Robots, remote hires, and insourcing: A top UBS exec lays out how the Swiss bank is tackling the future of work, rethinking its real estate, and using lessons from the pandemic to accelerate change

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  • Sabine Keller-Busse, UBS’s chief operating officer, spoke to Business Insider in an exclusive interview.
  • She laid out the key lessons the bank has drawn from its coronavirus response and how those will inform its strategy going forward.
  • Keller-Busse described five areas where the bank will make or accelerate changes: the use of robots, staff insourcing, remote hiring, its real-estate footprint, and how heavily it will rely on business continuity sites. 
  • Keller-Busse described how the bank’s move to an A3 approach –  any device, anywhere, at any time – put it in a great position to move its more than 60,000 employees to working from home. 
  • An insourcing strategy enacted in India over the past couple of years helped UBS respond quickly once the nation’s government began thinking about a countrywide lockdown. 
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UBS’s Sabine Keller-Busse sees a silver lining in this year’s pandemic. 

Keller-Busse, the Swiss bank’s chief operating officer and a member of the executive board, says she has learned a lot about how her organization and its people can adapt to change. And that’s given her insights into how the bank set the right strategy in recent years and what it can do to accelerate the adoption of the most successful ones in the coming years.  

Keller-Busse, who acknowledged the immense toll the pandemic has taken, spoke to Business Insider in an exclusive interview about how the bank responded and what it learned about how it can do things better the next time. 

Several years ago, UBS began moving all of its 65,000-plus employees into what it called an A3 environment: any device, anywhere, at any time. That required a substantial investment in tech infrastructure – it spends $3.5 billion each year on technology – and gave employees secure access to a virtual desktop from anywhere in the world. 

It also meant the Swiss bank was likely ahead of some competitors when it came time to move thousands of employees to working from home. 

“We are able to have more than 60,000 people working concurrently on the system,” Keller-Busse said. “So I would say that past investments into our systems helped us massively.”

Keller-Busse first took real notice of the pandemic in late January, when Chinese New Year travel and festivities were curtailed in that country’s response to the pandemic. As one of the largest foreign banks operating in China, UBS has thousands of employees who were affected. 

The next month she convened a global task force. The group, which she chairs, met daily to discuss the Swiss bank’s contingency plans, address any urgent issues around the world, and go over various business and market scenarios to ensure the company was prepared. 

The task force doesn’t meet daily any more, but it’s now focused on adapting the organization to a dramatically different operating environment and preparing for the reopening of economies. UBS has begun to examine the key lessons coming from this pandemic, with an eye to doubling down on already successful strategies.   

Here are the five things Keller-Busse expects to change or accelerate in the coming months and years. 

As the pandemic slammed Europe and forced economies to close, the Swiss government instituted a new program requiring banks to make guaranteed loans to small and medium-sized enterprises. As the biggest lender in the country, UBS had to ramp up quickly and it soon received more than 35,000 applications, Keller-Busse said. 

In response, a team of four operations people decided to try to automate more of the process. They took three days to build six bots to speed up some of the steps and remove workload from the firm’s credit department. 

The experience was enough to make Keller-Busse and others realize that the bank could do more to automate some processes, especially if more people are working from home where setups and infrastructure bottlenecks may make it more cumbersome to do repeatable tasks. The bank already has 1,000 robots in place across its franchise, but now has plans for more, Keller-Busse said. 

“We have an approach within our group operations team to push robots and really make sure we can automate those leftovers which still require manual interactions,” she said. “It has just proven, and it’s just more a reconfirmation, that we can do even more and should do more.”

Another thing that helped UBS respond to the crisis was a plan it began putting into place several years ago to lessen its reliance on outside contractors or consultants, in favor of in-house employees, she said. 

In India, for example, the bank relied on external contractors to supply its workforce to such a degree that it had zero internal employees in 2015. For a variety of reasons, the bank decided to change that and it now has almost 6,000 employees in the country. 

When India went into lockdown, UBS could move more quickly to equip its people with the right equipment and instructions than if it had had to rely on a third-party, Keller-Busse said. That success will likely speed up further transitions to insourcing, she said. 

“On the IT side we have in-sourced critical skills, which again helped us in doing everything which was required and meant we could equip our staff with the right means to continue to do their jobs despite lockdowns,” she said. “That was something that was initially done for other reasons. We did it to get the skills in house and to minimize risks, and then obviously for costs. It’s a huge cost savings to have your own people because you don’t have to pay margins to the provider. But we’ve seen as well that in this crisis this has proved to be very effective.”

The pandemic set up yet another challenge for the bank, and likely corporations across the world, around how to hire new people when offices are empty and everyone is working remotely. It’s the kind of problem that may not be at the forefront of concerns as the crisis unfolded, but it quickly became apparent that the bank had to do something, she said. 

“The question is, if you have a full lockdown, how can you hire people?” she said. “That is something that if you would have asked me, I would have said I’m not sure we can do it.” 

And yet, it’s not like staff attrition or turnover doesn’t occur in the middle of a pandemic. UBS execs knew they had to get a handle on the problem, and the issue was raised to Keller-Busse’s global task force. 

“Together with HR and technology, we created an onboarding process to help us hire and onboard people remotely. So employees get onboarded remotely from the home, but it’s still compliant with labor laws, completing all the identification checks and everything else.” 

The bank’s human resources function has now fully digitized the hiring process, and since the beginning of April, brought aboard more than 400 people entirely remotely. 

It comes as little surprise that with millions of employees successfully working from home, companies are rethinking the size and breadth of their real estate footprint. UBS is no different. 

The bank had already begun to move away from the idea of one employee having one desk, which Keller-Busse described as “old school” and which was, of course, helped by its migration to the A3 environment. 

But when the pandemic hit, one of the first things the Swiss bank did was to halt any plans it had for expanding offices or corporate campuses around the world, she said. It’s now reviewing its real-estate holdings and thinking about where it can reduce them. 

“The real-estate footprint will be a consequence,” Keller-Busse said. “We had already enabled people to work remotely for different reasons: an agile approach, people working from different places, millennials being more flexible, all kinds of things. So we were anyhow moving into a gradual work from home environment or work remotely environment. But that will now be expedited.”

She added: “This what I’m saying: it’s not real estate that’s the driver per se, but I think the working models will be the driver and real-estate usage, in my view, will be further condensed. We will use less.”

Read more:Global firms are cutting down on their real-estate footprint as CEOs across industries are considering a permanent switch to remote work

One area in particular is the use of business continuity sites, those backup locations outside of the big financial hubs, where banks keep empty buildings for use in the case of emergencies. Think New Jersey and Connecticut office parks as backups to Manhattan trading floors. 

With the ability of traders and risk and compliance people to work from home, there may be less need for such large sites, Keller-Busse said. The bank is still in the middle of its review. 

“It’s a bit premature but I would say we will need less,” she said. “I’m pretty impressed with what our IT colleagues have really done if you see the work-from-home trading environment that we had to establish in no time.”

So, “not every headcount that we now have in our BCP plans will really need to move to a second site in case of emergency,” she continued. “We will see fewer sites.” 

But make no mistake, UBS has no plans to give up on those entirely, she said. That may be one final lesson to come from the last several months: while corporate culture and business strategy will be forever changed by the pandemic, some things will remain just as they were before. 

“I’m sure that you will still see some for the most critical areas,” she said, “where we are more comfortable having it within UBS offices.”

Read more:Wall Street’s disaster playbook never included work-from-home trading. Insiders explain how banks rapidly adjusted during one of the most chaotic markets in history.

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