Embracing Remote Tech: Q&A With KeyBank’s Brenda Kirk

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in early 2020, countless businesses instructed employees to stop reporting to the office and work full time from the safety of their homes. KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial institutions, was no exception. The bank implemented its business resiliency plan immediately to move most of its employees to a remote work environment.

Brenda Kirk, chief information officer of Key Commercial Bank and Enterprise Payments, along with her colleagues on the executive leadership team, quickly mobilized many of KeyBank’s employees to work from home when the virus prompted stay-at-home orders in states across the country. The team embraced emerging technology, which led to a smooth and seamless transition.

Business.com spoke with Kirk about the role technology has played in KeyBank’s operations during the pandemic and the lasting cultural shift toward tech adoption she’s observed in the broader workforce.

Brenda Kirk: We shifted to a remote work model along with most of our clients, and we took a very careful, planned approach. In this transition, we had to meet the needs of our clients and balance the needs of our teams in a rapid fashion.

Shifting to a remote work model included many things that went beyond “I’m going to move my computer and start working from my living room.” While that was certainly a piece of it, we wanted to be able to give both our teammates and our clients peace of mind during a really challenging time. That meant equipping our associates with the ability to work seamlessly, both individually and as a business unit, and that varied across our teams.

Some of our plans included having people work from other locations or sharing time in the office. All of that had to be reconsidered very quickly. [Team members] who previously worked remotely with some regularity were able to envision what this could look like and quickly adapt. For others, who never worked remotely, nor did we contemplate that for their role or team; it presented both a dramatic culture shift and a readiness focus.

It was bit of a new dynamic for us. In some cases, that meant [addressing] basic things like, “Do you have a laptop, or can we get your desktop to you?” [Some] teammates who never contemplated working from home didn’t have internet access, so we had to [take] quick action to provide internet access and other tooling where appropriate. So the foundation was there to [get] thousands of our teammates to work remotely in a matter of days.

We also have teammates who needed to still be in our physical locations but connected to the broader team to effectively serve clients, so that was another area of focus: ensuring that we had the appropriate protocols and practices in place to keep our team and our clients safe and healthy.

[It was] a very delicate balance between several different areas of need for us, and overseeing all of that simultaneously was a true leadership-wide and company-wide effort.

BDC: How has the role of technology evolved for your company’s internal operations in the COVID-19 environment?

B.K.: The role of technology was elevated and accelerated, and it’s been in very positive ways. Anyone who was reluctant to leverage technology fully got to experience some of those benefits firsthand. Now we see those very same people evangelizing the use of the technology that, just seven months ago, was not a part of their day-to-day routine.

We asked people to do a lot of things. We asked them to move far beyond their remote technology experiences, which may have been limited to checking their email every once in a while, to leveraging all of the capabilities and collaboration tools we have to communicate, manage projects, and to create a level of transparency, monitoring and reporting on systems.

Obviously, fraud and security have been explosive during this time, so we asked [our teammates] to not only move their own individual spaces and make sure they were maintaining client [services], but also to move into a new mode of education, evangelization and protection of both KeyBank and our clients.

Leveraging technology to advance the business in new and exciting ways has become a mainstay for each of our teammates. We’re now thinking, “How can I leverage technology in order to accelerate my business and/or bring a new and exciting experience to my client? How can I leverage technology to change the experience that we’re bringing to clients in their new world?”

We have opportunities to automate processes that used to be entirely manual, and leverage tools like RPA and AI to facilitate new and exciting developments for us. It’s allowed us to focus more on the “people” problems and those that are worthy of our time and attention.

BDC: How were you able to mobilize your workforce so quickly and get everyone on board with all the new things they had to deal with? What was that transition like for your team?

B.K.: We were very fortunate [to have] a mature and well-tested business resiliency and continuity plan. We conducted annual tests of our business resiliency plan. That meant we would ask our teammates to work from home to make sure we had the appropriate capacity and tools for people to seamlessly work remotely. As a result, we were able to identify any gaps in our plans far in advance of the need to exercise the actual business resiliency plan. That was a big part of how we were able to mobilize the workforce and adapt so quickly to the new work model.

But our plan was not always to have people work from home. We had some folks who we asked to work from a different location because they needed to have a certain level of connectivity or access to certain types of data or things that we don’t really think about, such as access to a printer or other security concerns. In our business resiliency plan, we still had [everything] within our “four walls” – but they were just in a different location.

In this environment, that was not the case, so we very quickly had to adapt for employees who didn’t have laptops and would have to physically move their desktops and monitors to get set up at home.

While there were a lot of tweaks, the [existing] foundation – especially from a technology, tooling and capacity perspective – allowed us to move our folks from being in the office to safely and productively working from home. We then focused on some of those edge cases [where] we had to adapt to a “work from home” instead of a “work from elsewhere” policy.

We’re leveraging a lot of those learnings now as we adapt to a [long-term] remote work model and continue to refine our practices. Now we have a “work from home by design” model, even as we bring some folks back into the office over time. If we ever need to go back to a pure work-from-home model, we’ll be more prepared even for those cases, but we were really proud of the work that our entire technology organization did to make sure our workforce was able to adapt and begin to work.

BDC: Let’s talk about some of the more external things you had to do from a technology standpoint. Did KeyBank make any technological upgrades or adjustments during the pandemic to better serve its customers? If so, what has the impact been?

B.K.: Most of our technology upgrades and adjustments that we made during the pandemic were already planned. [COVID-19] was the catalyst to adjust and adopt faster. We also leveraged more upgrades than initially planned.

For example, we leveraged an extensive amount of work that we were doing with our cloud-native technologies. Most of our highly visible applications were deployed in [cloud] containers, and because they were deployed in that way, we were able to dynamically scale our environment based on workload. That gave us a tremendous amount of value in an environment where there’s an expectation that our applications are readily available 24-7. During this pandemic, lots of folks were moving their entire operations to a completely different mode. Our service levels and availability never changed, and it was incumbent upon us to determine how we were going to leverage technology to ensure that our applications remained readily available even through this transition.

It also led us to a path where we could deploy smaller changes much faster, so we could reduce the time it takes us from beginning to end. We thought about new ideas and enhancements to existing applications that would help our clients as they moved to a work-from-home environment where they may be now scanning instead of mailing, or where they would communicate with us in different ways. We had to figure out a way to deliver those enhancements and applications in a shorter time period.

A very powerful example is when we were able to respond to the call to help deliver the federal stimulus package, specifically the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds, to small businesses. We had to move swiftly to make the PPP application available. We leveraged many of the same technologies, and as a result, we were able to reach more than 42,000 small businesses in a matter of days and hours at a time when they needed us most.

That’s how we wanted to show up for our clients – to make sure we were meeting the service levels [and] that we could bring programs to them [by] leveraging the extensive work we’ve been doing with cloud-native technologies. It really put us in a tremendous position to be able to respond to our small business clients.

BDC: So, what do you feel the impact has been on your operations and culture as a result of the technology you put in place during the pandemic?

B.K.: Our teammates across the board are more tech savvy. They’re more aware of the importance of the digital customer experience.

The adoption and the demand for technology has helped us do everything from enhancing our operational reporting to more intelligent interactions with clients. Now our culture is one of [our customers’] expectations. We now have a reliance on technology that goes far beyond the “inbox experience,” as I like to call it, and it’s helping us to make the connections we otherwise would not have made to accelerate our business and provide new, innovative, and efficient solutions, not only for how we work internally, but for how our clients can work and how we bring products to them.

I do see a net-positive impact on our operations as well as our culture overall. We have an annual hackathon event, and typically you would see our technology teammates immersed in that. Now you can see a lot of our business leaders are leading those teams and leveraging technology to participate in that event.

We’ve brought teams together in a way that we otherwise might not have, and now we’ve leveled the playing field for those folks who were remote before. They would often say, “Hey, we’re the forgotten guys on the phone in the middle of the table,” or “Could you please go on video?” Now, culturally, it’s shifted to where most of your meeting participants are remote, so everybody’s just a little bit more conscious and conscientious as a result.

Because of the technology we’ve leveraged [and] the availability of collaboration tools, we now have a new sense of ownership, accountability and innovation in our culture as a result of people being able to participate in processes so easily. We have really opened up a whole new opportunity that makes technology more readily available to our teams.

BDC: Overall, how do you see the role of technology changing across the board as more companies embrace emerging technologies and accelerate initiatives that may have been on the back burner before the pandemic?

B.K.: A lot of organizations, regardless of the industries they’re in or the products they’re creating, are in fact becoming technology companies. Technology will become the foundation of how organizations are bringing their services and products to bear, and that’s certainly true in financial services. I think you’ll see more companies embrace emerging technologies, and that will help the advancement of technology generally.

The appetite for technology investment is absolutely tremendous. It may have been something that would have been on the back burner before the pandemic, but we’re seeing a lot of these technologies as necessary.

When you’re talking about the movement of money, you need to be able to flex your capacity quickly to be able to accommodate something like these federal stimulus programs. You really must be able to move fast. That’s not necessarily something you would have thought about before the pandemic, but our ability to move with speed while keeping our clients and KeyBank safe is something that we’re depending on.

In summary, technology has become more accessible and user friendly. It is now another trusted colleague and resource to help people connect, advance, and to serve in ways that they may not have thought about before. Instead of waiting for technology to be thrust upon us, we’re now looking to technology to help us create the connections we need to make to advance our businesses and help our clients.

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