Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? ...Financial Ombudsman Service

8 Apr 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

People Management finds out what employers are doing to tackle the logistical, financial and staff wellbeing implications of the global pandemic

The organisation

The Financial Ombudsman Service was set up by parliament in 2001 to resolve disputes between financial businesses and their customers, and employs more than 2,700 members of staff at its offices in London and Coventry. Case workers resolve a wide range of financial disputes concerning PPI, pet insurance, pensions and payday loans. 

Impact so far

In many ways the organisation was fortunate. Having already adopted a ‘smarter working’ concept, 600 employees were already primed to work remotely ahead of the pandemic. The challenge was rapidly increasing this number to 2,800 remote workers in a matter of days, alongside a significant number of contractors. 

The collaboration between IT and HR departments ensured the workforce was able to continue solving disputes, and manage the inevitable spike in concerned customer calls and Covid-19-related cases. Because of the nature of its service to the public, the organisation has not furloughed any members of staff. 

“There is a real need for us to continue working,” says HR director Caroline Nugent. “All of our staff are, in effect, essential to help the public out at this time. If we keep people working, we solve cases. So it was crucial [to our customers] we got everyone up and running.”

Security 

If the recent legal case involving Morrisons has taught HR anything, it’s that vicarious liability for data breaches rests on precarious legal ground. Nugent explains that, thanks to smarter working, policies surrounding remote working security standards were already in place and easily adaptable. 

The Financial Ombudsman Service has also adapted its data protection e-learning module to reflect the current home working situation and potential key areas to be mindful of. “Ordinarily if you're working remotely we would expect you to be working in a space that isn’t surrounded by children, other family members or flatmates. You had to have a totally secure working environment,” explains Nugent.

“But at the moment you may have a whole household working together so we are looking at reissuing all the guidance on data protection and the GDPR so it's fresh in people's minds. You don't want your kids having access to the computer because that is still a breach of data and compromises the secure environment. So We are taking preventative measures, and reminding people to lock their computers, even around trusted family members. For the sake of three buttons [ctrl, alt, delete] you could prevent an awful lot of heartache.”

The security measures in place for remote workers originally consisted of around 800 dongle keys that would need to be requested so people could ensure their technology was secure. Since then, Nugent and the IT teams have set employees up with a secure facility so they can use their personal computers, but maintain strong protection. 

Reasonable adjustments 

“We’ve got one worker who is blind, but we managed to provide everything they needed to get them up and running,” says Nugent, who also managed to get her own specialist chair, keyboard and mouse couriered to her home before the office officially shut its doors. 

There are also other employees within the organisation who require reasonable adjustments. “The HR team really knew what to do to support our workers and help them work effectively,” says Nugent. “We have arranged for some people to have a chair brought out, but a lot of it is Dragon and other specialist software for people who are dyslexic, which IT is able to set up remotely.” 

Onboarding 

Making sure current employees have all the right technology in place is key, but the organisation is also expecting to soon welcome a cohort of 40 new starters. “The majority of new starters have personal equipment they can use, so we are in the process of having IT contact them and show them how to download our programmes and security systems before they start,” says Nugent. 

In terms of managing the onboarding process remotely, Nugent says Skype and video conferencing has been the preferred method for making them feel welcome and part of the team: “We have just transferred everything we would do in the office to digital, including social moments. We are just using whatever tech is out there. 

“Alongside meetings with managers and the rest of the team, we are trying to keep high levels of social engagement through regular phone calls and video meetings, to maintain those water cooler moments. This helps the new starters feel at ease to ask questions, get clarity and put their mind at rest.”

Training 

“Our new case workers will all need to be taught, and our existing employees will need some refreshers, so we have come together as an academy through Webex to have a virtual lesson with the trainer,” Nugent explains. 

“The benefit of Webex is people can be trained in a remote online setting as if they were still in the classroom, so they can ask questions and get clarification – especially as our training is quite bespoke and in depth in terms of legality.” 

Employee relations casework 

When asked whether the company has had to conduct any remote disciplinaries, Nugent says: “We have a team working on what we call ‘employee relations casework’ such as sickness, performance and conduct. While the employee and employee representative are in a virtual room, it is sometimes slightly more challenging if you are not physically in a room.” 

Nugent adds that she “doesn’t see how it would work” over the phone, preferring videoconferencing as it allows you to see the other person’s body language.

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