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No One is Standing Over Anyone’s Shoulder

By Rob Chrisman, Senior Advisor

Recently, I was on a Zoom call with my boss when she said, ‘I could use one of your jokes about now.” “Sure,” I said, I’ll email you one.” In just a few short months, we’ve become a nation of people who don’t walk down the hall to exchange pleasantries, like a good joke, with our co-workers. We email, chat, video conference and even pick up a phone to make a connection that in January would have been in person.

One of the obvious impacts of the coronavirus and the associated lock-down provisions is that many lenders and vendors have moved their employees to work-from-home (WFH) situations.

In general, the transition from in-office to work-from-home has been relatively easy for the mortgage industry. Many mortgage companies already offered their fulfillment, post-closing, and servicing personnel the option of working remote and most significant mortgage origination and servicing systems are web-accessible, allowing workers to securely sign-in from virtually anywhere.

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that analyzed metadata from the emails and meetings of 3 million people found that as a result of lockdowns, the number of meetings that the average person goes to per day is up 13 percent. The good news is that the length of the average meeting is down 20 percent, meaning that, on balance, people are spending 12 percent less time in meetings per day. Unfortunately, the average workday is up 50 minutes.

What should companies, and leaders, involved in residential lending consider when managing staff from afar?

Productivity is top of mind for many, with concerns that distractions interrupt people working from home more than working in an office or cubicle. However, the opposite appears to be true. According to a 2017 study by the Stanford Business School, work-from-home employees’ productivity went up 13 percent and company earnings increased. A study by Prodoscore, an employee visibility tracking software company, found an overall 47 percent year-over-year increase in productivity for March and April 2020, amid the coronavirus interruption and the resulting massive shift toward remote work.

Knowing remote employees are more productive is one thing, managing remote employees and their productivity effectively is something else. Put another way, a manager in Orange County, California could have staff in Spokane, Yuma, Des Moines, Vicksburg, and Bangor. Bringing in pizza for an in-person lunch to connect and show a little appreciation for efforts made is out of the question.

Managers are asking if the metrics by which they measure employee performance have changed. STRATMOR’s operations consultants are seeing managers using the same performance metrics for WFH employees as they were using for on-site workers. Of course, processors, underwriters, and closers, while sitting in a different location, are probably working with virtually the same systems and tools as they did when working on-site. It is critical for companies to look at the numbers: you can’t change what you don’t measure.

While performance metrics would not change, performance standards and incentive compensation might. If remote employees are more productive, should they be paid more? Many mortgage compensation plans have built-in productivity incentives. Processors, for example might make $50 a file. So, for lenders who have such compensation plans, the higher productivity of working at home generates higher pay. For employers whose compensation plans lack explicit productivity incentives the answer may not be as obvious. It might be enough for an employee to have greater work flexibility and lower commuting costs, along with more time with the family (though some might actually prefer to be in the car listening to music!). Remember: Recognition costs you nothing. A virtual pat on the back goes a long way.

Frequent, open communications between managers, employees and leadership is critical for creating and maintaining a productive WFH experience. “Can I see you in my office for a minute?” becomes, “Can we Zoom for a few minutes?” The communications that exist on-site needs to be replicated in the remote worker environment. It is essential that the remote worker not feel isolated, and that staff, and their managers, hear, “How’s it going?” and, “How are you doing? Any problems? How can I help?” from leadership. While ad hoc meetings may involve discussions of performance, the real objective may be to show concern for the employee, build morale, and help the employee feel like a valued member of the team. That becomes a challenge over the internet as regular staff meetings are conducted using video conferencing software.

Managing productive WFH people also means paying close attention to workload. Good managers must also counter burnout. This is arguably the most compelling challenge, especially since there are those who believe that, given the pandemic, people working from home have nothing better to do than work and should “turn it up a notch” to keep up with the avalanche of refinancing that has hit our industry.

Sure, it has become more challenging to leave the home for recreation and relaxation, but managers must encourage a work/life balance in this climate where there are few recreational options.  Now is the time to ensure that managers are communicating effectively and avoiding the temptation to throw people at capacity constraints. It’s also important to prepare for the reality that this fantastic cycle is not a permanent condition.

Loss of innovation is difficult to counter. Ideas can pop up on the way to lunch, passing someone in the hallway, or at a happy hour after work. Stimulating ideas are hard to schedule for the next WebEx or Zoom call. Managers are doing their best to incorporate instant messaging into daily routines.

Senior leadership should prompt managers to have frequent check-ins with staff. Virtual happy hours have become commonplace with rules such as, “No work talk as it completely defeats the purpose of socializing.” Company leadership has made it a habit to mark the end of week via a video call or email, something to remind people that it’s the weekend.

Record production volume and unprecedented prosperity are masking some fundamental go-forward risks in a WFH world. The actions lenders take today in regard to their people and culture should soften the distress of the next downcycle. The role of management is as important as ever, as is the role of consistent and constant communication during COVID. Regardless of whether workers commute to a cube in an office or to a workspace at their kitchen table, their leaders will need good communication and management skills to ensure productivity and workload balance for the good of all involved.

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