Mona Malone is Chief Human Resources Officer and Head of People & Culture for BMO Financial Group. As a member of the bank’s Executive Committee, she leads and shapes BMO's efforts to fuel our growth strategy with its most valuable asset – its people.

In this role, she is accountable for the People & Culture agenda at BMO, which includes Human Resources, Corporate Communications, the Office of the Chief Executive Officer, BMO Quebec and the bank’s corporate university, BMO IFL. Mona has held roles in human resources and in the business over her 20 years at BMO. She was a Retail Banking Sales Leader at BMO in the GTA and VP Product and Marketing Officer at ePost, in addition to a range of senior HR roles such as CHRO of Canada’s Personal and Commercial Banking group and Chief Learning & Talent Officer.

What follows here is our conversation with Mona - edited for length and clarity.

Agnes Uhereczky: March 2020 saw an unprecedented shift to remote work, the choice of course influenced by the global pandemic. Could you walk us through the steps BMO implemented in terms of setting up a large scale work from home arrangement? What were the biggest milestones to shifting the workforce to home-based working?

Mona Malone: Thanks, Agnes. When COVID hit, first in our Asian operations in January and then more significantly in North America in March, we very rapidly moved 30.000 employees to work from home and had about 15.000 that were still working in branches and worksites to remain serving customers. We approached our pandemic response in three phases. The first phase was to mobilize and protect. The second phase was to sustain and adapt. And, the third phase is winning in the new normal. Safeguarding our employees was one of the biggest and most important aspects of the first phase while also providing continuity of banking services for our retail business and institutional clients. We had over 15.000 frontline employees working at BMO locations and focusing on providing health and safety precautions, physical distancing, and installing plexiglass shields at the teller wickets, and implementing deep-cleaning of our facilities, for all examples of things that we pivoted to very quickly.

So for the other 30.000 employees, it was shifting to a work from home model with significant technology support. Over a few days, we mobilized, to be able to have full technology support for these 30.000 employees working from home with their technology. From a human perspective we recognized that employees were worried, they were struggling with a great deal of uncertainty, not just in their work-lives but in their home lives. We created a parallel hub of communication for managers and employees so that they had the information that they needed. We called it the response hub. As the pandemic progressed we expanded the response hub to include wellness, mental health resources, tools for managers on how to manage remote teams. We invited employees both in the office and working remotely to participate in conference calls and video calls with health experts, to understand and to be informed about the pandemic and COVID-19, and to be able to give them confidence in the safety precautions that we were putting in place. We also rolled out a virtual health app globally to all of our employees and this allowed people to not have to go into clinics or hospitals if they had conditions with family members, children for example, and this was a huge positive employee benefit that our workforce really valued at this time.

On the technology side, we rolled out Microsoft Teams and held a number of practice sessions so people were proficient in terms of using the communication and overcoming bumps, so it was not only a technology rollout, it was really about making sure people felt proficient in using Microsoft and MS Teams. We had super-users that were coaching and helping teams along the way. When I think about this, pre-pandemic, it would have taken months to plan the launch of a technology tool, like the rolling out of Microsoft Teams to over 45.000 people, but as other companies, have discovered COVID-19 has acted as a kind of innovation accelerator. What happened is everything was happening much faster than it would have if we weren't in a pandemic.

Now, we are turning ourselves to thinking about what happened, as people can return to the office environment, and for us, it's not about going back to the way things used to be, I think there has been a disruption, and as with any large market disruption, it's an opportunity for change.

This is how we are seeing it at BMO. We had 9 months to adapt to different things and to be able to be productive in a different environment. I think as we look to what comes, thinking about more hybrid work models will be really important, and we are going to test and learn different approaches that will have some people in the office, some people in a home environment, and some sometimes at home and sometimes at work. That's what we mean by hybrid.

So, what's informing this, are some key principles which are diversity and inclusion, productivity, and a continual test and learn approach. By diversity, we mean that we make sure that we are not leaving segments of the population out, based on the choices we are making, either because they had underlying health conditions or are not able to return to the office, or that they are coping with childcare issues. On productivity, it's thinking about making sure that irrespective of what somebody's role is, that they can be high performing given the work environment that we are creating. And, when we think about test and learn, there is no playbook for this, and so trying things, learning from it, thinking about it through these three dimensions and continuing to iterate.

Agnes Uhereczky: BMO says that in the future a large percentage of its employees may switch to blended home offices, and explore a more hybrid way of working. What are the critical success factors for managing a distributed teleworking workforce in the long term?

Mona Malone: That is a very good question, and I think that it is a question that many companies are thinking about and quite honestly struggling with. Because while we had 9 months of experience working in a remote environment due to the pandemic, it is very different to think about doing it on a sustained basis. Here are some of the ways that we were thinking about it.

One is to understand the nature of work people are doing and when it matters that you are physically together. For example, when you are trying to orient a new member to the team, it might be important as part of that early tenure, early onboarding, that they have some face-to-face time with colleagues. Also, when you think about a new manager taking over a team that may also be one of those times. Or, when a team is trying to whiteboard and innovate and collaborate. And, so we are thinking about it in terms of events, in terms of people's employment experience, but also the type of work. We are also building tools and we called that the New Ways of Working Guide to help managers and employees think about how to work effectively when you are in a remote environment. How you use the tools, how you take advantage of the resources, how you make sure you are having inclusive management practices in terms of hearing different people's perspectives, all of these things are going into it.

And, I think, it's also important, related to this question you are asking, to think about mobilizing a hybrid work environment. It's not people coming and going when they want, it is a highly coordinated experience which involves technology and tools, as you think about navigating which office seat somebody is sitting in one day to the next. How you are utilizing the capacity that you have. How you are continuing to build proficiency because it doesn't mean everyone will be in the office or everyone will be at home, so how you use those collaboration tools throughout your day and making sure that people are proficient with them is really important. So, there are a lot of things that are both technology, process and culture that come into making this effective over time.

Agnes Uhereczky: Working from home on a permanent or long-term basis doesn't come naturally to everyone, and perhaps it may be quite difficult for middle managers and senior leaders if they have to manage an entirely distributed team. What has BMO put in place to support managers and team-leaders in this aspect? How can senior leaders role-model the desired behaviour and norms while working from home?

Mona Malone: That is a great question. And I think that there are a couple of principles that are important here. One is flexibility. Each person's situation has been different and great managers know their employees and they have candid conversations, and they are conscious of considerations that need to be taken based on the employee. We have individuals that are juggling homeschooling with their children, eldercare or stressed and concerned because of the pandemic and health concerns for a loved one or themselves. There is also an increase in terms of mental health and isolation. So, being open to having a conversation and a check-in with the employees, not just on the output of the work that they are doing, but on how they are doing is important. So the sense of human conversations as part of the coaching and the check-ins the managers are doing with employees is key. BMO started from a place of strengths here. We had a global leading engagement with our employees and high strength in the managers’ side, but boy this created a new challenge for managers across our organisation.

I'll share with you a few stories, real tangible stories, of what managers were doing. In some of our teams where there were professionals at home balancing childcare and homeschooling, they encouraged their employees to put in their calendars the time that they blocked because couples were tradeoffs and in the morning or the afternoon overseeing young children and then they would continue their work into the evening. Being adaptable in terms of when people could be doing their work became an important consideration, so flexibility.

The second thing was how to celebrate really important times in an employee's career. So, one example here, was, we have had over the 9 months retirement of employees that have had 40-year careers with BMO Financial Groups. And, I just have been amazed at the creativity and personalization of these celebrations. I want to share with you two examples. One of our Commercial Managers in Chicago organized a drive-by honk for his employee that was retiring after 40 years. Employees came in their car and did a drive-by honk as she picked her things from the office. It was so touching that the local media picked up the story, and it was so personal. Another example was a manager that held a Microsoft Teams virtual retirement for an individual. They had different employees tell stories about that employee career and we did a virtual trivia using an online tool about the history of the person's career. It was fun, it was touching, and it was personal. And the sense of adaptation and innovation, but also what hasn't changed is the importance of human connections, celebrating important milestones, and recognizing people.

You also mentioned a point about productivity which is important. We are in the business of serving customers, making sure the continuity of banking has been provided and we are meeting the needs of our customers in the times of uncertainty. We have had more customer outreaches in our business banking and in our commercial and wealth management area than we had pre-COVID. Our accounts team has been proactively calling customers and so for those roles, we have been watching the metrics that tell us that those specific roles are productive and they can ensure that people's technology tools are working. We are listening to what's getting in the way, and that we are solving and removing barriers so that those teams can be as productive as possible in serving customers. For us, the ultimate metric of this is our Net Promoter Score. And this year we actually saw an increase in many of our businesses in terms of our customer loyalty metrics, which is just phenomenal because being able to be there for our customers through this very unique year is what it's all about.

Agnes Uhereczky: What is the perception of customers about a remote workforce at BMO? Do you have any insight into their reaction to distributed teams, and whether they had any feedback on this?

Mona Malone: I'll share a couple of stories in terms of impact on customers. First, I think there were some areas where customers didn't know the person they were talking to was in a physical office location or home location. For example, our entire Toronto contact centre team could work from home. We have had some people in our contact centre facilities, and we have had some answering calls and emails from home sights. They are still having great conversations with customers, they are delivering great service, and it is completely transparent to the customer what location they are in. And I think that's what's most important, it's about are we being productive, are we meeting the customers' needs, are we having those important conversations irrespective of where the employee is sitting.

We also have focused on moving our talent in the organisation to help respond more quickly to customers. So, for example, in the early stages of the pandemic in Canada and in the US, a huge focus was on delivering a customer relief programme in terms of supporting personal small business and commercial clients. We had to move an additional 600 people to help support those teams to make sure that we were getting those relief dollars to customers as quickly as possible. And this was really life-changing for those businesses, it could mean survival or not. To our ability to mobilize resources across the organisation quickly was very important and very valued. So, the letters, emails and the calls from our customers were unbelievable touching, speaking of how much they valued the outreach from their bankers but also the speed at which we have got them the customer relief programmes.

Agnes Uhereczky: The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted organizations and caused HR managers to think differently about their role. It may be especially challenging to maintain the organisational culture for a remote workforce. What steps has BMO taken to maintain the high levels of engagement of the workforce during 2020, and beyond?

Mona Malone: BMO is building from a high engagement base before we were going into the pandemic. But as with any crisis or market disruption, I think it tests any organisation, and for me, that has to mean are we acting in alignment with our purpose. Our purpose is “boldly grow the good in business and life”. This purpose informs the work we do with our customers, with our community but also with our employees. It was really through the lens of the purpose that we thought about our pandemic response. When you think about growing the good in business and life it means recognizing employees' full sense of demands. Business and life were absolutely colliding, we were working in our home, we had our pets, our children, we had healthcare concerns which we still do. All of these things were combining and people felt such a strong obligation to be doing the important work that they were doing but they also had so many additional demands on that, and so it was recognizing that and pivoting quickly in terms of the support that employees needed. And adapting and making sure that managers had tools to support their employees.

So, I think it was recognizing that while we were starting from a point of engagement the situation that employees and managers found themselves in, there was no playbook, it is completely new ground, and I think the strength of engagement management that we had going in was foundational for how people reacted, how adaptable they were, and the creativity that we saw.

But it also became a lens for us to realize that we needed to continue to innovate and come up with new ways of supporting employees. One tangible example of this was rolling out our virtual health app to employees that they need benefit during the pandemic, the access to medical and mental health practitioners, and how important that was through the pandemic. Rolling out and increasing people proficiency with technology tools fixing that you operate in ways that are new and different and they need to be able to use new tools as quickly as possible.

I'll give you a great and really practical example that brings closer to the concept as engagement to life. Every year in alignment with our purpose we do an employee giving campaign to raise money to give to our local communities. And, it is employee-led, it's leader-led, and usually, it involves a lot of face to face kickoffs and meetings and events. When we launched it this year we went out to employees and asked if people that have a talent for singing would come together and put together a song for the kick-off. And sure enough, we have had hundreds of employees respond to the casting call. We have got an amazing ensemble of talent that put together the most moving song from their home. That was done beautifully. It was a true expression of our culture. It's done remotely, emotionally connected and was completely volunteer. And so it has just absolutely blown me away from the innovation, the humanity, and the theme for our employee giving campaign this year is Together like Never Before. I think that this sums it up that even though we are physically distant we are emotionally connected. We also realized that we have a common sense of purpose. And because people felt so personally connected to the importance of our ability to give because communities around us are more at need now then they have ever been through the pandemic that employees came together in ways that are touching and impactful.

Agnes Uhereczky: Is there a way to hear and see this song somewhere?

Mona Malone: It is internal because of the copyright of the lyrics and unfortunately we can not put it on social media but it is a journey song, Don't stop believing. And I can tell you that BMO's got talent because it was fabulously done.

Agnes Uhereczky: The last question is always the same at the WorkLife HUB podcast: If you could give one advice to an HR Executive, building on your experience, for him/her to consider implementing large-scale teleworking policies for its workforce, what would be your advice?

Mona Malone: I am not sure if I can limit myself to just one but how about three? The first would be the value of human connections has never been greater. We are socially distanced but we need more human connection. We are physically distant but we need more human connection. And I think this sense of human connectivity in the post-pandemic environment is going to continue. We have recognized how much we value our social interactions, how much we miss it and I think that's gonna become an increasingly important point in the post-pandemic environment. As an HR leader that means ensuring that you are creating opportunities to have strong team effectiveness and bond between team members both at our productivity level but also at a very human level and emotional level.

Next would be Maslow's hierarchy as needs prevail in the context of during the pandemic what people cared about was their health. You could not focus on other things until people knew that they were safe and healthy. Then if you are thinking about remote workers, they did not choose that work. They need a space to work and if they do not have the tools and if the technology is not working, if the internet is not reliable, then you are not going to get any productivity. They are completely consumed with their tools and not able to focus on tasks. So really making sure that the basics work it's critically important. And people have the proficiency to use the tools in ways that help them be productive is extremely important. And this isn't just technology tools and workspace. It is also personal productivity and human resilience. So this includes things about how to be resilient, mental health, how you think about making sure that you are not sitting all day and ergonomics. We thought about tips in terms of new ways of working and it is not just how do you use Microsoft Teams and how do you connect and hold the meetings virtually, it also these other more social, more emotional and physical health aspects that need to be integrated with.

And, lastly, HR leaders should view a transition to remote work or hybrid work as an opportunity for reinvention. If I think about one of the most personal learnings I have had through COVID is that sometimes things that can feel like setbacks or disruptive are the kernels of through innovation. And I think, really looking at what are the things we can learn through this that provide an opportunity for new ways of doing things where perhaps we have had limited mindsets before.

I share a very specific example. In our capital market business, they hold annual market conferences with institutional investors and clients. It is very important, they are market-making events. And through COVID they pivoted these events to be virtual. They have had this virtual format resulting in a 26% jump in attendance from the prior year for our farm-to-market conference, and they were able to connect buyers and sellers. They were still able to create a market-making event in a virtual environment. It created a template for future BMO sponsored industry events.

I shared with you the ability for employees to motivate each other whether through songs or other mechanisms. I just think that there are lots of opportunities for what we can learn through this experience that we can carry forward. I think, lastly, from a business planning and strategy standpoint it taught us that we need to be open as we think about scenario planning. Sometimes, the future environment isn't known and we need to stay open and plan for a few different scenarios and then adapt based on information that you are getting. And, I think that's also something that's been important throughout COVID.