Kate Grant, Managing Director HR APAC of Deutsche Bank, shares her COVID 19 insights

Founded in 1870, Deutsche Bank is one of the world’s largest banking institutions.

Its core services include Corporate, Private and Investment Banking, as well as a strong and growing asset management division. With more than 78,000 employees in over 70 countries worldwide the Bank is a leader in Germany and Europe whilst holding a substantial presence across APAC.

Kate Grant joined the organisation in 2001 and has held a number of senior HR-related positions based in their offices across Australia, Singapore, London and Hong Kong. Today as Managing Director, Kate has broad responsibility in her roles as Head of HR APAC, Global Head of Operations and HR COO APAC.

Her previous career included Global Compensation & Benefits positions for both London-based advertising firm WPP and Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific.

Kate shares with Barracuda Search her experiences and reflections on the ongoing COVID 19 outbreak.

Being based here in Hong Kong, what there the initial steps that you took at the outset of the COVID 19 outbreak?

It was very clear to us when the impact was being felt in China that there was a concern in Hong Kong about cross-border traffic and likelihood of transmission. A lot of our senior management had been in Hong Kong during the SARS crisis and were very sensitive to that, much more so than in other regions and many other countries in Asia Pacific.

Immediately we did things like ordering and providing face masks on a daily basis and making sure there were hand sanitisers everywhere. There was a lot of focus on the hygiene and health aspect including wearing masks, although not compulsory at Deutsche Bank, it was strongly advised at the time.

From Chinese New Year onwards we followed government guidelines with respect to working from home where possible. We went to our business continuity plan and enacted that,which involves our split sites between the disaster recovery site and our office here in ICC, as well as working from home. As it became more serious at the peak we would have had about 80% of our population working from home in Hong Kong. All of the health and hygiene measures were heavily promulgated across the organisation.

Our response varied around the region as we saw governments taking different responses. So for India and the Philippines, which went to a complete government mandated lockdown, it was almost 100% working from home. Then in countries like Singapore, we had our business continuity plan in place with split operations. Government and health authority directives were different on wearing masks, and on working from home, and schools remained open, so until they entered their circuit-breaker period we had a different response in Singapore than we did in Hong Kong.

We also brought our EAP providers in to help us across the region to promulgate local well being initiatives. We were concerned about the impact on employees and their mental health with people being self-isolated for extended periods, people cut off from their families, and with travelers stranded abroad for indefinite periods.  This was particularly due to a number of our locations having a high international employee base. We had people returning to their ‘home’ countries, so to speak, which did present its own challenges with employees working in alternate locations from their employment location.  We stopped all business travel by mid February and from a safety and security perspective we encouraged staff not to take personal travel, which of course you can’t enforce.

As the crisis evolved and the situation was very fluid we connected regularly across functions and countries.  We had a daily crisis management call with our various risk, control, operations, compliance, IT, and HR functions to manage the responses to business continuity challenges platform-wide.

You spoke there about the increased need to work from home, to work remotely. What do you think this will mean for Deutsche and its ways of working moving forward?

 For us, it won’t be either all at work or all working remotely, you will have more flexibility, more balance. The majority of our employees have expressed an interest in working one day or more at home on a go forward basis

Some of it will come down to the physical structures that you have, so it may not be that you need to be central real estate in Hong Kong where I sit. It might be in more distributed through co-working sites. You don’t need necessarily as much CBD real estate, but you do need some office infrastructure and you would then have people who come together for collaboration not necessarily being in the office five days a week

Essentially having much more of the things that we have been doing for a long time but more institutionalising, more hot-desking and I think more acceptance of working remotely as a way of working. So scenarios where people work from home on a more structured or formal basis rather than on an exceptional basis. I do think for people to engage you still need the face to face contact, but you can also use, as we have seen, the chats, the VCs and other ways to connect. This will of course vary by country and by business.

 With these new ways of working, how has technology enabled the business to coordinate its teams and continue serving clients during this time?

The enabling part of technology was very important in the early part of the outbreak. At that point it was ensuring that everybody had the right equipment and infrastructure to work from home.

It was a huge mobilisation effort to make sure that people had the right trading equipment, the right screens, the right video facilities. In some countries this was as simple as making sure people had a laptop. Some of our people didn’t have the devices to be able to remote work. Physically getting people infrastructure, be it paying for their wifi or their calls, or physically getting ergonomic equipment to them was key.

Once this was stabilised it was then how do we facilitate good communication across the bank? Regionally in Asia we don’t sit face-to face with many of our teams and colleagues anyway, whereas you might in London or New York where you have much more in person contact. We were much more used to having a distributed network so all our phone calls turned to Skype video calls, so that we could physically see all our colleagues. Seeing people with their dogs, their kids, in their homes, in their casual clothes  – it has been much more human and quite funny actually. We tried to maintain face-to-face contact to have that level of immediacy that people were missing out on by not being in the office.

We had a lot of queries from a compliance perspective about what technology and tools we were allowed to use and what we were not allowed to use because of security and visibility. We certainly couldn’t allow certain applications and systems to be compromised so we were very clear about internal protocols and what you were allowed to do.

From a client perspective technology has also been a huge enabler. We are starting to use video conferencing for pitching, whereas previously that had always been travelling and face-to-face. Our global AGM was virtual for the first time in our 150 years history.

 You manage teams in Hong Kong, across APAC and indeed globally. With your and the other regional leadership teams’ ability to travel restricted, what role have the in-country teams played in ensuring business continuity?

I think it is an interesting one because we have seen, in some instances, a phenomenon where people have rapidly departed the country they are employed to be in. Moving forward you would have to think, if we have countries where people don’t want to be based because they worry about the healthcare system, or they are worried about the infrastructure supporting them and they depart, then do we need to think about having fewer international people in local leadership roles in country. I think that’s one aspect we hadn’t seen since SARS and Fukuoka, and it is just something to reflect on.

On the other side, there have also been in-country teams that have managed extremely well and have been very resilient as to how they have managed through the crisis. It has been obvious, even virtually, where that is working well for us. From an HR perspective it would be hard to be taking people out of country now because the role of HR has changed significantly during the crisis to a stronger advisory role with more emphasis on guiding responses on people management counselling and supporting managers. That became very important having local HR people on the ground, knowing the context, advising on well being, health and safety, bringing in vendors, and available with the managers, even if sometimes it was remotely or in lockdown.

What we saw was that when the virus subsequently appeared in Europe and the US, the global teams came back to us for knowledge about how we have been handling things in Asia. They wanted to know what protocols and processes we used, and how we had been handling various scenarios and so we have been doing a lot of knowledge transfer of our experiences to our global colleagues.

I think that if you hadn’t been through SARS or a major epidemic, then I don’t know what else would be close to this. In Asia Pacific we are subject to many natural crises anyway, whether from geographic disasters, weather or civil disturbance. We’ve been through typhoons, monsoons in India, volcanoes in the Philippines, earthquakes in Japan, protests in Hong Kong etc and we have a well established and practiced Business Continuity Plan and a mental readiness to manage in crisis, which is important. We found it useful to set up global calls with all regions, so a huge amount of sharing was done and also bi-laterally across regions.

 This outbreak has served to accelerate many trends that were already taking place in the market and industry. Do you think that this experience has revealed any new areas of opportunity for Deutsche to better serve its people and customers moving forward?

I think we have been able to leverage some of our existing business models. We were able, through some of our existing platforms, to digitally service clients’ needs quite quickly. For instance, in our cash management business we were facilitating payments and keeping lines of credit flowing to clients to ensure that essential services kept moving. We were running hotlines in Germany for clients who had cash flow issues. So I think it partly was just responding quickly and flexibly to the opportunities and issues as they arose.

I think that we will see much more acceleration in the digital banking space because the retail branch networks were physically closed for periods to face to face banking transactions. I also expect that behaviour change is the big opportunity here. When we saw how people were able to be enabled to work remotely or bank remotely I think that’s a significant shift.

Given our employees told us that people want more flexibility in their work, we have undertaken a global project looking at our whole organisation model, future of work, our real estate footprint and ways of managing and working, to see how we can support a more planned and deliberate shift to a more digital and flexible workplace and culture.

We have seen a lot of innovation in areas that for years we have just accepted things as they are. Things like compliance, legal signatures, running operations from home have now been managed very creatively because needs must. I think there will be lots of pockets of innovation now at everything from product level to a client level.

 As you say, lots of initiatives being driven and a lot of questions being asked within the organisation at the moment. What would you say though that your greatest learnings have been through this time?

I have been struck by how resilient and how creative people have been. When you have fewer rules then people on the ground are able to come up with solutions to things that they wouldn’t have been asked to do otherwise. Maybe we have underestimated our own employees over the years, a touch. Decisions and structures and policies and approaches have usually been top down and now some very interesting solutions have been coming from the bottom up.

Beyond resilience and creativity, I think collaboration and sharing. What’s been very useful across regions is for us is to have specific targeted calls with shared learning – that has really helped with ready responses to what we are know we are going to be asked. If it is going to be an issue in New York, it has been already been dealt with in Hong Kong. If it is going to be a challenge in London, and if we have already dealt with it in Asia then we can share that. Shared learning has been a valuable lesson.

It is important to learn from the people who have got the experience, people who are veterans of crisis and Asia is a place where you don’t necessarily have a lot of time to respond. Having a rapid response, being organised, a good continuity plan, and leveraging people who have gone through crisis before is key. I think learning from colleagues with experience in that space is something that I would strongly advise.

Interview conducted by Barracuda’s Head of Hong Kong, Max Holdsworth.

June 2020