Leading Virtual Teams with BMO's Karen Collins

TFI Talent Talks Interview Series: Part 3

Financial Services workplaces responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government imperative to establish physical distancing and isolation protocols by shifting the majority of their workforce to working remotely – literally overnight. Office towers emptied, office equipment was set up at home, and teams who never imagined being able to work virtually, pivoted quickly to reimagine what was possible.

Leaders at all levels, and across all areas of organizations are now accountable for leading virtual teams, and ensuring continued productivity and engagement in this unique and unprecedented time.

Today we are speaking with Karen Collins, Chief Talent Officer with BMO, who will share some of the strategies and initiatives that BMO has developed and rolled out which support leaders when managing virtual teams.

Welcome Karen!

Julie Bryski (Senior Director, Talent Initiatives, Toronto Finance International): The move to working remotely happened very quickly, with no time to plan or prepare for such a monumental shift in the way teams work. How did your team respond to the challenge of supporting leaders who were now managing teams (and work) remotely?

Karen Collins (Chief Talent Officer, BMO): You're right, it felt like it was overnight. The BMO response was guided by our approach to employee health and safety. We have been consulting with our medical advisors globally, in addition to local health authorities, and our colleagues in other parts of the world who are further ahead in their pandemic response.

The health and wellbeing of our employees has been our utmost priority, along with keeping the economy and the banking system functioning. From the early days of the pandemic, we’ve had a hybrid workforce, with some people working in on-site centres and others working from home. We have core banking services that are essential services for our customers, and as such, require some colleagues to be physically present at those locations.

"One of the things I would attribute our success to, and we maintain this motto today, is communicate, communicate, communicate."

We had 30,000 employees quickly transition to a work from home model and 15,000 employees who remained on site in branches, wealth or contact centres. Our leaders have been amazing at demonstrating their resilience to support the transition of important work, while at the same time balancing changes in their own personal lives. One of the things I would attribute our success to, and we maintain this motto today, is communicate, communicate, communicate.

We have communicated more than ever before, utilizing different platforms and forums. We set up a one-stop-shop response site on our internal BMO Central platform, so that employees could quickly access new pandemic-related updates and information.

We also established a Pandemic Response Committee who met daily and were given the authority to make decisions quickly, so that we could get things out to the workforce rapidly.

Additionally, we increased the communication from our executive team. Our CEO is now doing short, unscripted weekly videos to talk about the things that have happened in the week. The videos create a connection with employees – a key goal of the communications approach.

One of the biggest elements of the “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate” protocol was leading with empathy. We appreciated that people's lives had been upended and we needed to offer our employees more empathy and more flexibility.

We are now focused on virtual empathy.  We want people first of all, to be safe and healthy.

We are now focused on virtual empathy. We want people first of all, to be safe and healthy, and second of all, to be productive. In order to do that, we need to talk to them as people first and bankers second.

At BMO, we have always fostered a listening culture. We have been doing a lot of employee listening and have done two enterprise-wide surveys since March. The surveys provide real-time information and tell us where we're getting it right and where we're not.

In the last survey, completed three weeks ago, 86% of our employees who are working from home said they feel as or more productive than they did working in the office pre-pandemic. That was amazing feedback. We also asked them, "What would lower your stress levels or make you more productive?" We now have a short list of things that would help people feel more productive, and are actioning those.

Julie Bryski: What was the biggest challenge that you faced?

Karen Collins: One of the biggest hurdles has been the stress and mental health challenge of what we're facing because of COVID. In our employee surveys, 57% of our workforce said they were feeling a moderate to high degree of stress, which is not unexpected. We're living through a global pandemic. They're worried about their health. They're worried about their family's health. They're worried about being socially isolated. They're worried about job security.
We have launched a number of online tools and applications to support employees. A few examples include:

  • A virtual healthcare app, powered by Medisys. Employees can get their questions answered or consult with a medical practitioner.
  • Ask An Expert conference calls. BMO-hosted calls with our physician advisors who are able to field questions from employees on COVID-related health topics.
  • Mental health and parenting calls, following the same format as the physician conference calls.
  • To date we have had 15,000 employees register for these sessions

Our main concern has been making sure our workforce felt safe, supported, and cared for, so that they could turn their attention to getting back to work when they were able to do so.  

Julie Bryski: Have you found that there are unexpected benefits to having the majority of your workforce work remotely?

Karen Collins: While we are still in the early days, we feel that the pandemic has accelerated the digitization of financial services by 10 years. There were a lot of things that the organization dreamed of doing previously but they seemed like future goals. The pandemic has nudged us into doing those now. One example is the number of contact centre agents that we have working from home or from their local branches. Six months ago, I would have said, that's a dream of mine, but we're not able to do it. Now we have those employees working from home productively. Previously, 90% of our contact centre agents were working in BMO buildings. Now, 70% of our agents in North America are working from home or from the branch near their houses.

That’s important for a number of reasons. The first is the silver lining of people not having to commute. They have a lot more time at home, doing things that they find rewarding.

Second is the increased access to talent. When people can work either at home or at a branch, it opens up a labour pool that was previously unavailable due to geographic location. We can also increase our access to candidates with disabilities, who cannot easily come into an office. This change will help us to achieve BMO’s bold commitment of zero barriers to inclusion.

We are committed to seeing this continue post-pandemic once we get back to the new normal.

Julie Bryski: You have talked a little bit about community. Continuing a sense of corporate community helps leaders to drive employee engagement and connection, but can be difficult to accomplish in the virtual world. How have you continued to build community during the pandemic?

Karen Collins: Let me talk about community in a couple of ways - the community at large, and then the community within BMO.

About a year ago, we launched BMO's purpose - to boldly grow the good in business and life. This has been a north star for people allowing them to connect around that vision and purpose, even when we are not physically connected. It has galvanized people and created a sense of community.

I'll share one example of which we are really proud.

We had more than 6,000 BMO employees dancing and posting those dances on social media. We raised $2 million in support of Kids Help Phone. 

BMO has had a more than 20-year partnership with the Kids Help Phone and their Walk So Kids Can Talk. This year, I was co-chair of the walk, and very quickly realized that I had signed up to co-chair something that couldn't happen. My colleague and co-chair Dan Barclay, CEO & Group Head, BMO Capital Markets, Kathy Hay, CEO of Kids Help Phone, and our marketing team strategized to change the event into the virtual Kids Help Phone, Never Dance Alone-a-thon, powered by BMO. We had more than 6,000 BMO employees dancing and posting those dances on social media. We raised $2 million in support of Kids Help Phone. This was wonderful as we know that Kids Help Phone had such an increase in demand as kids navigate the stress of the pandemic.

Opportunities like this give our employees a sense of pride about how the company is showing up and creates that sense of community even when we're not together.

Internal to BMO, our technology infrastructure has really helped us feel connected. Employees can access the BMO On-The-Go mobile app for news and alerts. We have BMO U, our online, anywhere, anytime learning app, which employees can access on their phone, laptop, or tablet to engage in mini-bites of learning. We have also launched Microsoft Teams, with video-conferencing capability to provide an opportunity for people to interact, collaborate, and create an ongoing sense of connection.

Using these technology channels, we have realized that we need to teach leaders how to host an inclusive virtual meeting to ensure that participants feel a sense of community, that the extroverts don’t dominate the conversation, and that everyone has an experience where they can contribute to the conversation. We see the opportunity to move the dial on embracing authenticity in the workplace through this time and carry it forward in a sustainable way.

Julie Bryski: As the provinces begin to slowly re-open businesses, many organizations are planning for an eventual return to our physical workplaces. The return is expected to be more gradual, and may occur in a staged fashion. What different supports will leaders need to be effective leading hybrid teams – some team members working in the physical office and others continuing to contribute virtually?

Karen Collins: We are definitely anticipating a very phased, gradual approach. We are being guided by the different jurisdictional recommendations, and, where we are able to do so because of the nature of the work, by employee preference. As we are feeling productive working from home, we would like to be respectful, where possible, of people's choice to continue working from home.

As we start bringing employees back to work sites, we will be very conscious of the greater shift to a hybrid working environment. We want to support leaders to continue to be inclusive, whether team members are working from the office, working from home or doing a bit of both. We intend to continue to leverage the workplace flexibility that has resulted from the pandemic and dial this up to be sustainable and persistent to thrive on an ongoing basis.

We are pivoting our programs and processes to create world-class virtual leaders. We are looking at every component of the employee life cycle and considering how to recast it, so it can be done in an entirely or mostly virtual way. We will look to inject these changes through targeted learning, communication, and leader guides that support people to successfully execute virtually. And we will continue to do surveys to see if we're getting it right.

Julie Bryski: Is there a closing thought that you would like to leave our readers with?

At BMO, we're asking our leaders to focus on their pandemic legacy, and to think very deliberately about what will they have contributed to their teams, their colleagues, our customers, and communities. 

Karen Collins: Early in the pandemic, people would be on calls and constantly apologizing – for their puppy, or child, or partner making noise in the middle of a conference call. One of our senior executives remarked that we all need to stop apologizing for these little sounds and moments, because these are the things that remind us why we're sacrificing so much and why we're doing all of this – the things make us authentic and human. As we move into what our CEO calls BMO 2.0., we're thinking about how we envision our future organization and how we will live our purpose and thrive in a new environment. We want to support the virtual leader and build that muscle so that we can continue to be successful as we do come back to some sort of new normal.

At BMO, we're asking our leaders to focus on their pandemic legacy, and to think very deliberately about what will they have contributed to their teams, their colleagues, our customers, and communities.

About Karen Collins, Chief Talent Officer, BMO

Karen Collins is the Chief Talent Officer for BMO Financial Group. In her role Karen has enterprise accountability for Talent Acquisition, Leadership Staffing & Succession, Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development, BMO IFL (BMO’s corporate university) and Organizational Effectiveness. Karen joined BMO in 2005 as a Senior Human Resource Business Partner and has held progressively more senior leadership roles across the organization. Between 2014-2018 Karen was the Chief Human Resources Officer for BMO’s Wealth & Asset Management and Canadian Personal & Commercial Banking businesses leading the team providing HR strategies, programs and advice to over 20,000 front line employees globally.

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