How did Citi initially respond to the coronavirus pandemic? It bought “every personal computer imaginable,” said Jane Fraser, Citi president and CEO of global consumer banking.
Citi, like so many companies, moved most employees to remote work amid the COVID-19 outbreak—with exceptions for some branch and critical infrastructure workers—and the computer purchases ensured that staffers who had to work from home were well-equipped to do so.
The shift happened without a hitch, Fraser told Fortune last week. In fact, “we closed the books for the bank without one person from finance in the office two days earlier than we normally do,” she said.
With that immediate fire drill over, concerns about the longer-term effects of the pandemic and workers’ extended work-from-home routine have emerged.
One worry was about Citi’s summer analysts. The bank in April announced a change: It would give full-time job offers to all interns in New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo, so long as they graduated and met the minimum requirements of Citi’s abbreviated, fully virtual summer program.
Many of the interns would’ve received offers anyway, but the early action took “the stress out of the system” amid the unprecedented circumstances, Fraser said. “This way they’ll make the most of the experience…rather than stressing about, ‘How am I able to show myself when I’m not sitting there with my manager?’’’
The crisis offers an opportunity to “smash some of the myths of how you’ve done stuff in the past and come up with new ways that will just make talent perform better,” she said. If employees feel that the organization supports them, “they do a good job looking after each other on their teams and after our clients.”
“It’s such a simple thing,” she said. “But you often can forget that in a big organization.”
Fortune’s interview with Fraser is the latest in a series that asks female business leaders—including those who appear on Fortune’s annual Most Powerful Women in Business lists—to talk about leading through the public health and economic crisis. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Fortune: Citi has arguably endured the initial effects of the coronavirus crisis better than most. It hasn’t laid off any workers; it gave $1,000 bonuses to 75,000 of its lowest-paid employees. Its business is still essential to customers and clients. What about in the longer-term; how do you see the bank’s business changing, if at all?
Fraser: You’ve certainly got to pivot to digital; the use of channels will change a lot. Folks will want less face-to-face. When you want advice, you want to talk to a human being, and thank goodness. But when it comes to paying bills, sending money around…all the service things will get supercharged to digital; that’s one big change.
Another is the way we interact with clients. We’ve been putting a lot of work into how you make the Zoom experience better than the meeting experience: how you use [Zoom] Rooms—you can break people up [into groups], you can bring people in, and you can use experts much more productively than when they had to travel. I think we’ll see a lot less travel to client meetings; clients not wanting it and everyone being much more comfortable in a virtual environment.
The areas we’ll have to put thought into are going to be the cultural side of things. If you join an institution and you have more of a remote experience, how do you assimilate into that culture; how do you feel that sense of belonging? There really is something missing from just the interactions you have when you see someone at work. It’s gotta be more orchestrated. Those are some of the areas where we have to make sure organizations don’t lose their soul and lose the connection and warmth [of] human beings.
What management lessons or principles are you drawing on as you face this unprecedented crisis? What, if any, road map are you following?
Our head of crisis management was in charge of the 9/11 response for New York City, so he is used to how to do this and our medical team as well. First, you have to make decisions at crisis speed, and you have to go into more of a command and control approach. You have to use data to drive decisions; that’s even more important for the return [to the office]. Our employees…everyone has been fearful of the return: “Would it drive off a date? Would I go back?” In practice, it’s much more about, When is it safe to go back? And what data are we going to use so people know that it is safe to return? Things like public transport, community spread, health care services being back online. Decisions [are] being driven by data and then [communicated] transparently, over and over again, so our people understand how they are made. [With that approach], there’s a lot more faith, [rather than it being] a grand pronouncement.
Another principle is about helping our customers. The last crisis was a financial crisis at its root; this is a health care crisis. Our job is to be part of the solution here. One of the principles we’ve had is with government programs. We view it as our job to help administer those programs and get money into people’s hands—not to make money from them. There’s a big effort with small business in the U.S.…We’re going to donate all our net profit to small-business charities and funds because it sits ill with us that we’d make money off small businesses that are going through such a tough time.
What data in particular are you monitoring as you consider returning to the office?
A lot of it is around community spread. What’s the status of the disease, and have we had a sustainable period [of containment]? Have health care services returned to normal so if you have another illness can you go to the hospital and get treated? What’s the state of public infrastructure? For our people in a big city, is it safe to commute in, and, if not, can we provide alternatives?
Then it’s looking at which local governments or states have started opening up. But we don’t rush to go back. We learned this in Hong Kong when the first wave ended; we kept everyone at home. A lot of people moved back into offices. We said, “Just wait; let’s see, because it takes about two or three weeks before you start seeing hospitalizations rise.” Sure enough, there was a resurgence, and everyone had to go back home again. I think our employees felt relieved that we’d waited and not pushed them into the office. We’re guided by what local governments say, but we’re not going to front-run them or we’re going to wait and see how it goes.
What—if any—good do you think will come from this crisis?
You see human beings for who they are in a wonderfully authentic way. Like, I love it [on virtual calls] when someone’s kid runs in, or the printer goes off with someone’s homework, or the cat walks across the screen, or you hear the kids screaming in the background…and it’s very equalizing. On a Zoom call, you can be the CEO or you can be an analyst; you’re occupying the same real estate on that screen. So I see it flattening organizations a lot more.
The bit that I think we all hope for is that we don’t leave people behind in the process. Running a consumer bank you really see it; a more compassionate approach to running companies, to how we look after customers…I really hope that comes through, because if it doesn’t, we’ll end up with even more polarization. We can all work from home, but there are a lot of people who tend to be lower income who can’t, and they have to get back. There’s already more of a recognition that we can’t just be in our microcosm; we’ve got to have some responsibilities here.
In some parts of the world, some of Citi’s offices have reopened. What do those workspaces look like now?
In the lobbies, there’s one way in and one way out. In the elevator, there are footprints as to where you stand. You don’t want to talk to someone in an elevator, because you’re closer and droplets go…So people are asked not to talk in elevators.
There are one-way stairways and one-way walking paths around the office, so you’re not crossing with folks. Chairs are spaced out. There’s plexiglass between cubicles that had been completely open. (They’re glass so you don’t feel as if you’re in a cell, which is very important.)
We’re staggering hours, so in a bigger city, [employees] can come in earlier or later if they’re worried about commuting. The cafeterias and buffets are shut so we’re giving people more time at lunch.
Most of the client work is still remote. There are a few client meetings going on in person, but everyone’s got used to Zoom so they’re using it that way.
People who are vulnerable, we pay them, and they stay at home.
You’ve got silly things like etiquette for the bathrooms, because the spacing is not so good in there. And there’s a lot of cleaning; a lot of visible cleaning.
It’s not like it used to be, but it’s not so very different either. So for those who do want to go back, they don’t go back and say, “Oh, this is worse than being at home.” There are some pros and cons. Quite a few people are working a few days in the office and then at home the rest, and we’re fine with that.
If [employees] don’t want to come back [to the office], they don’t have to, as long as they’re able to work from home, or if they’re ill or vulnerable. For some folks childcare is a big issue; you’ve gotta give people flexibility.
What’s the biggest way your professional life has changed amid this crisis?
People do look for leadership at a time like this. Being a woman has real power and strength to it. I can be much more vulnerable in certain areas; talking more about the human dimensions of this than some of my male colleagues feel comfortable [with], and I don’t feel that’s in any way soft or weaker. I actually think it’s much more powerful. I find that I’ve been able to have a conversation with our people, across the bank, that I wouldn’t have been able to have in that same way had we not had a crisis. You can build a different relationship with the people in the organization than you’ve been able to before.
What’s the biggest way your personal life has changed in all of this?
The thing I’ve personally found the hardest is there is no line between the office and home. I think we’ve all found that hard. It’s too easy to keep on working because it’s so easy to find everyone and connect with everyone. Someone told me the other day, “You’re a wartime general. It’s not sustainable. You’ve gotta get into more of a [business as usual] mode. And if you’re worth anything as a leader, you’ve gotta start role-modeling that, because there’s no way the organization’s going to change unless you do” Hard advice to follow.
Have you developed any tricks for cutting yourself off from work?
I get very hungry. I get absolutely ravenous; it’s intense work! So at lunch, I take a bit of time to go and chop some vegetables. It’s very therapeutic, and I switch off. The same in the evening. But my poor husband and one of my teenage sons are [joining me] this weekend, and they’re gonna be on cooking duty. I’ll have to find something else to do.
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