Coronavirus reveals shortcomings in Schwab’s business continuity plan

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Charles Schwab will start permitting more of its employees to work from home — a move that follows criticism that the firm hasn’t acted quickly enough to enable staff to go remote.

"All Schwab employees who have the ability to work from home are now able to do so," says a company spokeswoman. Those still working in Schwab offices currently include "some roles in network operations, cyber security, trading, call centers, and other areas."

The company's developing policies highlight how the virus has tested financial firms' capabilities. Schwab wasn’t prepared for a companywide virtual work environment, according to employees and an internal email obtained by Financial Planning. Amid an unprecedented public health crisis, the firm has been building and testing virtual capabilities this week even as thousands continue to staff offices. Some employees and their families are concerned about their health.

“I don’t feel like [my husband] should have to choose between his clients and his personal safety,” says Rachael Dahl, a former Schwab employee and the wife of a CFP in Schwab’s office in Colorado, who has been with the company for over 20 years.

Dahl's husband declined to be interviewed, but her concern is shared by some employees, who say they lack resources to work remotely.

“We aren’t equipped to fully work from home as a company,” says an employee, who asked not to be identified.

The firm has faced blistering criticism on social media, although some employees have publicly praised the firm’s handling of the crisis.

Even as the company permits more employees to work remotely, CEO Walt Bettinger acknowledged in an open letter to staff March 19 that some functions can't be performed outside the office. In the internal email sent to employees earlier this week prior to the latest developments, Schwab said its business continuity plan didn’t include the majority of its employees having to work from home at the same time. “We are in the process of building out that capability now, as quickly as possible," Nigel Murtagh, head of corporate risk at Schwab, wrote March 17.

Financial companies have taken divergent approaches to safeguarding employees and clients in the face of the coronavirus. Earlier this week, Merrill Lynch sent San Francisco area employees home. Ameriprise now has the vast majority of its employees, including financial advisors, working from home, according to a spokeswoman.

At the same time, firms still must manage clients’ emotions and investments. About 83% of consumers are now somewhat or very concerned that the virus will harm their finances, up from 68% two weeks ago, according to a J.D. Power survey. Just one-third of survey respondents said that they had heard from their bank and found those communications helpful.

Schwab says it is doing the best it can and working hard to keep its employees safe. “This is a difficult situation,” says Schwab spokeswoman Mayura Hooper. “But a lot of people are working around the clock to ensure we are living up to both of our responsibilities: caring for our people and serving clients, both of whom are trying to navigate this pandemic.”

The firm has 12.3 million active brokerage accounts, 1.7 million corporate retirement plan participants and 1.4 million banking accounts, according to its 2019 annual report. And it’s receiving “near-record levels of client interactions right now, as you can imagine,” a spokeswoman says.

Bettinger, in his March 19 open letter, thanked employees for their “tireless work” and said that every employee below the officer level would receive a $1,000 bonus. Contract workers are excluded from this award, according to Business Insider.

Meanwhile, individuals have taken to social media to air grievances.

“With the Austin mayor prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people, when can we expect to be able to work from home? Our office has hundreds of people and this isn’t safe,” wrote one person on Twitter March 17, who voiced complaints about cafes and open dining halls still being open in Schwab’s Austin, Texas, location. She did not respond to a request for comment.

On Wednesday morning, Dahl got a text from her husband from the office at Schwab telling her that his colleague, who had been working at a nearby desk the day before, was now running a 102 degree fever. Later on Wednesday, his manager decided to send the team home.

While Schwab has now canceled all travel, Dahl’s husband had been slated to fly to San Francisco for a Schwab branch event last week, on March 11. The event hadn’t been canceled, even though he opted out after he came down with a cold, she says.

While in San Francisco, "he was supposed to meet with one of his clients, who was 92 years old,” Dahl says, noting she had encouraged him to cancel the trip so he wouldn’t put any clients at risk.

Dahl says that while she and her husband love the company and how they’ve been treated there, she disagreed with the current course of action — which was leaving it up to managers to decide whether their teams would work from home. The company hasn’t communicated effectively with employees and their families, she says.

According to one employee, “We have gotten very little information from corporate, except a video sent to us this weekend of our CEO working from home,” says the employee, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss the matter.

"This is a complex and rapidly evolving situation for our clients and our employees and we have been communicating, sometimes multiple times a day, to get them information," the spokeswoman said. "This includes guidance on what we are doing to keep employees safe and precautions to stay home if they are ill or at high risk."

Schwab has been striving to step up efforts to enable more staff members to work remotely. On March 17, about 7,000 employees were working from home. A day later that number had climbed to 9,000, according to the company. Approximately 11,000 employees were still coming into the office before Bettinger’s March 19 announcement.

The company has had a “Pandemic Steering Committee” in place since January, according to Murtagh’s email.

“This crisis has brought forth some unpredictable issues that we are working to address now,” the email reads. A group of four executives is meeting multiple times a day to ensure the company is allowing for maximum employee flexibility while it services “historic demand.”

But Schwab’s infrastructure wasn’t set up to be able to handle this volume of remote work, according to the internal email, as well as two current employees.

One says some of his colleagues don’t have laptops or ways to access the company server from home. Another employee says Schwab lacks technical capabilities such as the ability to make a call from a laptop.

“Really none of the programs we use in the risk world are integrated,” the employee said, noting that there are approximately seven to 10 login points they have to use each day. “Anything that would make remote working possible is really tightly controlled.”

The company, which did not respond to a request for comment with regard to concerns about its remote capabilities, has been testing its virtual office systems, and had approximately 11,000 participants log on simultaneously after hours March 16. An employee in Colorado said that the test “worked well enough.”

“There’s definitely some bandwidth issues there,” he said. “They totally haven’t prepared for this.”

In Bettinger’s March 19 open letter, he urged remote workers to “use common sense to limit nonessential traffic over our network,” including unnecessary video usage.

And according to an internal email, Schwab is testing and deploying “two additional technologies” to allow client-facing staff to take calls and chat remotely, which should be “more widely available soon.”

For employees who will continue to work in the office, Schwab says it will enhance cleaning, practice social distancing, and alternate scheduling and work rotations, according to the internal email.

“As we get reports of possible exposures that affect our employees, we will act swiftly to help those affected, and follow CDC guidelines for cleaning, notifications and self-quarantines,” the email reads.

Schwab, which experienced a coronavirus scare in its office in Westlake, Texas, has not yet had any CDC-confirmed cases, according to spokeswoman Hooper. However, one employee in the company's Orlando office was showing flu-like symptoms and is being tested for the virus, the company confirmed. Schwab asked employees on the affected floor to go home as they did a thorough cleaning.

More than 9,800 people have died globally from the virus, and more than 233,000 have become infected across 145 countries as of March 19, according to data collected by The New York Times. There are more than 10,800 confirmed cases in the U.S.

Dahl is concerned about exposure, noting that she has three kids, her father is immuno-compromised and she has two sisters with diabetes.

“I'm staying away [from them], but if they need help or if they need me to stop by, I don't know if I can,” she says.

Some firms, such as Merrill Lynch, have closed offices in San Francisco after the city’s Department of Public Health issued an order March 16 that all individuals are to “shelter at their place of residence.” The order exempts some essential businesses, such as banking and financial services.

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Wells Fargo says it is permitting some employees to work from home, but still staffing offices. “Customer-facing and some noncustomer-facing Wells Fargo employees will continue to work from Wells Fargo offices to serve customers, support operations or support related activities such as business continuity planning,” a representative for the bank said in a statement. “The goal of our approach is to benefit both employees who can work from home and employees who cannot by having fewer people present across our sites and allowing for more social distancing.”

Fidelity, which was already instructing employees to work remotely, has some workers in the office. A spokeswoman declined to say how many, and why they didn’t have the capability to work remotely. Pershing, which had an employee test positive for coronavirus, closed an impacted floor until March 23, but still has its offices open.

As to whether these companies are moving fast enough, some employees and their families are nervous.

“I don't want it to be too late,” Dahl says. “I don't want, when everyone goes back and resumes their normal lives, that the people that I know and love and care about have been affected because Schwab was too far behind.”

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