TD Bank Group says it had a canary in the coal mine early on in the coronavirus outbreak.
Reports from its Singapore office, where COVID-19 hit earlier than in the U.S. and Canada, helped give the bank a preview of how the pandemic would affect its workers, customers and business, according to Michael Rhodes, group head of innovation, technology and shared Services at TD Bank Group.
That heads-up, combined with quick work on the part of hardworking technology staff and a war room where top executives made decisions, all helped the bank prepare itself for the many strange consequences of the pandemic, he said.
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Rhodes about how bank officials reacted, the cybersecurity risks associated with teleworking, the tripling of TD’s remote deposit capture activity and what he thinks the new normal might look like.
When did you first realize that this was not an ordinary flu, that it was coming to our part of the world and that it was going to change everything?
MICHAEL RHODES: In our Singapore locations, we recognized what was going on in early February. So that gave us a little bit of a heads-up in terms of what to expect when it came here. By the time social distancing happened, we had already launched efforts to significantly increase our remote access capacity. We used to have 20,000 people using our remote access. We’re up to a hundred thousand people who can work remotely. But that body of work started before you were seeing it in the press on a daily basis.
What were some of the steps you had to take? Did most people have a laptop already, or did you have to start shipping equipment out to people’s homes?
Most people had laptops, not all. We had to order new laptops for some of our operations and call center people.
We’ve focused on a few key priorities: the safety of our colleagues, customers and communities; the need to ensure we have secure and stable operations; and the need to deliver new capabilities to our customers and colleagues that are relevant for the current environment. This might include tools to support financial assistance or government programs or digital self-serve capabilities.
Everything that is not in those three top priorities we’ve put a freeze on. So we freed up organizational capacity to drive towards the deliverables that really mattered given the environment we’re in.
The first priority you mentioned was the safety of colleagues and customers. What were some of the safety issues you were thinking of? Cybersecurity threats?
With customers it’s clearly a cyber threat. We’ve made significant investments in protecting the bank. We stood up a 24/7 cyber fusion center with agile teams that react to threats in the moment. In terms of our colleagues, it’s a couple of things. One is, we’ve tried to get as many people working at home as we possibly can. Well over 50,000 people work from home right now. For the roles in which people can’t work from home, we’re being disciplined about social distancing. We’re creating space between people by spreading people out more broadly across our physical footprint. About half of our call center agents are working from home. They used to be in 15 locations. Now the agents who aren’t working from home are in about 90 locations: branches, corporate centers and call centers. We’re creating social distancing. In this current environment, that’s what safety means.
Do you still have branches open?
We do have some branches open. We’re limiting hours and density.
Your second priority was secure and stable operations. What did you do to provide that security and stability beyond what you’ve mentioned?
We announced last week that we’re not going to have any COVID-related job losses in the year 2020. That brings confidence and relief for folks who might otherwise be nervous.
What have you done to strengthen your digital channels, knowing more traffic is bound to come during this time when people aren’t coming to branches much?
We tripled our digital capacity for mobile remote deposit capture. We’ve increased our capacity for our direct investing business up in Canada. The volumes have been very high. We’ve set up war rooms that are working around the clock to triage and manage escalations and ensure decisions are made on a timely basis.
Sometimes banks have a reputation for being kind of slow in their decision-making. We are not being slow right now. We have cross-functional teams that go to the war room, and we empower them to make a decision. If for some reason they can’t make a decision, they escalate, and we get the decision-makers to make a call that day.
We built new capabilities, such as the ability to let traders work from home, in a matter of days. Today, 80% of our global trading team is working from home. We’ve significantly increased our network capacity. We’ve made about 140 different changes to our network to ensure it’s tuned and operating correctly for such a distributed workforce.
How did you triple your capacity for mobile deposit capture?
We have millions of customers who have the ability today to do remote deposit capture. You anticipate a certain peak number of transactions per second and you build your infrastructure to support that. With so many people remote and the branch less accessible, we made sure that we could handle three times the transactions per second that we previously thought were necessary. We haven’t actually stressed that capacity, which is good, but we’re building a lot of core technical infrastructure capacity to support potentially higher volumes through our various channels.
Are you doing that through cloud services or by adding servers or what?
It depends. We have a number of applications that are cloud-based and therefore scalable. We increased the capacity of our network, which we manage ourselves on our premises. We brought in new hardware and capabilities to do that. Our small-business platform in the U.S. is cloud-based. Our volumes to the new Paycheck Protection Program have increased significantly, but a cloud-based service can handle that quite well.
Since you mentioned PPP, how’s that going? Do you know how many applications you’ve gotten, and how many you’ve actually processed?
I’ll just say our volumes are up significantly and the platform is performing well.
Did you modify an existing small-business lending platform, did you have to build something new, or did you bring in a vendor to help?
A little bit of all of that. Our core platform for small business in the U.S. is from nCino, and it’s cloud based. There were elements we had to add, such as an e-signature component. We separately had an e-signature platform that we run in the bank, and we were able to use that and make it part of the overall workflow. And then rather than train an army of a thousand people on a new way of working, we used robotic process automation to do a lot of the work to speed the production cycle up and ensure accuracy.
Is everybody working nights and weekends? Do you have any fear that they might burn out?
People are working really hard. I can’t thank our teams enough, and we have tens of thousands of our colleagues working from home, working long hours. We’ve done months of work in days. But when folks work around the clock to make something happen, one thing I like to do is let them get some sleep. When folks are working in these types of hours, you do have to reinforce to people that they should take a break.
Have you had to make a lot of technology investment to accommodate the things like the network upgrades, capacity upgrades for some of your applications and implementing robotics?
Oh, absolutely. We’ve made a lot of investment that was not planned for this year. But we’ve also put some things on the back burner. So I’m not sure you would see that in our numbers.
What does all this mean for other projects like some of your artificial-intelligence projects and a new data lake you told me about recently?
It depends on what stage the project is in. If we’re in the business requirements phase or in the coding phase, sometimes that work can continue.
What does all this mean going forward? For instance, will all the people who are working from home have to come back to the office in a few months? Will the customers who are using digital banking and remote deposit capture go back to the branches?
It’s a great question. I don’t have a crystal ball. And so it’s really understanding what the world’s going to look like. I will offer this: Given the current environment, we were able to adapt and reinvent ourselves to match the moment. I’m quite confident that depending what the world looks like as we get to the other end of this thing, we’re going to do the same thing.