Amcham : Please tell our readers what steps you have taken during the successive stages of the Corona crisis to protect your employees and your company, ING?
Colette Dierick: One of the first preventive measures we took in February 2020, in line with our business continuity plans, was to relocate certain teams performing critical activities (such as treasury and payments) to remote, isolated locations to avoid cross-contamination in these teams. We set up a Pandemic Crisis Committee with a series of stakeholders ranging from facility management to HR and Tech to take decisions and monitor the situation.
In March the situation changed almost on a daily basis and our internal guidance adapted at the same pace: from the first restrictions to travel to and from Asia, to a full-blown travel ban even within Europe, to splitting the staff in two so one half could work from home (WFH). On that infamous Friday the 13th of March 2020, we announced to our staff that we were rolling out the plans to have most of the staff in WFH. A few days later, about 90% of ING’s staff in Luxembourg was working from home.
Later, we started working on the return to the office, dubbed R2O. We prepared our offices (we had the ASTF audit the preparedness of our headquarters in front of the train station), we established movement flows in the building to ensure everyone’s safety and as of June we welcomed staff with a safety kit and instructions. We had the best of two worlds: we worked from home two weeks, then in the office two weeks, rotating to avoid masses in the building. Unfortunately, the recrudescence of the pandemic in November obliged us to go back to mostly WFH.
Regarding homeworking, how have you implemented this and please assess what has worked and what has not?
Remote work at ING has been available since 2011, on a voluntary basis. This meant that, unlike other companies, we had the technology set up to grant remote access to staff without the need for special company hardware. The challenge in those first two weeks in March was for our Tech Infrastructure team: they had to ensure that all of a sudden, many more staff members needed to connect remotely on a daily basis. I am very proud that it was accomplished in a few days without hiccups.
Another key element of the switch was our internal communication needs. We set up a hotline so staff could ask questions about the new situation and we created a dedicated space in our intranet with all the necessary documents, FAQs and instructions, but also with human interest stories about how staff was living this extraordinary situation.
Not just the Tech and Comms teams deserve praise: this success was possible because each and every employee of ING rose to the challenge and adapted quickly to working from home. Some had worked from home before while working on a report or project, but many had never made use of it! It is true that the first weeks some meetings were cancelled, and projects seemed to pause as we all expected the situation to be temporary, but before the Easter Holiday we were back at cruising speed.
Now with a year of experience dealing with this crisis, what lessons have been learned and what adjustments have been made to the ING management style?
I strongly believe that our culture has proven a big advantage in this crisis. We live by our Orange Code, the values and behaviors that underpin our way of working. Especially our behaviors make us different from the rest and they are the standards by which we measure each other’s performance: You take it on and make it happen, You help others to be successful, You are always a step ahead.
The ING management style has always been open and direct. We benefit from a rather flat structure but we all have had to adapt to connecting only virtually, where happenstance encounters no longer occur. Lucky for us, a few years ago we launched an internal recognition app called Kudos. You choose a colleague and you send them “kudos” on one of our three behaviors. It is a way to acknowledge everyday efforts and can be used by anyone in the company. It has come in very handy during this time apart where you cannot just say “good job” or “nice presentation” while walking out of the meeting room!
Whether it is top-down or bottom-up communication, planning is key and we must all make an effort to keep communication lines open. For example, in the past I used to host “A Talk with Colette” meetings, a type of ask-me-anything informal discussion with a handful of employees. In 2020 we introduced virtual sessions of “A Coffee with the ExCo” (Executive Committee) open to all staff and “A Talk with the ExCo” where we discuss with senior management current affairs and the state of ING.
If you knew at the beginning what you know now, what steps and initiatives would you and your team have made differently?
I wish we had known it was going to last this long! One of the most tiring aspects of these past 12 months has been the constant uncertainty of what’s next. Specially during the first four months, when rules and government measures changed every 2-3 weeks. Planning was difficult, our “agile way of working” was key to our success.
Do you have any concerns about the mental strength of your employees and are there any ING initiatives to help employees deal with the various stresses caused by this pandemic?
The safety and health of my staff is always my main concern. It has not been easy for anybody: colleagues who have a full household, those who live alone and everything in between. The pressure banks have to deliver value to their customers under the heavy regulatory change is less daunting when you can have a respite and a cup of coffee with a colleague. Alone, at home, it can be overwhelming.
For years now, with the guidance of the ASTF, we have had a Burnout Alert Network to guide staff who is struggling. Before the crisis we organised a myriad of internal staff events, from Lunch & Learn sessions to sports outings to charitable actions. Under the motto “close at a distance”, in the intranet space I mentioned above we added a corner with activities that staff could do digitally: concerts, museum visits, mindfulness and physical health activities. Some were conducted by our partners, others by our own employees.
We monitor the mental health and feeling of well being of staff with short, regular online surveys and we do see that the long duration of the Covid-19 measures is starting to have a negative effect. Most colleagues would love to return to work in the office.
How has this pandemic impacted the attractiveness of Luxembourg as an international business centre?
The pandemic will have long lasting effects on all economies, and neither Europe nor Luxembourg have been spared. Having said that, Luxembourg benefits from a privileged situation. The social and economic stability of Luxembourg have been confirmed during this crisis and they represent a key factor in the choice of business to establish their activity. The AAA-rating of the country has not deteriorated and given the makeup of the economic tissue, many companies have been able to adopt remote working solutions, even with a large part of their workforce living abroad. Of course this means less people coming in to the country on a daily basis, which affects notably retail commerce and the hospitality sector. Alone in the Avenue de la Gare we have seen several retailers close their shops.
Luxembourg has always managed to reinvent itself and adapt to new situations. I am confident both policy makers and business leaders will work closely together to prepare Luxembourg for the post-pandemic recovery period and even beyond; and in doing so, maintain Luxembourg’s attractiveness as an international business centre.
From your experience, what are the differences in how domestic Luxembourg companies, international companies and the Luxembourg governmental bureaucracies are perceiving and reacting to this crisis?
This pandemic has been so new to all of us, I believe we have all been navigating it to the best of our abilities and with our best intention. I have seen small and medium enterprises in Luxembourg reinvent themselves in order to survive. Larger international groups like ING have the advantage of crowd wisdom: we had information from our offices in Asia in the early days, for example, and later from Italy in advance of the Luxembourg lockdown, and have continued sharing across countries since then. Governments faced tough choices as the uncertainty I spoke of before also applied to them. The same way my staff looked to me for direction, companies and citizens alike looked to the government for answers. Luxembourg was exemplary: in order to help companies, the agreement between the major banks and the government for moratoria and loans came quickly into effect; also the Large Scale Testing that, somewhat unfairly, put Luxembourg on the red list of many countries was (and still is) envied by many countries across the globe.
What advice would you give to your newest employees to help them as they seek to develop their careers?
Once or twice per month I host a “Breakfast with the CEO” for new employees. As the attendees come from different teams in the bank, it is a chance to meet other colleagues right from the start – to build up an internal network and learn from the different activities and expertise in the bank. Now more than ever! Before Covid-19, your colleagues would introduce you to their contacts during lunch or coffee, or even a seminar, but for the time being that’s no longer possible. I usually tell them: “I am the CEO of ING but you are the CEO of your career; work hard, learn and don’t just stick to your team and your area of work: explore other opportunities and broaden your horizon”.
Are there any other questions you would have liked us to ask you that we have not thought of and, if so, would you please answer them?
Q: Can you tell our readers something about the state aid plans in which you participated?
In order to support the economy, the government designed a series of plans to provide either economic support or relief to companies that were struggling with the first impacts of the pandemic. Some of these arrangements were designed together with ING and the other 4 main banks in Luxembourg, so they could allow payment holidays on existing loans and grant new loans with a partial guarantee from the state. Of course, a bank’s role is to accompany its clients, so even outside these state aid plans (as not every company or every loan was eligible for them) we worked closely with our clients to restructure, refinance, accelerate or slow down financial arrangements to see them through this difficult times. It is not always easy, as banks are limited by regulatory constraints on the use of capital and the assumption of risks. For us, finding a solution to our client’s financial problem is living up to our purpose of empowering people to stay a step ahead in life and in business.
Many companies are struggling, and the economic aftermath of the pandemic is still in the making. After all the moratoria and new loans and leasing contracts granted in 2020 by ING, this year we hope to accompany our clients as they start rebuilding. 2021 will still bring many challenges, and companies will have to find the right balance between their existing resources and their ambitions. Our role will be to support them as they (re)build a sustainable business model and innovate, thus preserving and even creating jobs in Luxembourg.
Thank you very much Madame Dierick for this interview!!