It was 3 a.m. on Thursday, March 12, 2020, in a small country in Europe, when I received a call from our Global Investigations & Compliance practice lead, informing me that the United States was restricting international travel back to the U.S., effective the following day at midnight, to limit spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). She suggested that our team pack up and return to the U.S., ASAP.
While we later learned that the restriction did not pertain to U.S. residents, we all thought it prudent to come home. The majority of the on-site work was complete, and the rest could be performed from our office, or virtual offices. Our team of seven flew out Friday morning and met with no resistance in achieving speedy passage back home.
Over the weekend it was clear that we should self-quarantine for at least 14 days. Fortunately, our team had enough work that could be performed at home for a few weeks. We had memorandums of interviews to write, documents to review, findings and observations to formulate and the final report to deliver. So, the quarantine did not impact us significantly.
Our biggest challenges, however, involved the engagements we were planning to begin over the next few weeks. On Monday, it was clear that the New York office was shutting down and all travel was suspended. We were scheduled to perform on-site anti-money laundering and sanctions reviews, both domestic and international, during the coming weeks. These challenges prompted us, working closely with our clients, to find new ways to conduct these reviews.
In continuing to provide consulting services to our clients, we were reminded of the importance of good consulting techniques and how to perfect them in difficult circumstances. Because we provide Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Sanctions Compliance consulting, these techniques focus on compliance. But they can be applied to most consulting relationships.
Communication is a fundamental element of a client/consulting relationship in normal times and critical in times of uncertainty. Good communication is essential to build and continue an effective working relationship, to solidify commitment to the engagements, and to discover alternative ways of working. Communication is also critical to understand what client needs must be met immediately, what can wait, and what flexibility and limitations apply to each particular engagement.
Immediate and continuous communication with one of our international clients enabled us to find alternative ways of conducting the review and take advantage of efficiencies in remote access. We can creatively and flexibly approach some areas requiring on-site review. This client also maintained continuous communication with its regulator to ensure the regulator agreed with the proposed alternative methodology.
B.Tone at the Top
In the field of Compliance, “tone at the top” refers to the message sent by executive management in the things they say, actions they take, and priorities they set, that compliance is important. During these past weeks, I was particularly impressed by the meaningful “tone at the top” conveyed by our clients in their willingness to forge ahead with compliance initiatives in these difficult times, using remote access abilities and virtual meetings, illustrating the importance they place on compliance.
I was equally impressed by our own executive management in sending the message that employee health and welfare come first, their openness to flexibility, and top-level support of the workforce in continuing to be productive. Our team working in Europe was impressed and invigorated by the concerns of our practice leads and segment lead in our safe return to the U.S. Executive management concerns were continually expressed in daily and weekly calls with the practice and segment leads. These communications proved to be instrumental in reinforcing the support of the firm, while understanding that it is not exactly business as usual.
C.Flexibility and Reset
Effective consulting always involves continuous evaluation of objectives, methodologies, and deliverables, as well as flexibility in how, when, and where the engagement is performed. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has challenged our clients and us to take this to a new level, driving us to adjust to new limitations and capitalize on available technology.
One of our first steps in operationalizing our consulting services remotely was to speak to our clients and determine what options they would prefer, such as video conferencing, shared work sites, and time flexibilities. The European client, with whom we were on-site, agreed to load the remaining documents on a shared repository, HighQ Dataroom, and to continue conversations through Skype for Business. One of our domestic clients chose to embark on the planned review during the scheduled time frame, using secure file transfers and Box for document and data sharing, and Zoom for interviews and walk-throughs, with special provisions for confidentiality requirements. Another international client agreed to postpone the planned on-site review for several weeks, but also began sharing documents through our firm’s secure file transfer software, so that documents could be reviewed prior to the on-site review. This client also arranged to set up remote interviews and agreed to rearrange the work plan.
Meetings, Interviews, and Walk-Throughs
Our AML and Sanctions Compliance engagements typically include a substantial number of meetings, interviews, and walk-throughs of critical processes. While these interactions are best performed in person, today’s technology offers several virtual meeting alternatives, using video conferencing technologies, that afford face-to-face interaction. Some of our clients prefer Zoom and others use Skype, Microsoft Teams or GoTo-Meeting. No matter the vendor, face-to-face interaction ensures full attention and provides for nonverbal feedback.
AML and Sanctions projects also involve a substantial amount of document and data review and analysis. Today’s collaborative work sites provide platforms for the sharing of documents and information. Collaborative work sites used by our clients and us include Box, Dropbox, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft Teams. Each has different features and should be evaluated in relation to the particular project.
Many collaborative work sites also provide the forum for the project team to share workpapers and conduct brainstorming or whiteboarding sessions, using one shared document. Because the greatest strength of our consulting practice is the collective knowledge, skills, and expertise of our professionals, the ability to work as a team in a virtual conference room is invaluable in formulating, reviewing, and perfecting recommendations for our clients.
While we continue to forge ahead, delivering consulting services to our clients, we are mindful of certain concerns, obstacles and sensitivities, including:
Working remotely, using a variety of network connections, file share software and collaborative work sites, may elevate the risk of security violations. Our firm’s security team issued immediate guidance on use of remote environments and devices that helped to alleviate this concern. As a result, we are vigilant in ensuring that technology solutions, information-sharing tools and off-network hardware are sanctioned by our IT security function and that they are enhanced with the proper encryption, safeguards, and security.
Although we determined that much of our work could be performed remotely, we also assessed that certain data and information could not be shared across the network or across international borders due to regulatory concerns. It is essential to conduct client-consultant discussions regarding the transmission and regulatory concerns of data and documentary information prior to initiating information sharing/transmission and categorize information, according to its level of sensitivity/confidentiality. Some reviews will have to wait until on-site review is possible.
During this time of uncertainty, we are, most importantly, sensitive to the needs of our colleagues. They should know that their health, safety, and well-being are of concern to all of us. Many are dealing with the stress of caring for children at home while trying to work. Others are concerned about family members stricken by COVID-19, and some have acquired the illness themselves. Even those not obviously impacted may be stressed by the fear, disruption, and lack of normal interaction. It is a good time, therefore, to let our colleagues know we care about them and still consider them part of our team. Periodic calls with no formal agenda can go a long way to put each other at ease. This week our team is scheduling a virtual happy hour, just to stay in touch.