COVID-19 has caused untold disruption to industries large and small. Most will feel a slight dip in productivity and connectivity when they move their workforce remote, but some industries will have to re-think their processes completely to adjust to the new normal in a way that is safe and, above all, compliant.
FinTech is one such industry.
Dealing with large amounts of secure data is made easy by local networks and data centers that can only be accessed on certain devices or through certain means makes them secure, but not always accessible to a remote workforce.
We caught up with three Nordic FinTech leaders to discuss the challenges they’re facing.
Ensuring Information Flows Securely
Joakim Platbarzdis is the CTO at Nord Fondkommission AB, a company designed to provide investment advisers and insurance brokers with the best tools to give end-customers a wide range of products.
Nord Fondkommission AB is a small company, with about 30 employees. For Joakim, who has been CTO since January, the focus is on streamlining processes in technology.
“Nord are already strong in Fin, so I’m excited to be trusted to lead an extensive bleeding edge tech emphasis to match.”
Initially taking a position as a Senior PM at Episerver, Joakim was in charge of the SAAS value add elements for AI-driven personalisation, analytics, and enterprise search. Before that, Joakim spent 9 years as a software engineer at Episerver.
Joakim’s love for building products that not only bring customers together but also companies, led to him accepting the position of CTO at Nord Fondkommission AB.
“Every single person here is working towards that single-minded proposition that brings the company together very quickly.”
For most, Joakim’s route to CTO, which took him through software development and then through product management is the most desirable route. This has enabled him to work quickly with his team in a short space of time during lock-down to get the level of engagement needed.
“Luckily enough we’re a pretty slim team right now. I was clear, initially, that I need staff who can work co-located. Being remote was in my DNA at that point. NORD had adopted a team workflow with Microsoft teams and SharePoint before I joined, so that was helpful. We worked on team organisation meetings on tips and tricks on these platforms.”
Naturally, working with financial data means that Joakim and his team need to be that extra level of care to operate safely and efficiently. Joakim, during his first few months, has worked hard on getting SSO and MFA strategies in place, decreasing the barriers between the business critical applications while keeping credentials safe.
“The challenge is how we keep secure when working remotely, as many of us might not be used to it. Some of us need to move from a stationary computer in the office to using a laptop with VPN. As a business in Fintech, we need to be super careful about how we allow data to travel in our ecosystem, even more so as it travels outside of our local networks.”
Security has been a widespread concern with many different industries, each dealing with highly personal and valuable data, have been targeted. This was evidenced when, just at the start of April, Microsoft was forced to alert several dozen hospitals across America in a “first of its kind notification” that their gateway and VPN appliances are vulnerable to ransomware groups actively scanning for exposed endpoints. The tech giant claimed that attackers behind the REvil (Sodinokibi) variant, for one, are probing the internet for vulnerable systems, with VPNs in high demand at the moment as COVID-19 forces home working.
“We have always used VPN connections for everything we do outside the office, for one. We also have tight security policies on client machines, with regards to what can be installed.”
Business and personal VPNs can only do so much however, so a crucial step for Joakim and his team is ensuring that all communication, both inside and outside of the company, is secure. This proactive approach with data is actively reducing risk.
“Apart from employing encryption for all communication between us and our advisors to keep it secure, we are also actively working on limiting the amount of data that needs to leave a safe space where you have to log in to interact with it, so that it only resides in areas governed by us once all interfaces are closed.”
Unfortunately, in some circumstances where people are stretched, security can be the first thing sacrificed in favour of speed. To combat this, Joakim and his team are busy building up cyber-security awareness and education.
“Apart from routines and processes, an important aspect is the general awareness, educating our team about general security mindfulness. That’s the big risk many of us are facing now. Those who are interested in stealing information have a golden opportunity to do so as a majority of us are outside of our usual digital habitats.”
One aspect of business that has been affected has more than others is our collective mental health. With anxiety around the status of business and the general well-being of families and communities, employees are more at risk of burnout now than ever.
For Nord Fondkommission AB, Joakim’s love of data has certainly come in handy to help address the mental well-being of everyone at Nord Fondkommission AB.
“I love data, right. Before I joined the firm I ordered a feedback device. When you leave for the day you press a green face if you’re happy, and a red one if you’re not. We’re recording the happiness index running everyday.
The idea was spawned as a way to measure employee satisfaction in correlation with our software releases coming up.”
For Joakim, this put a light on well-being issues for general management. Instead of issues being something grumbled and moaned about, well-being is tangible, measurable and most importantly, directly correlated with projects.
“Inspired by the way we worked over at Episerver, I have been introducing ‘initiatives’ which are really high level business cases, clearly outlining what we are aiming to achieve. We define the proposed solutions into achievable milestones, breaking them down into Epics, Stories, and Tasks that are all efforts towards supporting the initiative. The aim is to make it clear to the entire organisation what is currently in progress and make sure it aligns with the objectives and priorities of the business.”
Managing Large FinTech Teams in Remote Settings
Peter Ehrling is a Development Manager at Trustly, a Swedish fintech company founded in 2008.
Working as a Development Manager for the Merchant Services district, Peter, a Product Manager and a Tech Lead, steer the strategic and tactical work of the district for Trustly.
“I’m responsible for the capacity and the processes used to ensure efficient use of that capacity for the district.
Right now, I have 15 direct reports. We used to have a team lead that would be on site but at the moment we don’t have one. Right now, I’m managing people in their roles. We’re hoping once we’ve got that extra Team Lead I’ll focus on my role as a DM for Merchant Services.”
Management at the scale that Peter is operating at was a lot to handle before the crisis, when everyone could be seen in one place. According to Harvard Business Review research into C-level roles over the past two decades, the CEO’s average span of control, measured by the number of direct reports, has doubled, rising from about five in the mid-1980s to almost 10 in the mid-2000s.
But now, with COVID, things are even more complicated.
“We are saying you should maximum manage 10 or 12 people, that’s two teams. When we get these new team leads, they will only manage two teams. Our new approach is more flexible in this regard.”
Despite the size of the teams, the number of meeting, sprints and stand-ups hasn’t changed too dramatically since Trustly moved fully remote. Instead, Peter and his teams have taken a more personalised approach with Peter reviewing working practices on a case by case basis with each team.
“Some teams want that extra meeting or stand-up when they finish, other teams just want to get on Slack more and have that level of discipline to check-in and out.
Some teams definitely do not want that extra meeting.”
For managers who suddenly feel control ripped away from them raising the number of meetings and check-ins may feel like the most logical solution. Peter’s more agile approach will help get around some of the objections that come with management while working remotely.
Such objections to increased levels of meetings and management are supported by research showing that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s. And that doesn’t even include all the impromptu gatherings that don’t make it onto the schedule.
Instead, Peter puts more emphasis on ensuring the backlog for development teams are sorted. Specifically, that no new projects are started while working remote without the proper infrastructure in place.
“I have one team who were starting with something brand new when this crisis started. That’s tough. They’re used to standing in front of a whiteboard and hashing things out when they have new projects. It’s not the same when everyone is remote.”
That human, interactive process is something that will be surely missed, especially in the technology sector where scrum methodologies are widely deployed. To get around this loss of human interaction, Peter encourages his teams to work hard on their routines.
“Even though you’re working from home, we encourage people to take walks in the morning. Like a fake walk to work, when you’re done, you can sit down and work.”
Nobody enjoys traffic jams or squeezing into crowded trains, but there are probably parts of your commute that you miss. During your commute, you were able to shift from your morning routine into work mode and you may even have had a special treat to look forward to (like a stop at Starbucks) that is now missing from your day.
And it’s not just the morning commute that had certain elements we’ll miss. Throughout the working day there are a few welcome distractions that break up the day - these are things Peter is keen to maintain.
“We’ve made a point of talking a lot more in Slack. Normally i’d walk down to a team and say hello. We make sure that same kind of culture is in place, but from a remote setting.”
Bringing The Analytics Team Together With Daily Stand-ups
Tobias Romar is the Head of Analytics at the digital bank for savings and investments, , Nordnet.
Starting as a data analyst, Tobias took over development in December last year. Now with a team of 10, they are covering the analytics, data science and business intelligence needs at Nordnet.
“I started my career at Nasdaq, the stock exchange and technology company. Before I started at Nordnet, I was also at iZettle on their data analytics. Gradually I’ve been moving from finance to tech.”
Tobias and his team certainly aren’t short for work, with their focus on trading - a market that has seen extreme volatility and opportunity. The challenge, for Tobias, comes in the form of keeping his team continually engaged.
“We have morning stand-ups where we go through the agenda for the day and keep everything in Slack throughout the day. But, you don’t have the same unplanned meetings or discussions around the coffee machine.”
Before this, Tobias and his team always had the option of remote working but it wasn’t used frequently despite encouragement to diversify the range of environments any one employee should work from, as long as it works logistically. In Nordnet, there is no central governing principal for working remotely, it’s up to each individual team to govern themselves as they see fit in this regard.
Nordnet’s position as a Financial body, however, restricts that free reign to some degree.
“When talking with clients you can’t sit there with your family. From our side, however, it’s really easy to go into that remote working direction.”
There are positives and negatives in this remote environment. For some, it’s easier to have a one-to-one chat with a person, for example. You save a lot of time in that sense and don’t get caught up in chats happening across desks. Bigger presentations, on the other hand, pose more difficulty.
“It’s harder to gauge people’s reactions when the meetings are large and from home. Small meetings feel more personal though. There are no interactions, just focused on the matter at hand.”
As for general working practices, Tobias and his team has seen moderate changes to the way they work. Specifically, with the way they connect and share information seamlessly.
“The major change for us is that we do daily standups, going through what the people in the team have on their agenda and what they are working on, this is more like information sharing. We didn’t do that before COVID so I feel like I now have a better understanding of people’s day-to-day progress. Even though it’s short, sometimes only a 1 minute update, It still gives me the holistic view of the team which enables me to better bring it all together.”
It’s standard practice for tech teams, where the entire team is usually focused on the same project to have daily standups. In analytics teams, where people are working on different projects, it’s less common for this to be a daily occurence. This was one of the main challenges Tobias and his team needed to overcome in the early days of COVID-19.
“This presents different challenges because if everyone on the team is talking about something others don’t know anything about it might alienate someone who, at the very least, feel like a waste of time.
There is a balance when working with teams to make sure the discussion is relevant for everyone. If someone starts to talk too much about their specific field, you need to make sure we’re keeping it high level.”
Despite leader's best efforts to keep the balance and provide new ways of communicating that fit with the ‘new normal’ the sheer level of immediate isolation that some employees may feel while working remote requires a more personal touch. Tobias and his team sometimes address the more human side of this experience with daily fikas.
“We have those activities with the team, and the standups. We use Slack as the main tool and it’s easy to fall into conversation, but I encourage everyone to try and have a call for one or two minutes - at the least it’s an easy way to try and replicate spontaneous office communication.”
In the early days of the pandemic, lack of a hardline stance on what is safe and what isn’t caused a lot of confusion. This lack of clear guidance from an administrative and governmental level has been a consistent feature. The day of writing this article (12/05/20) the UK government were criticised for their ‘Stay Alert’ stance, which many believed lacked clear guidance.
This has led to many companies and organisations taking it upon themselves to sort the fact from the fiction and provide clear guidelines.
“We have a good policy at Nordnet. We have a Crisis Management Team who meet regularly to discuss policies around the crisis. How best to work from home, what’s the view on the situation.”
Crucially, this Crisis Management team haven’t just been silent backbenchers setting policies for everyone to follow. Tobias praised them for their transparent approach to policy setting with constant feedback loops on what would make working from home easier.
“They have been responding to feedback. One of the things that came up was ergonomics. If you’re spending all day sitting at a screen you need to make sure they’re comfortable. The team handled it so it was possible to get logistics sorted for screens and chairs.”
Recruitment at Nordnet has not seen a dramatic change.. For Tobias’ team the last hire was at the start of January with a start date set for April 1st, this gives Tobias a unique perspective having onboarded someone under these difficult circumstances.
“With onboarding what we usually do is have introductions with members in the team and other departments internally to just get the new starter with a good overview of the different areas in the analytics team and at Nordnet. That was pretty easy to do while remote, just schedule some video calls instead of physical meetings.
What I did was book the new, remotely onboarded employee, on to one hour sessions every day the first weeks with everyone he needed to talk with. I asked the respective individuals just to give an intro of themselves, what they’re doing and how that relates to what the new starter is doing.”
We Had Maturity Going Into This
Mattias Carlsson is the CEO of TF Bank, a local nordic ‘niche’ bank. Now active throughout the Nordics, Baltics, Germany, and Poland, Mattias started his career at TF in 2008.
“That’s a very long time. 12 years ago we were very small."
The Management team at TF is made up of Mattias and three others, with 7 direct reports going straight into Mattias. Across the entirety of TF Bank there are 200 employees spread across Europe plus nearshoring operations in Czech Republic and Belarus.
Everywhere, we are seeing governments taking bold action in response to the COVID-19 threat. In Sweden; A stimulus package worth 300 billion Swedish crowns was agreed. In the UK; a furlough agreement (where the government pays up to 80% of the employee's salary)which is estimated to be costing £14bn a month has just been extended to October.
“The net effect of all this stimulus we will probably see later down the line.”
Life at TF Bank is largely affected by the state of their markets which, although seeing mass unemployment, money in pockets remains high.
“We’ll see unemployment continue to rise. It might be even worse than the last financial crisis.”
The day-to-day at TF Bank, like many institutions, has been affected, with up to 80% of TF Bank’s workforce operating remotely. Fortunately, TF Bank’s digitalisation has been a long time in the making, with the vast majority of their teams being distributed for the last decade.
“This has given us maturity going into this crisis. We already had a lot of the infrastructure needed to operate and handle data safely and at scale on a team-to-team basis. Now it’s person-to-person.”
Despite distribution and remote working being a solid doctrine within TF Bank, nothing could prepare us for the absolute loss of agency, control and immediate isolation. Challenges, in that case, arise in the form of engagement and the lifting of spirits.
“We’ve introduced key performance indicators that you can normally see when people are in the office. We’ve also introduced a lot more team meetings. We started out with daily team meetings to see that everyone is on board and interacting.“
The effects of COVID-19 on decision making have been widespread. The uncertainty makes us crave more information so many people are spending a lot of time looking for news updates relating to the virus and its spread. It’s good to be informed but we know that the consumption of negative news causes stress and distraction. Similarly, the lack of agency causes people to seek out actions that will make them feel more in control. Early on, this took the form of buying hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.
People naturally want to take action even when inaction might be the more prudent option.
“In my lifetime, April 2020 was the weirdest month I lived through. Don't expect to make huge changes in these times, just keep it steady.”
For some companies, the idea of ‘keeping it steady’ is taken more laterally with a number of technology job losses, especially in the travel sector, in efforts to maintain a ‘skeleton crew’. Permanent technology staff who would normally be unavailable are now on the market. This opportunity is one Mattias is keen to take advantage of.
“The opportunity is we have experienced a shortage on the market of qualified staff. The supply side of competent staff is definitely changing. That’s one big opportunity for us, to find this now available talent to in-source.”
But with that opportunity comes challenges with processes we may have taken for granted previously. Interviewing and onboarding must be two of the most affected parts of the hiring process and out of all the business leaders we’ve spoken during this period they stand out amongst the rest as sources of constant change. This might largely be down to the fact that many businesses won’t have completed a full, end-to-end hire during COVID-19.
“We’re still hiring people. The onboarding in certain places has been very difficult and complicated with us having to set up a remote workspace. I don’t think we’ve ever set up a remote recruitment process, we’ve had recruitment processes that have started before this and onboarded during this - but we’re yet to have an end to end recruitment process during COVID.”