Top of Mind
By Directors and Boards

Greg Carmichael, Chairman, President and CEO: Fifth Third Bancorp; Director, Encompass Health

I spent 18 years as a CIO in manufacturing and then became a CIO in the banking industry. But very seldom have CIOs risen to the chair and CEO position. I think that’s because they tend to focus on technology instead of business. I’ve always taken the business approach first. Everything starts with the business — and technology is not the answer to everything. In any event, my background is very unusual, and it’s given me a perspective on what we’ve discovered about work locations as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

Hardware and software have evolved, along with increased bandwidth, to create an environment where you can truly simulate your office at home. My desktop at home looks like my desktop at work, and I can create a realistic work-at-home environment. Because we had already planned to have the right software and, more importantly, software licenses in place, it didn’t take long for Fifth Third Bancorp to spin up 15,000 to 16,000 people to work from home. Within a week, we were fundamentally good to go.

One important thing you learn when you combine a technology and a business background is that technology is not always the solution to your problems. It can certainly create other issues. For example, when there’s a tech issue, it’s harder for our IT team to fix the home equipment and software. Our team members’ home equipment isn’t standardized; our employees are on different operating systems and have different internet connections. We have had to be very thoughtful about how we serve the technical needs of a large group of people working from home.

On the positive side, the crisis has forced us to further automate our processes and procedures. Some of our work has to be done on site — for example, we provide lockbox services for inbound payments. But we’re increasingly focused on what we can automate in our current operating environment. We’re deploying Robotics Process Automation (RPA) in our call centers, using keystroking to create self-populating fields.

We’ve begun to think deeply about whether we need all of the office square footage we use. Do we need as much space? The answer is probably not. But we also need to address our workforce culture. There are a lot of jobs that can be done effectively at home. We have shown that we can manage and monitor productivity remotely. But how can we maintain our corporate culture? As an employee, how do you maintain a career path when you’re not visible? If you work from home for two to three years, do you get bypassed? Do you not have an equal ability to show your teamwork and collaborative skills?

Corporate America had already moved to open offices to foster agile, collaborative teams — the idea of all being in one room, sharing. But of course, open offices are not workable in a pandemic. So how do we create that open communication effectively when team members are remote?

Perhaps we look at bringing our workforce into the office in thirds — with two-thirds on site and a third remotely, and every three months rotate in and out a third. Given that we’re a commercial lender, we have been forecasting up to 30% less demand for office space. Working in thirds can accommodate less office space usage and still allow us to address the positive cultural and career elements of being together. Something like this could be an ideal combination.

Greg Carmichael is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Fifth Third Bancorp, the ninth- largest U.S.-based consumer bank, with assets of $185 billion. He joined the bank in 2003 as executive vice president and CIO. He serves on the board of Encompass Health, the board of trustees of Bethesda Inc. and the board of the American Bankers Association.

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