This story originally appeared in the July edition of DS News.
While some servicers had staff working remotely prior to COVID-19 the onset of shelter-in-place orders for many municipalities and state governments, at the end of February, most servicers had the bulk of their staff working in centralized offices. By the end of March, most of them had all but a few personnel working from home, requiring a dramatic reevaluation of working arrangements, management techniques, and other facets of day-to-day work.
Seeing reports of the emerging pandemic starting in late January, Mr. Cooper Group executives began discussing remote working strategies in late January. The company adjusted its teams to work from home in only five days in the middle of March. Prior to the pandemic, the company had less than 10% of its staff working from home, a figure that grew to 97% by the start of the spring, according to Kelly Ann Doherty, Chief People and Communications Officer for Mr. Cooper Group. What was experienced by Mr. Cooper, the third-largest servicer in the country, was typical of many in the industry.“This is something no one ever envisioned,” said Wes Iseley, Senior Managing Director for Carrington Holding Company.
“The industry has rallied. The industry as a whole has done a wonderful job. We’ve all worked together to share best practices on what is working.”While few within the industry had seriously anticipated a health crisis of this scale, most of the executives DS News spoke with for this piece said they were following the progress of the pandemic before March and shifted their workforces to remote working even ahead of any government shelter-in-place rules.
As with many other industries, there were numerous challenges servicers had to address when moving from centralized offices to remote work. For this piece, DS News spoke to representatives of Carrington Holding Company, Mr. Cooper Group, and other servicers to learn how they handled and are continuing to work through historic challenges, even as volumes began peaking due to the record number of forbearances.
Technology topped the list of concerns when management at Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp., an interim servicer, decided to shift to a work-from-home environment in mid-March, said Kim Yowell, EVP for Servicing. Since the move was made before any shelter-in-place orders were invoked, the servicer was able to dispatch an IT specialist to aid with initial setup of laptops and docking stations (taken from the office). Other servicers also had IT heavily involved to ensure the technology worked at home much as it did in the office.
Another option, contained in an advisory from the National Mortgage Servicing Association (NMSA), are newer infrastructure services, such as Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS), which are designed to securely connect and scale remote workforces without business disruptions. Amazon Workspaces is one example, which has encryption protocols to encrypt client-based traffic in transit and at rest. Many servicers simply moved equipment like laptops, docking stations, desktops, and headsets from offices to home environments, with IT helping with any setup issues. A few servicers, including Mr. Cooper and AHP Servicing, purchased additional laptops and similar equipment for workers to use at home prior to moving their workforces.
Kenneth Daniel, President of AHP Servicing, said it was fortuitous that the company moved early on those purchases. As servicers and other businesses moved their workforces from centralized offices to remote work, laptops, monitors, and similar equipment became difficult or impossible to find and delivery times were extended from a day or two to weeks or more.
Doherty added that the immediate concerns were ensuring that staff had internet communications and dual monitors needed to perform their jobs. After meeting those immediate needs—particularly as volume spiked with the jump in forbearances the first few weeks of the pandemic—the company started addressing more minor issues like keyboards, advanced headsets, etc.
“We wanted to go from just the basics to get the job done to an optimal work environment,” Doherty said. “While most of the country has access to broadband communications, that isn’t the case in certain pockets. We had to see who had solid internet connections,” Doherty told DS News. “For those who didn’t have them, we started handing out Wi-Fi devices so that they had solid connections.”Patrick Coon, Senior Managing Director, Servicing for Home Point Financial Corp., said, that while all staff was already equipped with laptops and monitors prior to the pandemic, Home Point offered a stipend for remote employees to offset costs associated with working from home.
Servicers who were using cloud-based communication systems said they offered advantages because all they had to do was move headsets or headset/handset combinations to another location with internet connectivity to mimic the office telecommunications environment. Jane Mason, CEO of Clarifire, said that there are other, smaller communications issues that have been new to people suddenly working from home, such as proper lighting and appropriate attire for video calls.
Collaboration is Key
Most servicers are conducting team meetings via Zoom (the most popular option among the servicers that DS News interviewed), Google Meets, or similar applications, with many conducting more team and more one-on-one meetings than they had previously to help ensure that everyone is engaged and feels they are integral in their companies.
“We want our team members to know that they are vital to us,” Doherty said. She added that one strong indicator of how Mr. Cooper Group’s managers are engaging with teams is the results of the pulse surveys the company conducts. The surveys are used to solicit employee feedback on a variety of issues to help the company continue to improve its employee engagement. Last year, 70% of workers replied to one survey that they felt a “family” or “team” feeling within the company. This year, that same survey showed an improvement to 75%.
“That really spoke to how well our team members are working with each other,” Doherty said.
Home Point uses daily surveys to understand and address and assist with any COVID-19-related problems or technical issues the remote staff is experiencing, Coon said. Some of the biggest changes for servicers have been related to simply managing a decentralized workforce in the absence of the natural interactions co-workers and managers experience in an office setting.
“The biggest adjustment to working remotely has been determining the right amount of communication to keep everyone in the know,” said Dawn Adams, SVP of Default Servicing for RoundPoint Mortgage Servicing Corp. “We want to be transparent, but we do not want to overwhelm people with communication.”Nevertheless, regular, ongoing communications are critical to help staff work through their own challenges of dealing with the pandemic, servicers agree.“We meet with our teams daily and have an all-hands meeting with our chairman every week,” Coon said. “We have huddle sessions the first thing in the morning. We’re trying to bring the office to the staff.”
“It’s important that no team member ever feel isolated in today’s environment, so we work hard to give the team that continual sense of community. We are all in this together and must support each other in any way possible,” Adams said.“The company culture is very important to us,” Doherty said. “We’ve been incredibly proud of our teams. Our people have been very productive addressing customer needs and in supporting each other.”
Doherty said Mr. Cooper Group is communicating with employees three times as much as previously, including videos from the CEO, biweekly leadership calls, virtual huddles, emails, and other communications. In addition to more time spent communicating with their teams, Fairway supervisors have spent additional time analyzing metrics to ensure workers continue to meet or exceed KPIs, Yowell said. “We wanted to make sure our team members working from home were quickly trained,” Doherty said. Doherty said Mr. Cooper utilized WebEx to deliver training to more than 1,000 employees on the new forbearance plans offered by the government as a result of the pandemic. Other servicers told DS News they made use of Zoom or other applications for similar purposes.
Some larger companies with servicing and origination operations had to quickly move people from other areas to servicing, meaning a need to train people on different skill sets to get them up to speed quickly, Mason said. The change to a remote work environment has also necessitated more individual coaching and training, Iseley said.
Home is Where the Challenges Are
Central offices are designed to keep background noise to a minimum. Not so the typical home office. In addition to the occasional barking dog, loud lawnmower, or other such distractions, there are also interruptions from family—even more so once children began homeschooling in the spring.“Another hurdle we encountered early on was thinking outside the box for our team members that are juggling other responsibilities while at home,” Adams said. “For example, team members that have children at home or who are caregivers to a loved one. For those folks, they are pulled in both directions, which can be physically and emotionally exhausting. In order to combat some of that stress, we offer flexible scheduling whenever possible.”
It has become more the norm than not to hear people or pets in the background during a meeting, Adams added. “When that happens, we take the opportunity to engage with our extended RoundPoint family. Really, the only way to get through these tough times is to have some fun and laugh when you can.”Other servicers said that everyone knows “we’re all in this together,” so managers and customers are much more tolerant of the background noises common in many home-based offices. For work-at-home employees, NMSA recommends designating a workspace and ground rules for interacting with others; being clear from the outset as to where your working space is and the hours you’ll be working; locking your machine at all times when not in use; and leveraging technology and tools to eliminate manual printing of documents.
Office environments tend to have the latest security precautions. Servicers are working with sensitive financial and personally identifiable information, meaning there are severe potential fines, as well as other business and reputational risks, for any potential security breaches. For the most part, servicers had workers take home their desktops or laptops from the office, so those already had company-installed security precautions. Home Point Financial Services Corp. and other services also added virtual private network capabilities for staff—another of NMSA’s recommendations designed to provide an extra level of security.
While most had access to laptops or desktops, there were some at Home Point Financial that needed to get new machines. In those instances, company IT worked with employees to ensure that the devices had all of the necessary security protocols, Coon said.
Security is also a regular part of training for many servicers—many of whom emphasized that they stepped up training once the pandemic hit.NMSA also recommends establishing and implementing well-defined security awareness training programs, with programs and security awareness notifications delivered to employees on an ongoing basis, regardless of where employees are working. Other NMSA security precautions for employees working from home include implementing a secure mail protocol such as Mimecast; using a third-party managed detection security vendor so that a security operation center monitors all network entry points, internal and external facing, for threats, viruses, malicious network intrusion, and unusual activities around the clock; and implementing a third-party identity provider such as BitGlass to increase control and authentication, and to prevent data leakage from mobile devices such as iOS and Android cell phones and tablets.
Balancing Work and Play
Without the need to commute and without the need to drive children to practices, school, etc., and similar time-consuming tasks, servicing workers can spend more time on the job without losing time for personal activities. This can be both a blessing and a curse, according to those we spoke with. NMSA recommends maintaining regular working hours, including planned breaks—planning working hours and penciling in suitable breaks allows employees to focus on what needs to be done and when. Carrington has advised its employees to stay focused within their scheduled time periods so that work doesn’t bleed over into personal time, Isley said.
“We want to make sure people aren’t overworking themselves.”Some servicers pointed to the need for more flexible schedules, particularly since many employees now had children home from school.“There have been a few instances of burnout,” Yowell said. “We’ve reached out to people to make sure that they manage their PTO properly. Once they have a certain amount, they can’t accrue any more.”
Daniel said that many team members have been able to spend more time on the job because they no longer need to waste time commuting—sentiment other expressed as well. He added that it’s easier for remote staff to take a quick break while working from home than from the office. The latter requires taking an elevator each way and going through security to re-enter the building. “There’s more flexibility when you’re remote.”However, without managers being able to oversee staff as closely as they can when in the office, AHP asked employees to fill out reports on what they worked on each day. Daniel, Coon, and others said being more flexible with schedules has helped as well.
Coon added that his company recognized that many workers had delayed or forgone planned vacations since travel and lodging options had become limited. In April, however, the company insisted that workers take at least one day off to balance life/work and completely away from anything work-related.
Servicers interviewed for this piece agreed that the pandemic has heightened stress levels for many. While they’ve worked hard to help ensure that staff has the same technical and work-related management support that they had in the centralized office, there are workers who know someone who has suffered from COVID-19, entertainment and vacation options are limited, and there are other stress factors in play as well. As such, many companies within the industry are taking extra steps to try to lift workers’ spirits.“There’s a lot of anxiety when you’re not prepared for the work-at-home environment,” Mason said.RoundPoint offers regular exercise options, tips on working from home, options to become more involved by giving back to the community, etc.
Mr. Cooper Group offers a robust employee assistance program providing employees with access to counselors and resources to help them manage through emotional stress. Additionally, the company launched an online education platform including training courses, articles, and podcasts to address a variety of issues such as caring for children or parents living with team members (Doherty said half of the Mr. Cooper Group staff is doing so), and other “life” issues that may have resulted during the pandemic. The company has also been streaming live virtual exercise sessions and different challenges (e.g., push-ups, steps), as well as other videos designed to encourage connectivity with team members, Doherty said. Home Point has workers share videos and photos of family and friends and host contests for best photos/videos within certain categories (e.g., at-home haircuts) to try to keep employees engaged and lighten the mood. Gift cards are awarded to contest winners.In addition to offering virtual exercise, AHP has been offering virtual fitness and dietary programs. Clarifire, meanwhile, has offered streaming cooking classes to its employees.
Back to the Office?
While most servicers moved from their centralized offices to home offices relatively quickly—typically within a couple of weeks or less—those interviewed told DS News that there was no rush to return to the previous working environment, due primarily to concerns about the safety and health of employees. One notable exception is AHP, which saw most of its small servicing staff return to the offices at the Chicago Board of Trade building once the city permitted it at the beginning of June. Daniel said that the building is set up for safety—requiring masks for entry, no-touch elevators that go only to designated floors, etc. Some staff will continue to work remotely but will still come into the office once or twice a week.
According to Yowell, Fairway officials have already decided to have the servicing team remain in their remote office environments through the remainder of the year. Other servicers haven’t announced anything as definitive, though they all say they will be extremely conservative in their transition back to centralized offices. Another factor—far behind the health and safety of the staff—is that servicers have found that staff has not only kept up productivity and other key performance indicators but, in some instances, have actually improved on them since moving to home-based environments.“As a result of our approach, our RoundPoint teams are doing amazingly well working from home,” Adams said. “They have taken adversity in stride and continue to meet, if not exceed, the goals set forth.”