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An inside look at how both the global pandemic and the March and November 5th National Lockdowns are affecting mental health within the workforce

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An inside look at how both the global pandemic and the March and November 5th National Lockdowns are affecting mental health within the workforce 1

By Lianne Harrington, Director SMP Healthcare Ltd    

Part One:

Real life insights into the deteriorating mental health of three employees during the global pandemic 

Part Two:

Mental Health and the Workplace – the statistics you need to know about: from Health & Safety Executive, Office for National Statistics and MIND

Part One:

As an employer in 2020, the issue of work-related stress disorders is an extremely hot topic. With the impact of COVID-19 affecting people’s ability to work in a “normal” way or in some cases not work at all, workrelated stress issues are surely going to be more common.

With so many people working from home and losing face to face contact with their colleagues and managers, how can employers really assess whether or not an employee is struggling with the current working climate?

There are the options of Zoom/Teams/Skype video calls, WhatsApp group chats and numerous virtual meeting platforms, but do you really get a realistic picture of someone else’s mental health and well-being in the same way that working with them in your normal environment would do?

We decided to get a first-hand view of how COVID-19 has affected our staff by asking them to answer a series of 10 questions. The team at SMP Healthcare were happy to provide answers anonymously in the hope that this experiment will highlight to others how mental health and wellbeing has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d encourage you to consider posing the same (or similar) questions to your staff.  You may be shocked at the answers!

QUESTION ONE

When the current COVID-19 pandemic was in its infancy at the beginning of 2020, were you worried about what this would mean for you and your family?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF:

“Actually, I was not worried at all, in fact I can remember having a conversation in the office about it and could probably even be quoted as saying “it won’t come here, I don’t know what you are worrying about. China is a long way away you know!” How wrong could I be? ”

“Yes, but I am quite an anxious person, so for me I found it quite difficult and my brain went into overdrive very early on as to how this could affect me and my family.”

“Whilst the Covid cases were contained within China I didn’t have any concerns as I really didn’t think it would spread to the UK but as soon as it did start spreading to the UK and other European countries, I started to worry.  Not only was I worried about myself as I’m high risk, I was also worried about the older members in my family both in the UK and abroad. My worry was that if any of us contracted it, we would be unlikely to survive it, due to age and/or underlying medical conditions.”

QUESTION TWO

When the government announced in March 2020 and again in November that those who could work from home should work from home, were you pleased or disappointed?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF:

“I was really disappointed. I love getting into the office and working with colleagues in a face to face environment and have a great bunch of friends I catch the train with and have done for a number of years. The thought of working from home for even a month seemed so surreal, little did I know that that few weeks would roll into a few months. “

“Pleased. I love my job and my colleagues, but I am an introvert and so quite happy to work from home and with all this going on feel safer doing it this way.

“Yes, I was very pleased as I knew I would feel safer at home.  I wasn’t happy going to the office every day because of coming into contact with other people there, as although I was being careful, I couldn’t be sure that other staff members were also being careful.”

QUESTION THREE

Did you find it hard to work in your home environment and did you have to make any adjustments to accommodate this?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF:

“Work was not really an issue from home although I only had a really small computer workstation so after a couple of months went by, I gratefully received a freebie desk from a friend with a more comfortable chair too. The thing I found most difficult was taking time away from the computer screen. My travelling time was replaced by additional screen time and my eyes have really suffered. As soon as the opticians opened again I had to get a new prescription, it could be coincidence but I really don’t think it helped.

“No, not at all. I have a separate area where I can work away from my family and we already have a

computer at home.”

“No, I found it really easy working from home and apart from needing to use the company’s laptop, no adjustments had to be made.”

QUESTION FOUR

Was a daily call from management enough for you or did you feel that there should have been more contact?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF: 

“One of my colleagues set up a WhatsApp group and we all sent a “funny” good morning message to each other practically every day. Unless there were specific issues, I think one call was enough. We emailed on a regular basis anyway.”

“For me a daily call was fine and if I had any issues I knew I could simply call management for assistance.”

“For me, a daily call was more than sufficient.  It was good to be able to catch up on the previous day’s events and discuss anything in the pipeline.”

QUESTION FIVE

Did the fact that you were placed on furlough make you feel nervous about the long term stability of your job role?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF:

“Fortunately, I was never on the furlough scheme and therefore this wasn’t an issue for me at the time although of course, the worry for other people was still there.”

“Yes, but again I am a very anxious person and this was something totally new and like a lot of people I am sure they also thought the same as no one knows how this pandemic is going to affect their jobs.”

“Yes, absolutely.  It was a very unnerving time and not knowing what the future held jobwise was very stressful.  Added to the fact that I was concerned about contracting Covid, I felt extremely anxious and felt very unsettled.”

QUESTION SIX

When you were on furlough, did you struggle to motivate yourself to live a “new normal” life?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF: 

“Again, this didn’t apply to me, I was lucky to be working the whole way through.”

Lianne Harrington

Lianne Harrington

“A new normal life, that’s such an odd phrase, but it’s true I suppose especially for those that used to go out and socialise on a daily basis. For me, nothing much has changed, I enjoy spending time at home with my partner and little girl, but I miss seeing my family and when restrictions were in place I did find that extremely hard, but I kept telling myself, this isn’t just happening to me. We are all going through this bizarre time in life together.”

“I found it really difficult to get to grips with the “new normal” and on the rare occasions that I went out it was with trepidation. I knew that I had been following all the rules but was concerned that other people hadn’t been doing the same.  Because of my uncertainty, I felt safer being indoors.”

QUESTION SEVEN

Did you miss going to the office and meeting with colleagues on a daily basis or were you happier in your safe, home environment?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF:

“Well I guess I didn’t miss paying the travel costs but yes, 100% I think it is much better working in the office although I also believe we have a responsibility to follow the government guidelines and work from home – because we can. Yes I know being at home was the safest place to be but I would definitely rather be in the office. My personality is not suited to long days on my own in the same four walls.”

“I do miss seeing my colleagues and having that face to face interaction with them, but we are well connected working from home and keep in contact with each other on a daily basis so it doesn’t affect me massively and I feel safer and happier working from home.”

“In all honesty, I didn’t miss going to the office.  I much preferred being at home.  Not only did I feel safer in my own little hub but I felt that I worked better as I wasn’t feeling so anxious.  Even now, my home is my safe place.”

QUESTION EIGHT

How did you feel when you were removed from the furlough scheme and asked to work full time again?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF:

“Not applicable to me.”

“Relieved. I love what I do and for me personally, work is a great form of escapism, and it certainly helped take my mind off of what was happening in relation to the pandemic.”

“I felt relieved when this happened as it meant my job was safe. The uncertainty of my job was constantly worrying me.”

QUESTION NINE

What about coming back to the office, were you nervous about returning on the 10th August 2020?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF:

“Not at all. The daily figures were really calming down and again, as soon as Boris Johnson actively encouraged people to return to the workplace then I could have jumped for joy. I could not wait to get back to the office and experience a little bit of normality. It was great to see everyone on a daily basis again.”

“I was nervous about returning to the office, although management made the necessary adjustments for us to return, it still didn’t take away my anxiety and thoughts about potentially catching the virus or even passing it onto colleagues as a potential carrier.”

“I didn’t like going back to the office at all.  I felt nervous and anxious, particularly as I use public transport for part of my journey.  To try to minimise my nervousness, particularly with my journey, I started driving to work but car parking is very costly, so I won’t be able to do this all the time.  Also being in the office where at times there could be up to 7 people there has been worrying as other people come in my public transport and could well be a carrier of the virus.  And of course, I would not be aware of who they are mixing with outside of the office.”

QUESTION TEN

Now that you are once again working from home, has your feeling changed about doing this changed in anyway?

ANSWERS FROM STAFF:

“No, I have resigned myself to the fact that this is how it has got to be even if it is another 6 months. It doesn’t affect my work or my clients and all of the insurers are still accessible. Obviously, I wish it was different but if by working from home it means we avoid a full lockdown and I can still spend time with my parents then that’s far better in my book.”

“No as I feel I am happier and more productive working from home. I find it easier to concentrate and it has definitely had a positive impact on my mental wellbeing.”

“No, my feelings are the same as before.  Home is my safe place and so working from home lessens my anxiety and makes me happier.  I am thankful that I have a job that enables me to work from home.”

The mental health effects are totally different from person to person. This feature represents just 3 people. Imagine the magnification of asking the same questions to 100 or even 1000 employees?

Everyone will be having their own stress and anxiety issues regarding the current working climate and this doesn’t take in to account the people who might be asked to go into the office even though they could work at home. Imagine what the answers would be from employees falling in this bracket!?

Part two:

Mental Health Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

The Health and Safety Executive published statistics in October 2019 that confirmed in 2018/19 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health. The total number of working days lost due to this condition in 2018/19 was 12.8 million days!!

12.8 million days – now that is a huge number for Great Britain to cope with; I cannot help but wonder what this figure will be for the 2020/2021 period?

Within the report it shows that females had statistically significantly higher rates of work-related stress depression and anxiety compared with the average for all persons.  Would this be because women are far more likely to report or discuss mental health issues than men or is it that there are significantly higher cases in women?

*sourced from https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/

Office for National Statistics (ONS) report relating to coronavirus and depression

With the above statistics from the HSE in mind, we then look and the ONS report in June and the results are fairly staggering.

To think that this was the position in June, where are we now four months down the line and no end in sight? The days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder and the winter is looming fast. With the UK news filled with local lockdowns, mass redundancies and the closing of many high street stores then I can only presume that the next ONS report may even bring more frightening statistics about the mental health of the UK population as a whole.

UK mental health charity MIND www.mind.co.uk describes the coronavirus as creating a  mental health emergency and their latest report shows that new mental health problems have now developed with existing mental health issues getting worse.

  • Almost one in five adults (19.2%) were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in June 2020; this had almost doubled from around 1 in 10 (9.7%) before the pandemic (July 2019 to March 2020).
  • One in eight adults (12.9%) developed moderate to severe depressive symptoms during the pandemic, while a further 6.2% of the population continued to experience this level of depressive symptoms; around 1 in 25 adults (3.5%) saw an improvement over this period.
  • Adults who were aged 16 to 39 years old, female, unable to afford an unexpected expense, or disabled were the most likely to experience some form of depression during the pandemic.
  • Feeling stressed or anxious was the most common way adults experiencing some form of depression felt their well-being was being affected, with 84.9% stating this.
  • Over two in five (42.2%) adults experiencing some form of depression during the pandemic said their relationships were being affected, compared with one in five (20.7%) adults with no or mild depressive symptoms.

*sourced from https://www.ons.gov.uk/

Mental Health provision in the private health insurance sector

Having worked within the private medical insurance sector for many years, I have to say that the mental health support and back up provided by the UK Insurers during the coronavirus pandemic has been impressive.

With the lack of NHS GP appointments being available during the height of the pandemic, the online and virtual resources provided by the insurers have been invaluable to many people. This applies at both a consumer and business policy level.

Very quickly the private sector reacted and gave access to resources online and remotely, unlocking valuable support to their clients for both physical and mental health conditions. Mobile phone Apps have been created and extended to try to support people through what is turning out to be an extended period of uncertainty.

I know there will be a number of people who will now want to interject and complain about the lack of access for non-urgent diagnostics and surgery for private patients during the height of the coronavirus pandemic but if I can offer reassurance that the many of the UK insurers have pledged to review any increased profits in this time period and make this right with their clients. Some offered payment breaks or payment holidays and most offered a flexible approach and reviewed clients on a case by case basis.

This was an unknown situation and unchartered waters were navigated. On the whole, I truly believe the UK health insurance providers (large and small) exceeded the expectations of clients and brokers alike.

To access support for their staff employers and business owners do not even need to go as far as full private medical insurance policies which can be costly. Lower cost options such as health cash plans and employee assistance programmes may be a far better consideration at a time where many businesses are looking at cost reductions rather than increasing employee benefit costs. The cost of an employee assistance programme really is minimal and is available to businesses both SME and Corporate.

When you start talking about health insurance as a whole, there are a myriad of options available on both a consumer and business level. Matching what you need to have in place with what you can afford may not be easy.  A specialist health insurance broker such as SMP Healthcare would be able to advise you of your best options and providing they are independent you should also have the reassurance that they do not have any bias towards any of the providers.

In conclusion I would urge businesses to take the time to ask their employees for feedback, be brave and see what effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on each individual member of their team. By asking the questions this provides employers and business owners a real insight into the struggles that their staff are facing from a mental health perspective.

You may not want the honest answers but surely this will provide you with the best overview of their situation and give you the opportunity to implement procedures and policies to help staff before it comes to crisis point. With great staff being the most valuable asset of your business, surely their welfare becomes more important than just fulfilment of a “duty of care”

 

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Interviews

Mark Wright – No Longer an Apprentice

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How to answer interview questions

Just for context, you won The Apprentice and became Lord Sugar’s business partner in 2014 – you set up your digital marketing business Climb Online and are continuing to successfully grow this business today.

With the beauty of hindsight, would you have started your business journey differently?

When growing up, I always knew that I wanted to be in business and that I wanted to be successful. It wasn’t until I was working for a personal training college in Australia that I realised the true power of digital marketing, as the website I built and ranked on the first page of Google for key search terminology enabled them to accelerate revenue from $2,000 to $240,000 per month.

After I travelled to the UK, I wanted a bank loan to help launch my first business, but I wasn’t able to secure one. A friend suggested I try out for BBC’s The Apprentice as an alternative, which was something I hadn’t heard of, let alone watched before, and the rest is history. I don’t believe in regrets and certainly wouldn’t have changed how I started my business journey. The show provided me with an excellent PR and lead generation platform, and I have had the unique opportunity to meet and learn from some incredible business people, particularly Lord Sugar, for which I am very grateful.

The X Factor winners are often lambasted by the press and not taken seriously as artists by the music industry after winning the show. Have you experienced parallel treatment from the business community after your win?

I would certainly say that I experienced parallel negative treatment from the digital marketing industry when I first won BBC’s The Apprentice; where I was even booed going onto stage to speak at a trade event.  However, I am always a big believer in the fact that how people treat and respond to others is more a reflection of themselves and it wasn’t something that I let impact me. The best people in business are those who can support and celebrate other people’s successes and that’s what I always strive to do, regardless of the treatment I receive in return.

Do you feel you have had to work harder to prove your credence as an entrepreneur?

Yes, on some level I do think I initially felt like I had to work harder to prove my credibility as an entrepreneur and a business owner. A lot of people audition and make it on to BBC’s The Apprentice out of a desire for public recognition and 5 minutes of fame, whereas I only wanted to go on the show to secure investment for my business having been rejected from a number of UK banks due to my nationality.

I still hold the record as the only Apprentice Winner to turn over in excess of £1 million during my first year in business and to actually make a profit, and this was largely due to the fact I was so focused on building a large business with strong foundations from the outset.

You became a UK Citizen earlier this year, why have you chosen to stay permanently in the UK?

Australia will always have a special place in my heart and I still have a desire to return and even open a Climb Online office there, but the UK has really become my home. I have made some amazing friends and have created a number of brilliant businesses and am very excited about what the future brings here.

What have been your stand out moments since launching Climb Online?

I have been very fortunate in that I have had many standout moments since launching Climb Online, from being listed twice on Forbes 30 under 30 to creating and hosting CLIMBCON in 2019.*

However, my real stand out moment is quite simple, and it happens almost daily and that is being in the office with my team, receiving positive feedback from clients and helping and mentoring other business owners or aspiring entrepreneurs with their own challenges. There is no feeling like helping someone else succeed or realise their own ambitions and I feel incredibly fortunate that I am able to support and give back to others in such a way.

Mark Wright

Mark Wright

Have you ever just wanted to throw the towel in and head back to the beach?

All business owners at some point will have that feeling of wanting to throw in the towel, particularly on the days when nothing is going right, and everything feels impossible. However, the true marker of success is the ability to continue to show up each day and work through every single challenge. The ones that do will come out on top, maybe not immediately, but eventually.

I am from a small town in Australia where my Dad owns the local car garage and my mum owns the local hair salon, so when we were all sitting round the table at dinner time, they would discuss the challenges of running a business and I would gain real insight into the hardships. So in starting and continuing to work through my business journey I have always had this in the back of my mind. The power of persistence cannot be underestimated and even on days when I feel like it, I wouldn’t ever head back to the beach.

2020 has been a tough year for business. How was your business affected?

I can honestly say that the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was the hardest period I have ever had to work through in business as like the majority, we lost clients and were forced to make challenging decisions. However, I would also say I have learnt the most about business this year and worked hard to implement an effective survival strategy. This not only meant we were able to continue to navigate through the first difficult three months, but in taking the time to look at our costs, our staff and our processes, have had the opportunity to make vast improvements that have enabled us to thrive beyond pre-COVID levels and really come out on top.

What do you think the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be? Will the economy bounce back quicker than predicted?

I think the figures from Q3 were very promising and show that a ‘bounce back’ is possible. However, with further reports revealing that UK borrowing is now at the highest since records began, it means we have a long way to go and it certainly won’t be easy.

Although there haven’t been any changes to taxes as yet, I do think these will come as we start to see economic recovery and hope any increases don’t impact business owners too heavily, particularly as they have worked so hard to survive this unprecedented period.

How has COVID-19 changed the digital marketing industry?

Although there was an initial hit at the start of the pandemic, with businesses cutting digital marketing spend as a cost-saving exercise, I would actually say the pandemic has since played into the hands of the digital marketing industry by emphasising the importance of having a strong digital presence to sell your product or service online.

There will still be agencies who will be down on a revenue. However this won’t be because the business and sales opportunities aren’t out there, but because they aren’t pushing hard enough and are ultimately using COVID-19 as an excuse. At Climb Online we have won many new clients recently just because we were the only agency to actually answer the phone, which is quite unbelievable and shows that many are still operating remotely and haven’t got the right virtual infrastructure in place.

What advice would you give for business owners struggling to drive new sales?

This is going to sound very simple, but the first thing business owners struggling with sales should do is hire a salesperson to implement a clear and consistent business development strategy. I’ve met thousands of business owners over the years and it still amazes me that the vast majority don’t have any form of sales operation to keep the pipeline full and to proactively sell the product or service. Often the business owner is hesitant to hire a salesperson due to a bad experience or because they believe no one will be able to sell the business as well as they can, and whilst the latter is likely to be true, you still need additional people on the ground generating as many leads as possible. Without a sales team, any form of sales strategy becomes inconsistent and ineffective, limiting the opportunity for growth.

Will you ever retire? Absolutely not. Never.

*CLIMBCON is the only business summit dedicated to teaching businesses how to grow and scale from real life successful entrepreneurs

in an authentic and empowering live event

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Interviews

The evolving payments landscape

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The evolving payments landscape 2

Q&A with Prajit Nanu, Co-Founder and CEO, Nium

  1. The global pandemic has negatively impacted economies around the world, but we’re also seeing an acceleration in e-commerce and consumer behaviours. What trends are you seeing, and what is the takeaway for Nium?

At the start of the global pandemic, no one had a clue on where things were headed. But luckily for Nium, we have a 360-degree view on how different industries are adapting because of the number of industries we serve. For instance, we saw that there was a rise in gaming, e-learning, and e-commerce while the travel industry was significantly impacted.

According to Newzoo, the leading global provider of games and esports analytics, the games market will to grow to $217.9 billion by 2023, representing a strong +9.4% CAGR between 2018 and 2023. This is up from a previous forecast of $200.8 billion[1]. The sudden shift away from the classroom in many parts of the globe also led to a rise in e-learning adoption, where schools have had to distribute gadgets to students to ensure they have access to learning materials. Schools in New York, US for example distributed around 500,000 laptops and tablets to their students in early April[2].

To cater to these sudden shifts in consumer behaviour, banks are coming to Nium with an accelerated timeline to leverage and implement our services, including instant real-time cross-border payments. This is positive because banks are reacting to new consumer behaviours promptly.

That said, while these are positive trends, we need to think about how we can sustain this momentum into the future. Initially when the pandemic hit, we saw a huge shift of revenues from offline to online channels. However, now that countries are gradually re-opening, we see that many consumers are preferring to go back to offline channels. The question now lies in how we keep up with these changes and continue to deliver great customer service.

  1. The world is shifting to an API economy, how is this going to impact your customers?

Our definition of an API economy is one that deploys best-of-breed products seamlessly and efficiently – and this is a core mantra of what we believe we are powering at Nium. If you think about it, banks today are being unbundled at a rapid pace. 15 years ago, if a customer wanted a loan or a travel card, they would have had to walk into a physical bank. Today, customers can turn to a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) lender or any pre-paid travel card business.

Nium is actually leading the charge in this rapid unbundling through our banking-as-a-service (BaaS) offering. For instance, E-commerce companies no longer only provide e-commerce as a service but instead have tapped onto a new range of services within that ecosystem. Companies today can choose partners for their payment solutions – for instance, they can use X for payments, Y for card issuance, and Z for lending. The API impact that Nium makes goes beyond just a few customers; we make it easy for everyone to plug in and rapidly deploy our service.

The future of the API economy is all about how to make APIs easy to understand, and that is where Nium is driving our vision forward.

  1. What is Nium doing to cater to the under-penetrated segment that may not have access to payments today?

Nium is providing an infrastructure platform catered for anyone – from everyday customers and businesses, to large banks, and even to fintechs – aimed at levelling the playing field through the provision of financial services to all members of the population. In other words, our platform enables our partners to reach out to the population and provide greater access to payments than ever before.

To take a recent example, Nium partnered with Aptiv8, an IT and manpower solution provider, to launch a remittance service called MyRemit. This service allows migrant workers in Singapore to conduct digital remittance transactions via a mobile app, anywhere and anytime. This has been particularly vital during this year’s strict social distancing and lockdown measures, as migrant workers can still remit money back home for their family’s needs through a digital channel.

Similarly, Nium recently partnered with Cebuana Lhuillier, the Philippines’ largest microfinancial services provider, to launch their mobile remittance app, Quikz, in Singapore. Powered by Nium’s Remittance-as-a-service (RaaS) solution, this app allows thousands of Filipinos based in Singapore to send money to their loved ones back in the Philippines. Our platform ensures the transactions are processed securely and in real-time – providing more customers with a safe and more affordable way to make transactions.

  1. What was 2020 like for Nium and what is it going to be like in 2021?

This year has been interesting for Nium because the pandemic forced us to rethink and review our company playbook for success. At the peak of COVID-19, I gathered my leadership team together to reflect on the impact the world had faced, how the world is going to change, and what we, as a company, need to consider when adapting to these changes. This exercise was extremely useful and it has formed the basis of a refreshed playbook for us.

Our team members came up with many different stories on how we need to over-communicate not only to our clients, but also internally with our colleagues. We also spoke about product prioritisation. For instance, travel used to be an industry that most of our products served, but it has become much smaller today, while other industries such as e-learning and gaming have burst through the scenes. So, do we still create products for the travel industry knowing that it will come back in the next two years, or do we focus on the growing industries right now? The good thing is, because we work with clients across a large spectrum of industries, we have been able to observe these changes panning out early and react swiftly.

Come 2021 and 2022, product will be key for us. There is a lot of pent-up demand across industries that were restricted due to the pandemic, such as travel, and we are looking forward to capturing this new demand, which I believe will definitely come back once we tide over these difficult times. At Nium, we will continue to focus on growing our revenue and expanding our team worldwide.

At the same time, we are also aware of the impact that the pandemic has had on our employees this year. I want to take a brief moment here to acknowledge the efforts of our employees worldwide. They have rallied hard over the past few months, putting in the extra hours as they work remotely, to ensure they deliver quality work. Ensuring that our employees remain engaged and prioritising their mental health will also be a focus for us in the new year.

[1] Global Game Revenues Up an Extra $15 Billion This Year as Engagement Skyrockets, Newzoo.

[2] Challenges of home learning during a pandemic through the eyes of a student, The Jakarta Post, July 2020

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Interviews

Treasury’s digital revolution: How corporates can ensure stability in uncertain economic conditions

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Treasury’s digital revolution: How corporates can ensure stability in uncertain economic conditions 3

The digital revolution in treasury may have been under way for some years now, but the past few months have shown there is plenty of room to improve and refine. We talk to Frank Nicolaisen, UniCredit’s Head of Global Transaction Banking, Americas, about how the coronavirus pandemic has intensified the need for corporates to upgrade their treasury infrastructure and what they can do to get started.

Q: The pandemic looks to have added significant impetus to the digital push in treasury. How has the use of financial technology in the treasury space evolved in recent years and where does this fit into the story?

The narrative of innovation around treasury has been building for some time – and for good reason. A host of recent innovations, such as application programming interfaces (APIs) and optical character recognition (OCR), are already live and streamlining treasury processes for corporates of all sizes.

At the core of this is the rise of e-banking – following experiences in the retail sector, corporates have moved away from branch-based or over-the-phone banking to platforms, with many banks, including UniCredit, investing to make this a seamless, fast and more efficient experience. This, in turn, paves the way for other efficiencies, such as virtual accounts – a concept that sees corporates hold a single physical bank account that can be sub-divided into “said virtual accounts, which work much like real ones, with their own budgets, permissions and account numbers, all whilst feeding into the physical parent account. This solution is growing in popularity and is especially beneficial to corporates with multiple banking relationships and complex account structures, minimising the number of physical accounts they need to maintain.

While these technologies have been around for some time, they have seen a spike in adoption during the recent economic downturn, enabling corporates to rationalise accounting processes, cut maintenance costs, increase transparency over funds and efficiently optimise their financial assets from a remote basis.

To take treasury management to the next level, even newer technologies are emerging, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, which promise to bring a raft of benefits, including the streamlining of bureaucratic processes in a safe and secure manner.

Q: What should a successful treasury set-up look like today?

For some time, a digital, real-time treasury set up – with fully-automated routine processing – has been the vision and the gold standard. This has the capability to turn the sheer amount of data that many treasurers handle on a daily basis from an administrative burden to a source of strategic insight.

With the right technology, corporates can automate a huge range of previously time-consuming administrative tasks, such as opening, closing and managing accounts, generating cash-flow forecasts, executing routine payments; reconciling incoming payment flows, calculating FX exposures and even executing FX conversions. All of this frees team members to focus on more value-adding tasks, while reducing human error in the workflow.At the same time, the data captured in these digital systems can also be reviewed and mined for valuable insights, helping treasurers further refine their processes.

Implementing such a system, of course, will be easier for some businesses than others. Young companies, for instance, will not have to overhaul any legacy infrastructure, and can simply implement a new, modern system. Older or larger companies, on the other hand, will likely be less agile, and have to undertake the more time-consuming process of updating existing systems, while managing operational risks during the transition.

Nevertheless, establishing a robust digital set-up remains central to most treasurers’ strategic vision. Once complete, this switch-over promises benefits to corporates of all kinds – and an opportunity to future proof their business against economic shocks, the likes of which we’ve seen over the last year.

Q: How can corporates yet to initiate the transition to digital treasury get started?

The first step is to investigate the process. Treasurers can speak to their banks and other potential partners, asking questions such as: What are the stakes? What can be achieved? What treasury set-up best suits my business? What benefits is the transition likely to bring in the long-term?

This conversation typically begins either when a treasurer notices the benefits the transition has brought to other businesses, or when triggered by an urgent business need. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be prompted in this way. Starting the conversation now means treasurers are forearmed should necessity arise.

Q: How will you leverage your position as UniCredit’s Head of GTB Americas to deliver these treasury solutions to corporates?

Broadly speaking, my mandate is to continue to develop the Group’s unique, digital Global Transaction Banking (GTB) offer – helping US multinational clients thrive in Europe, and European clients access the US markets.

As part of this, I’m looking to facilitate the delivery of UniCredit’s proprietary GTB solutions from our core European markets to businesses operating in the Americas. Having previously played a key role in the expansion of UniCredit’s Tech Team in Germany – which focused on serving fast-growing technology companies – I am hoping to draw on this experience to oversee the first step in this process: the roll-out of the bank’s global e-banking portal. Once complete, this innovation promises to vastly improve the banking experience for our corporate clients in the US.

It’s one of a number of digital tools corporates can leverage to help them through the many challenges of the current environment. Over the next few years, I think we’ll see adoption continue to climb across the board and I’m looking forward to playing a part in it.

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