How the pandemic is changing the way we work
Perhaps no event changed the nature of work more than the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Within weeks, millions of people were working from home, including ELFA members. The nature of the equipment finance business, as well as established and emerging technology tools, allowed members to pivot. And many did so—quickly.
“Over the last decade, members have gradually adopted digital tools and expanded remote work practices, but the pandemic forced a true digital transformation on our industry. It’s remarkable how many organizations pivoted on a dime to maintain business continuity under the most challenging circumstances,” says Jennifer Martin, Chair of the ELFA Operations & Technology Committee and Vice President, Leasing and Vendor Program Support at Key Equipment Finance in Albany, New York.
The process of solving those issues has driven some important and interesting trends, according to some of ELFA’s tech-savvy members. And while the exact nature of the future of work remains to be seen, these six emerging realities are likely to play a big part.
1. Remote adoption will create a hybrid approach to working.
Remote work had become more common in recent years, largely because of employee demand. But after stay-at-home orders left many doing their jobs from the dining room table or spare bedroom, working remotely became the norm within a matter of weeks. And it wasn’t a smooth transition for everyone.
“Companies quickly found that some employees had the tools and bandwidth they needed, while others did not,” says Denis Stypulkoski, a member of ELFA’s Technology Innovation Workgroup and Chief Information Officer, Commercial Division, TIAA Bank in Parsippany, New Jersey. “Some people had low-end connectivity in their homes, which is great for sporadic connections, but not for working from home eight hours a day as a member of a call center.”
“Companies quickly found that some employees had the tools and bandwidth they needed, while others did not.”
—Denis Stypulkoski, TIAA Bank
As more offices re-open, many will need to adopt a more blended approach, bridging the needs of in-office and remote employees, says Tawnya Stone, a member of the ELFA Operations & Technology Committee and Vice President, Strategic Technology at GreatAmerica Financial Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “We need to find the ways where work and engagement have become better during this time and keep those practices as we head back to the office and travel to clients,” she says.
2. New technology and legacy processes must merge.
In recent years, more equipment finance companies have adopted cloud-based tools as part of their IT infrastructure. Those companies that made use of such tools generally found that transitioning to remote work was easier. “People that put such systems in place were better equipped for this type of global event,” says Andrew Cotter, Immediate Past Chair of the ELFA Operations & Technology Committee and Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Somerset Capital Group, Ltd. in Milford, Connecticut.
Such companies were also likely to help workers and managers find the most effective ways to connect and get work done. Demand for instant messaging, collaboration platforms, videoconferencing and other infrastructure technologies increased. Zoom, WebEx and Microsoft Teams let employees, managers and customers get face time with each other while Slack and Asana let them share files, exchange instant messages and instantly collaborate. For small companies, it may be easier to be nimble, picking and choosing cloud options that work, Martin says. For larger companies, which may be in various stages of digital transformation, the challenge can be finding ways to introduce such tools to the workforce, encourage adoption and ensure that they work appropriately with the proprietary systems that may be in place.
Another critical technology for many equipment finance companies operating with remote workers is digital signature capability. “Many companies put off adopting this tool. Expanding knowledge about it and having the ability to have documents signed digitally helps streamline processes and facilitates a paperless environment,” Stone says.
“We need to find the ways where work and engagement have become better during this time and keep those practices as we head back to the office and travel to clients.”
—Tawnya Stone, GreatAmerica Financial Services
But this also led to security and access concerns, Stypulkoski says. “Some companies have been challenged with how to connect employees at home. How do you do things like split-tunneling, where sensitive data is going over your VPN, but when employees are accessing Zoom and WebEx they’re just going straight over the internet so when everyone’s working from home, the VPN doesn’t become a ‘choke point’ in the network?” he says.
Companies will need to wrestle with these questions as they confront where their employees will work in the future, Stypulkoski says. How can they continue to find and use the best possible tools for productivity while protecting their data and prioritizing efficiency?
3. Videoconferences should be used—and managed.
One of the most important shifts during this time was the widespread adoption of videoconferencing, Stone says. Before the pandemic, she traveled frequently and participated in meetings via conference call. “That experience, as a whole, was never great. People forget there’s someone on the phone. You can’t see facial expressions,” she says.
With videoconferencing, people are more connected and engaged, looking at each other in a focused way while communicating, which doesn’t even happen in most meetings, she says. She believes that videoconferencing should be part of blended group meetings to keep engagement high among employees. It is also a boon for salespeople who need to maintain relationships with customers.
“You have to start investigating where the client experience has been less-than-optimal during this time. It’s an opportunity for you to improve the process and resolve those issues.”
—Jennifer Martin, Key Equipment Finance
At the same time, managers need to adapt to the realities of “Zoom fatigue” and adapt to employees’ needs when it comes to videoconferencing, Cotter adds. Managers need to be mindful that they’re looking into employees’ homes. “That could mean toddlers walking around or dogs barking. We need to allow employees the flexibility to turn off the camera or communicate in the way that they need to at the time,” he says.
“The companies that understand how to help employees adapt to their best way of working—and allow them to use flexible work options and video in the ways they need to—are the true winners in this and are going to retain employees long-term and attract other employees,” he says.
4. Front- and back-end systems are adopting new technology.
In some equipment finance organizations, front-end and back-end systems are disconnected. Front-end systems generally refer to originations, or the activity related to a transaction from the time of application to booking, including credit underwriting and documentation. Back-end systems are typically related to servicing the loan after the transaction booking is complete. These functions may include accounting, customer service and collections, among others. In some cases, the move to remote work and technology adoption has created more uniformity between these two systems.
“We implemented a process for digital signatures that impacted the back-end functions,” Stone says. “Typically, this technology would be initiated for front-end processes, but the need originated while servicing existing contracts.” As technology facilitates work, such as with paperless systems and digital signatures, she says, both front- and back-end systems have been adopting the technology and realizing its benefits.
5. Cybersecurity has gotten more complex.
It’s one thing to have measures in place to secure your network and data in one place. It’s a different matter when you have employees working from their home networks on devices that might not be secure. Cotter says the most important step companies can take to secure their data is employee training. Phishing attacks, malware and other nefarious attempts can often be prevented if you simply teach employees good “cyber hygiene,” he says.
“The companies that understand how to help employees adapt to their best way of working… are the true winners in this.”
—Andrew Cotter, Somerset Capital Group, Ltd.
A good endpoint cybersecurity solution is a good place to start. But for larger organizations, it may be a good idea to explore outsourcing options, or more sophisticated internal systems. “You should be able to detect anomalies that indicate someone is in your network—that may be through logins at unusual times or from unusual places, or that all of a sudden data is exiting your network at an unusual rate to an unusual place,” he says.
Hackers continue to become more sophisticated. With more entry points to your network through remote employees’ actions and devices, equipment finance companies will need to up their cybersecurity games in blended environments.
6. Investment in the client experience is essential.
As more technology is adopted to facilitate remote work and automate processes, the client experience must be at the forefront, Martin says. That requires an investment in the technology employees need to best serve clients. “You have to start investigating where the client experience has been less-than-optimal during this time,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for you to improve the process and resolve those issues.”
At TIAA Commercial Finance, Stypulkoski’s team has a proprietary digital workflow system called WANDA, which stands for Web Application for Navigating Daily Activities, that has integrated dashboards that gives managers visibility as transactions move through the pipeline. “How does someone in management monitor what’s going on in a service center environment when everyone is discreet and geographically dispersed? We’re using the dashboards on top of the workflow tools of WANDA to accomplish that,” he says.
The dashboards also give them additional portfolio visibility, he says. Some companies are challenged by trend analysis because they don’t have real-time data analysis. “They don’t have the real-time dashboards to be able to see what’s going on with through-the-door credit applications. We can see credit score deterioration, what’s going on in certain NAICS codes, SIC codes or geographies, and what portfolio performance really looks like,” he says. These powerful tools will remain valuable whether employees are working remotely or not.
As equipment finance companies look toward the future of work and navigate a different work world, many of the changes forced by the quick switch to remote work will remain. The key is to look for those changes that truly add value, improve engagement and deliver key benefits and leave the others behind.