Helping people through the tough financial short-term so they can emerge strongly in the long-term is the focus for Westpac, says their General Manager of Customer Outcomes.
Banking is one of the critical functions in the lockdown. What has the team at Westpac had to do to ensure everything keeps running, and adapts appropriately to the new reality?
Our main priority is keeping our customers and staff safe, while maintaining access to essential banking services like withdrawals and deposits. Obviously none of us have ever been through anything like this, but we had continuity plans in place to cope with massive disruptions and we’re working to those plans. That means finding alternative working arrangements for our teams while ensuring our systems remain safe secure and available to our customers, and coordinating closely with the government and regulators. This has been an industry-wide effort – everyone pulling together to help Kiwis get through this.
As we head towards alert levels 2 and 1, we’re working on resuming our full range of banking services in a seamless and timely manner, so that there’s minimal disruption to our customers. We’re going to be looking at a new normal both for the business and our customers.
What are the biggest changes for operating under lockdown?
The biggest change for our customers in lockdown has been not being able to go into branches to do their banking, although some are still open on Wednesdays from 10am to 1pm. We’re encouraging customers do their banking online or on the phone, and many of our branch staff have been redeployed to help manage that additional workload. From a business standpoint, ensuring our entire workforce has the capability to work from home if needed has been an unprecedented challenge, but I’m really proud of how our teams have adapted to remote working.
The current situation must have also resulted in some fairly serious conversations with personal and business clients dealing with the impact of the lockdown. What has been your advice to those calling and needing some flexibility in their arrangements?
We know lots of people are hurting financially right now from the impacts of Covid-19 and we’re doing all we can to help them. We’ve got lots of options to help them – such as mortgage repayment deferrals or reductions for our home loan customers, and government-backed Business Support Loans for businesses with cashflow issues. We encourage all our customers to call and talk to us if they’re struggling financially, so that we can help them come out of this in as strong a position as possible.
How many staff have had to remain onsite at Britomart HQ to keep critical functions rolling, and what functions are they?
We have about 350-400 staff on site at our Britomart office, which is less than 20 percent of the building’s capacity, and they’re being spaced out to ensure we meet social distancing guidelines. Those staff come from across all our business units, including some of our senior leaders, and are working to make sure we can still serve our customers’ needs, such as processing Business Support Loan applications and helping customers in financial hardship.
What are your economists predicting in terms of the path out of the shutdown, and the recovery from the economic disruption that’s occurred?
We remain in a fast-changing situation so it’s hard to make predictions with much certainty, but our economists are picking a tough few quarters ahead, followed by a solid economic recovery from next year. Our Chief Economist Dominick Stephens has been clear that we’re better off enduring the short-term financial pain of lockdown to stamp out Covid-19 than to take half-measures that cause the financial and health impacts of the pandemic to linger.
What’s your current situation? Are you working from home, and how is that working out?
I am working from one of our Business Continuity sites. The executive team are split across two locations and this arrangement has worked well. We have a good operating rhythm where we all connect each day via video chat and our meetings have continued in a virtual manner.
What have been the biggest challenges for your personally during this strange time?
The lack of social interaction has felt strange, not only with family and friends, but even the ability to have casual conversations with familiar staff at stores and cafes. I do miss the “everyday things”, although spending more time with my family at home has been great during this time.