(BofA) – Bank of America’s Chief Operations And Technology Officer Shares Her Thoughts On The Future Of Work
When asked how her priorities changed during the pandemic, Cathy Bessant, the Chief Operations and Technology Officer of Bank of America said, “It’s hard to remember where we were prior to the pandemic!” Much has changed for everyone, but for a technologist who leads a team that numbers nearly 100,000, there are silver linings to the crisis. “We were used to trite sayings, like, ‘We are living in a digital world,’ but it has played out,” she noted. “Now we are.”
Technology has been a savior of sorts. Companies have leaned on their digital revenue streams as physical revenue streams have dried up and leveraged technology to collaborate and remain productive. But it has not been a panacea. “Technology is the path forward, but we have a keener understanding of its limitations, as well,” Bessant said.
One area where greater understanding is needed is productivity. Though there are many studies that show little or no erosion of productivity, and in many cases that it has increased, some emerging studies also show that productivity parity or increases are happening in tandem with a greater number of hours worked. The lack of a commute adds additional time to give to work, and it may be necessary to use that time to accomplish what we once did when our work lives were a bit more separated from our personal lives. Working at home can, at times, feel like living at work.
The Importance of the Branches
Prior to the crisis, Bank of America’s digital strategy had led to a replication of much of what was special about in-person interactions at its physical branches into a digital facsimile. But Bessant does not see branches going away anytime soon, and the pandemic has proven why. Though Bank of America’s offices largely shut down, like so many other businesses, 70% of Bank of America branches remained open through much of the crisis. “Our physical locations are essential in delivering the total capabilities that customer want,” said Bessant. “Our strategy of being high tech and high touch has been reinforced during this time [of crisis].” During trying times, small business owners often wanted advice from bankers in person, for example.
Bessant also notes that customers look to the bank as a “bellwether for their confidence,” as she puts it. The uncertainty that the pandemic has caused as a health crisis, a social crisis, and an economic crisis have been devastating. During these times, service excellence becomes all the more important. Bessant noted that the focus has been on “resilience, business continuity, platform performance, and zero tolerance for errors. Our strength breeds greater confidence in our customers.”
Of course, digital adoption has been exponential during this crisis. “[Digital] is an essential part of our strategy. It enables resilience, and it has grown in every demographic. Instead of pushing digital adoption, our customers have pulled it.”
Lessons in Leadership
When asked about lessons in leadership during these trying times, Bessant stressed the importance of verbal, face-to-face communications, even if those faces may be on a computer screen. “There is no substitute for the [verbal communications].” She also stresses that communications need to be two-way discussions. One must push to hear all voices who are on a call to be sure that issues do not remain bottled up.
Her second lessons in leadership is being mindful of the team’s mental and physical health. “Empathy and the human side of leadership are much more important during times of crisis,” said Bessant. “What are their fears? What are their hopes?” Listening is an important part of this, and letting team members know it is appropriate to share their feelings with their bosses forges bonds and can ease some of the stress of the situation.
The Future of Work
When the conversation turns to the future of work, Bessant is quick to note that she believes the future is in the office. “In a business like ours, co-location is essential. We are in the advisory business, which is a trust business. We will double down on working together in our offices.” She points out that the data the bank collects highlights that people are less productive at home. The work they perform has more defects than it did pre-quarantine, as they are forced to develop in isolation. “The opportunity to get the person in the seat next to you to help, to provide quality assurance, is a clear benefit of working in the office.”
Bessant worries that people have lost boundaries by working at home. “Their work starts earlier and it ends later,” she noted. “If the same work is getting done and the quality is comparable, it takes more hours in the day to do it. Are we fully functioning? Absolutely, but not at the same level of productivity.” The separation of home and office will help that, she surmises, and she is placing bets to prove that. Bessant believes that agile teams that are problem solving and driving toward operational excellence require daily, organic discussion that cannot happen as well remotely.
It does not mean that Bessant has not enjoyed some aspects of working from home. “There are many days when I feel that I prefer it, but the greater good of the firm and the ability to be great for our customers are more important,” she said. “The needs of the many win against the desire of the individual. The collective role of the firm should drive our choices.” Again, she highlights that communications are essential. Employees deserve to know what they will return to. Bessant has said:
- Technology and Operations staff will return to the office
- There will be customized strategies for people with health risks
- The bank will continue to work with employees and monitor data to validate that productivity and happiness increase through co-location
Bessant concluded with a theme that imbued the entire conversation: leadership matters. “People need to believe their leaders have their best interests in mind.” She intends to prove that with her actions.