The 5 biggest challenges of remote work according to lenders

When COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., both businesses and employees rushed to adapt to the new reality of remote working and social distancing.

The coronavirus created a host of uncertainties for the mortgage industry. The analog processes of old needed immediate digital fixes. As buyers, sellers and the industry at large become accustomed to all the changes, it’s increasingly likely transactions will never go back to the way they were pre-COVID.

Arizent, the parent company of National Mortgage News, American Banker, Bond Buyer and other titles, conducted a survey that explores how the financial services sector adapted to this new era. While half of all respondents said they experienced inadequate technical support as they began remote work, almost four fifths of employees said they are either very interested or somewhat interested in continuing to work from home in the future.

Employers are also investing in tools to foster secure remote communications and transactions on a permanent basis.

"Like everyone else, all aspects of our business changed," said William Tessar, president of Civic Financial Services. "From sales, to ops, to people and culture, to capital markets. Overnight we transitioned 95% of our 300 employees to working remotely."

Below are a few of the biggest adjustments for mortgage firms in the coronavirus era.

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Creating secure clouds and enabling digital transactions
The Arizent survey conducted in June highlighted a variety of challenges, from properly equipping their employees to implementing safe video and cloud platforms.

For financial companies, moving to a remote environment exposed inadequate supporting technology and peripherals. Half of the financial services firms said that was a key gap to bridge, compared to only 20% of professional services companies.

"While Blend already had a lot of great technology in place at the beginning of the pandemic to make the shift to working from home relatively simple, the new remote reality created new challenges and we needed to use the tools at our disposal to solve them," said Marc Greenberg, head of finance at Blend, who also oversees facilities, IT, and people operations groups.

Some companies, like Guild Mortgage, implemented a number of processes to facilitate digital or hybrid closings, while others are employing A.I. tools to aid in handling a spike in servicing inquiries.
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Improving cybersecurity amid increasing threats
Working outside of the office also means operating outside its security systems. With personal wifi networks in the mix, companies needed to implement additional security measures like multi-factor authentication, Teta said.

The added chaos of the pandemic provides scammers and fraudsters with cover for their efforts, which encourages more bad actors. Google reported that the most phishing sites ever detected were logged on the week ending April 26, according to its Transparency Report.

Phishing sites peaked at 59,525 on April 26 before slightly declining to 58,538 on May 10, the latest data Google has. Comparatively, 32,482 sites were detected in May 2019.

"The biggest challenge we faced was security. Because our employees were no longer within the protective walls of our secure network, when people moved out and were operating on their own home WIFI networks," Tessar said. “We added more security to their computers and smartphones so we would ensure the same level of security.”

With the increased use of cloud products and video communication platforms, lenders also have to determine where liabilities fall with data security.
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Creating effortless remote communication
The use of video conferencing services skyrocketed as they provided businesses the most seamless way of communicating remotely.

Zoom alone reported reaching 300 million daily meeting participants in April from 10 million in December. Mortgage firms made the swift transition as well, using video for check-ins, all-hands calls, happy hours and external messaging

"One thing we had to adapt to is our need to continue leveraging video to communicate with members," a Mortgage Bankers Association spokesperson said in a statement.

"Video is a big part of MBA’s communications strategy to inform our members on policy and advocacy issues, research, and other member initiatives. Without being able to use our elaborate studio at the office, we’ve had to adapt to having staff record themselves at home, while ensuring the presentation and quality still fit the standard we and our members expect," they said.

Going forward, the increased use of video services is likely to stick, especially since most companies will offer hybrid remote working options when offices reopen.

"When looking to the future, I believe as a company we will naturally start using video solutions much more than in the past in the office as well as at home," said Peter Carrara, chief information officer at Black Knight. "We're focused on strengthening our collaboration tools, and the work from home scenario has just fortified the need for that."
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Facilitating virtual hiring
For veteran employees well accustomed to the mechanisms and processes of a company, the move to working at home meant becoming efficient while dealing with family members or suboptimal conditions. For new hires, it means seeing your new co-workers only through video conferencing.

"We’ve moved to remote orientation and meet n' greets," said Todd Teta, chief product and technology officer at Attom Data Solutions. "We’ve always had an HR-managed onboarding and that has helped. We do all document signing electronically so that was easy enough."

In addition to missing out on the physical aspects of being in an office, newly onboarded talent must take on a learning curve at a distance. Video conferencing platforms added practical technology that helped business run as smoothly as possible.

"Using a combination of Zoom, Slack, and organizational tools like Confluence and Google Drive, our employee experience team took our onboarding program completely digital and created a space for new employees to form relationships with each other, learn from existing employees, access the information they need to do their jobs, and ultimately feel some sense of belonging without being physically together," Greenberg said. "The digital onboarding program has a 97% favorable rating from participants."
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Adjusting to work without dual monitors
Desktop setups with two widescreen monitors have become commonplace in offices everywhere. Going from an arrangement integral to multitasking down to one small laptop screen presented workers with a major challenge, Arizent survey respondents said.

Missing the dual monitors transcended job type as a near-universal sentiment. In the survey, many respondents wrote that the lack of a second screen was the biggest difficulty they faced in the work-from-home set up.

"To quickly adapt, we had to order a lot of new equipment," Tessar said. "Closers needed printers. Processors needed multiple monitors. Procuring equipment was a challenge. Shipping laptops and monitors to people was slow because FedEx, UPS and the post office were slow. It was a big capital commitment, and we met the need."
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