remind your staff that as decent ethical employees, the same level of compliance is required (and obliged) wherever they are working.  Oliver Wyman has run business continuity risk assessments and established dashboards for major financial institutions – we can help.

Tip #2: Acknowledge new constraints. Be understanding of potential trade-offs, such as limited broadband that can support either a webinar or a spouse’s trading platform but not both. Be prepared to jump in and see what the firm can do to help alleviate and remedy the situation. Where possible, track the constraints that cannot be remedied.

Tip #3: Communicate often and creatively; don’t forget the watercooler moments. Schedule virtual check-ins every morning. Harvard Business Review found that 60 percent of people on conference calls were otherwise occupied and not paying attention. Get slick at running effective virtual meetings that connect people, you can find our ideas on this here. Consider how to recreate the office “watercooler” or “coffee machine” moments – via daily team huddles, videoconference catch-ups, or standing video rooms. Recreate employee resource and interest groups in the different format. Ask how people are feeling and dealing with anxiety. It is easy to become “COV-erwhelmed”. Prompt staff to plan a 10-minute walk into their day or some meditation time.  Be purposeful about setting boundaries between work life and home life.

Tip #4: Guide a more positive narrative.  Staff will be worried about and distracted by the news on the pandemic. In such situations, it helps to engage employees and draw on their inner reserves. Ask people to share best practices on the #HomeFinancialInstitution experience. Seek positive stories about how employees have helped clients and come together as a team. Keep an eye on the tasks ahead. Avoid speculation. Learn more about the psychology of leading in uncertain times here.

Tip #5: Convene with your peers across firms, industries, and beyond. COVID-19 will touch every business in every sector. Every firm and establishment faces similar challenges. Reach out to the broader business community for help solving immediate challenges. Support each other. Take advantage of all the extra time that is not being spent commuting to build relationships outside your firm and for the future. 

Oliver Wyman has senior client discussion groups convened – let us know if you’d like to take part.