On Wikipedia the coronavirus pandemic is described as an outbreak of the newly emerged respiratory disease COVID-19. This disease first became apparent in December 2019 in the megacity of Wuhan in the Chinese province of Hubei, developed into an epidemic in China in January 2020, and finally spread rapidly to a pandemic worldwide.

Due to this novel and very aggressive disease, all people worldwide (if they have the means at all) were and still are called upon to take various safety measures to minimize the further spread of this disease and thus protect in particular the identified risk group from infection. In many countries, the pandemic is now characterised by massive cuts in the public and private lives of their citizens and an economic crisis of unknown proportions.

Many companies, including Aquila AG, took extensive measures at an early stage to ensure that the health of partners, employees and customers was not at risk and that the spread of the pandemic was prevented or at least limited. In countries with an established health system such as Switzerland, it was thus possible to prevent the system from collapsing.

However, as the case of Aquila AG shows, major challenges have been and still are to be overcome, both at all levels of the company and personally by the employees, in order to ensure the health of all those involved, as well as a continued high quality of service and thus the continued existence of the company. As a service company in the financial sector and thus one of the basic service companies, the lockdown had much less of an impact on our company than other industries such as tourism or hospitality.

After the initial easing of tension, we would like to look back with a certain distance and let various colleagues in the company speak about their insights, feelings and personal experiences during this time:

 

Max Cotting, CEO and main owner

The extraordinary situation has also brought rapid development in digitalisation at Aquila AG and so about 90% of the staff worked in our home office for 3 months. Within a very short period, the home office had become very familiar to the team and all meetings, both internal and external, were held as telephone or video conferences.

These conferences and thus the regular communication and exchange of current information and findings within the management, the employees and above all with partners and customers was a central element in order to be able to continue operations successfully. This was the only way to give partners and customers the security that they would continue to be served at the accustomed service level and that we would be there for them.

Nevertheless, it was important and indispensable for this maintenance of service delivery for partners and customers that a small part of the employees worked on site in the office every day and also that the boss himself was regularly on site and could show his support for the team in this way. This is the reason why I myself travelled from Zermatt to Zurich on Monday mornings during the whole extraordinary situation in order to return to the home office in Zermatt in the middle of the week.

“Always had a whole SBB compartment to myself.”

 

Hansjürg Lusti, COO

From today’s perspective, we have been able to gather very valuable experience. After the first news about the novel virus arrived in China, it seemed to me to be an isolated problem in a Chinese city for the time being. Because of the rapid and global spread of the virus, the effects were much more severe and faster than many had thought.

The restrictions imposed on freedom of movement, but also the FOPH’s recommendations for action and the growing concerns and uncertainties of all concerned were reason enough to refocus and ensure that everyone could work safely and securely. As a result of the ongoing work on what to do in various emergency scenarios, we already had some pieces of the puzzle for IT and organisation in hand, which we were able to implement quickly. This was even though up to that point our considerations had not included possible behaviour in the event of a pandemic.

It was also important that we were able to establish alternative channels, e.g. via the Business Chat, for fast, secure and problem-free communication with all employees via their private devices, thus enabling a direct exchange between everyone.  For individual teams, we conducted short daily video conferences to be able to continue projects and still maintain contacts. These videoconferences also allowed a glimpse into the home of the employees and provided one or the other amusement. And the management was also able to improve the exchange of information with weekly video conferences. When it came to the access and handling of the physically arriving mail for the partner companies, it became clear to us that, thanks to the commitment and the flexibility of all those involved, a simple solution could be established.

“The videoconferences allowed a small glimpse into the home of the employees and provided one or the other amusement.”

During this time, it has also been possible to sharpen our view and perception of patterns and behaviour patterns that are otherwise often barely noticed and questioned. Some of the hectic pace of earlier days disappeared from everyday life and a certain calm returned. I found this experience very positive.

 

Reto Käser, Head of IT Infrastructure

Things have changed in the last few months…

We have been installing virtual IT solutions in the data center for our partner companies and individual employees for several years. With this solution, the office is always with you and you no longer have to be present in the office all the time. So, we already knew that this solution works and until the implementation only the accesses for all users had to be created. But what happens if suddenly 250 or even 300 users a day access the IT infrastructure from their home office? We asked ourselves this question several times, but we were never able to test this scenario to the same extent. For this reason, we tried to distribute the load of the connections to different entry points in advance, so that no data jam could occur at one location. Thus, we were well prepared and ready for the changeover “home office for all”.

So, the day arrived, and the decision was made, or rather, the FOPH decided to set up a home office for everyone (where possible). After a few restless nights with many thoughts and considerations, we received positive confirmation and feedback that the installed setup and our considerations were correct and would stand up to this large number of users.

From now on, we in the IT team could take care of the users’ requests. We experienced very intensive and long days since mid-March 2020. Larger projects had to be stopped temporarily, because the daily requests had to be handled first. Daily video conferences in the IT team and the right tools helped us to share the important information so that everyone was on the same level and could access the important information.

Many new requirements such as team meetings via telephone or video conferencing as well as the use of software solutions for the coordination of the teams were added. I also expect interesting discussions in the next few weeks regarding work opportunities, which one or the other of you would like to keep from the last weeks.

“A rethinking regarding working methods has already taken place and the attitude towards the home office and the corresponding possibilities has changed for many users.”

… and shouldn’t we now also retain one or the other?

 

Markus Angst, Head of Banking

If someone had told me 3 months ago that most of the team banking would soon be working from the home office, I would have described this person as unrealistic, who has no idea about daily business and the risks involved.

However, the current situation shows that this is absolutely possible with the right IT infrastructure, the right outsourcing partners, an already very digital setup, understanding customers, a very experienced team and, last but not least, thanks to an attitude that is always professional, even in this unusual situation for us.

As the person in charge of the first Swiss custodian and settlement bank exclusively for the clients of independent asset managers, one is already worried if one is suddenly confronted with the scenario of a complete or partial regional compartmentalization. Thanks to the fact that we were able to test a possible home office solution at an early stage, this worry has been reduced to the well-being of the employees. The hope was that in the event of an infection, it would not be serious and at the same time not all of them would fall ill together, which in turn would make it more difficult to maintain service. After an already unproblematic start, we very quickly realized that all services could be provided from the home office with good and exemplary consultation and very collegial partners. Only administrative work requiring high-performance printers, scanners etc. was easier to perform from the Zurich office. Here we have divided ourselves up in such a way that alternately there was always a small number of employees on site and could therefore also ensure this work.

It was also pleasing to see that we received numerous new customer openings during these weeks and, despite the majority of work being done in the home office, we were able to confirm the opening of a relationship to the customer as usual within 2 days of receipt at the latest. A big compliment at this point also to our colleagues from Compliance.

With regard to the significant market distortions during the last week, it should be noted that we did not have to issue any “margin calls” due to our conservative credit policy and therefore did not expose the liquidity of our clients and Aquila AG itself to any risk at any time.

“With a certain distance to what happened, it can now be seen in retrospect that, whether we wanted to or not, the Corona crisis has digitally accelerated us by years.”

It is our goal to take the positive insights gained from this into account in the long term. We have proven that we can run our daily operations from a home office, but we have also recognised that we still lack physical contact with our partners, customers and colleagues. We are pleased to be able to cultivate these friendships more actively again.

 

Christian Näf, Head of Fiduciary in the home office with a working wife and 2 small children

When I was asked at an internal meeting at the beginning of March whether Team Fiduciary could work in the home office, I denied it at the time. We are too dependent on our physical mail, too “paper-heavy” and without all the documents in the office, so my arguments at that time. Today, only a few months later, I can say in retrospect that I was proven wrong and that the time in the home office, with a few restrictions, worked very well. I am proud of the team, because without prior experience with home office everything worked perfectly from one day to the next. After a few Teamviewer supports from IT, everyone soon had their home office infrastructure under control.

Our team was divided into three groups, so that each of us was in the office in pairs or threes. That way, everyone could also process their physical mail and carry out the accumulated printing and scanning jobs. Time at home had virtually no impact on the quarterly and annual financial statement deadlines.

Arriving at the home office, the challenges of a still young family suddenly came into play. Normally our children are at the nursery two days a week while my wife also works. On the recommendation of the FOPH, we no longer allowed our children to be looked after by others after the lockdown. As a result, the children were at home 7 days a week, meaning that the entire care had to be taken over by us working parents. Fortunately, my wife is self-employed and has a great team, so from day 1 of my home office she put time back where it was only possible to be there for the children. Only when she had a meeting or an important appointment, I jumped in for an hour and played with the kids. If my wife hadn’t had my back like that, I probably would have had to talk to my supervisor about a temporary reduction in my workload. Thanks to the weather, which was practically always fine, the children were able to spend a lot of time outdoors and the family frictions were kept to a minimum.

“I don’t want to have to think about how it would have turned out if April had lived up to its name.”

By now it has become almost routine for the whole family to have lunch together. Our older daughter has also realized this and is very happy to spend more time with me.

Looking back, it was a very instructive time, but I don’t want to have it in the long run, because I miss the interpersonal aspect very much. Every now and then I can imagine a day at home office, because I am well equipped at home. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone in the team. Often the home dining table had to serve as a temporary workspace. I look forward to normality.

 

Cynthia Oggenfuss, Legal and members of a risk group

Already at the beginning of March, when everyone still came to the office “normally” to work, I switched to the home office (due to my membership in a risk group). The risk that I could have been infected on the way to work or even in the office itself had become so great within a short time that I had to switch to the home office overnight, so to speak. Fortunately, this was possible because my supervisor was aware of my condition and had already made all the necessary arrangements.

Working in the home office worked perfectly the whole time, apart from the usual technical breakdowns. We are three lawyers in the Legal team, who all work part-time. As a result, we are used to coordinating with each other, passing on assignments to each other, keeping each other informed and generally coordinating with each other. I am convinced that this flexibility has made our transition to the home office much easier.

Nevertheless, working in the home office also had its downsides, especially for me personally. As a high-risk patient, my whole life had shifted home to my apartment. In addition to work, I now also did my shopping online from home, my sports programme consisted only of jogging in the neighbourhood or an online yoga class in the living room, and all social contacts were limited to telephone calls or video telephony. In addition, my fiancé also had to comply with all these restrictions in order to give me extra protection.

“It is therefore not surprising that the longer the more the “ceiling fell on my head”, as they say, and I missed it very much to be allowed to go to the office”.

What I’ve always considered an obligation, I now consider a privilege.

Now that the number of new infections has dropped sharply, I too can come back to the office. In the beginning, we divided our three-person team with the office days so that only one of us was in the office at a time. In the meantime, we can even be in the office in pairs again and are on our way back to everyday life. Everything is still not like before, so I can come back to the office, but I am still not allowed to use public transport, which requires a precise planning of the week and of the individual working days – because like in quarantine, my fiancé has to do without public transport.

Although it was a good experience to see how well the home office collaboration actually works and we will certainly make more use of it in the future, I really appreciate being back in the office.

 

Claudio Henseler, asset management and returnee from a long trip abroad

The two-month journey, which was to last from January to March 2020, had been decided upon some time ago. It was to take my partner and me first through Australia and then through Vietnam. Towards the end of the first part of our journey we learned through the media that a first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Australia. However, like probably many others, we thought at that time that this would remain the exception and that the explanation might be close to China.  After our arrival in Hanoi, however, a completely different picture appeared to us. The government had already closed all schools for a long time for several weeks. Practically all of them wore face masks and everywhere a disinfectant was smeared into the hands. The early preventive measures paid off in Vietnam, they generally had very few cases. Fortunately, we were able to travel through this beautiful country without any problems (except for the occasional fever measurement).

When we finally returned home safe and sound between bush fires and corona viruses, the next surprise awaited me. Since our return flight was via Singapore, I was “ordered” to quarantine, i.e. to my home office, after consultation with my employer or on the advice of the BAG (Singapore was one of the first risk countries at that time). Consequently, I picked up all the equipment such as laptop, monitors etc., which were ready from one day to the next, at the office or they were deposited for me so that all “contactless” conditions were already fulfilled here. Of course, I also remained isolated in my private environment.

“It all felt quite strange, a “coming home” didn’t really take place.”

So, I started to work off my pending matters from home and was very positively surprised how perfectly everything worked out. At this point I would like to praise the IT team, which was always available and supported us perfectly. In the days that followed, reports of rapidly increasing new infections increased, which ultimately led to a nationwide lockdown and ordered the majority of the employees at our headquarters in Aquila AG to return to their home offices. Within the team, we agreed that one person should be present in the office every day, in order to be able to handle administrative tasks such as daily mail.

After more and more countries decided to lock down during this precarious period, the financial markets plunged at an unprecedented speed, and panic prevailed on the stock exchanges. We immediately discussed tactical positioning and the further course of action in the team via telephone and video conference. We also decided to offer regular “Webex conferences” for our partner companies. In these online presentations, we provided information on the latest figures of the pandemic as well as current events on the financial markets with respective positioning proposals. In this extraordinarily important and delicate market situation, the exchange within the team and with the partners worked excellently, also thanks to the very well-functioning technology and infrastructure.

The coronavirus will certainly force many companies to rethink. The pandemic has exposed numerous weaknesses in the system, for example in the healthcare system, in dependence on other countries due to complex supply chains or the lack of digitalisation.

“Radical change is the most productive source of business opportunity,” they say.

It remains to be seen who will benefit from new business opportunities. Certainly, companies like Aquila AG, which has shown courage, invested in innovation and technological progress for a long time and has a clear focus on the needs of customers, are well positioned for the future.

 

Franziska Ochsner, property management and administration, responsible for emergencies

and during Corona ad Interim Takeover of reception, mail delivery and material procurement

On Friday, 13 March 2020, the management of Aquila decided to close the Appenzell House for “strangers”. This included:

– Closure of the reception and no use of the meeting room
– Organise and receive postal parcel post, DHL etc.
– No direct mail delivery (46 sub-addresses P.O. Box) by our internal mail delivery service, which belongs to the risk group due to age
– Organise disinfectants, stands and signage
– Adapt service specifications with the cleaning companies (interval cleaning and disinfection)
– All craftsmen’s appointments or similar had to be stopped and indefinitely be shifted

These changes were communicated to all partners and head office staff on the same evening. It was agreed that from Monday, 16 March 2020, mail would continue to be delivered to the Appenzell House, sorted by me and then collected directly by the partners within a certain time window. With the help of the partners, this has become very well established within a very short time.

The procurement of materials has proved to be very difficult. Already in the run-up we tried to order disinfectants, masks, disinfection cleaning cloths etc. via the internet. Unfortunately, this was no longer possible, or the articles were marked with unclear references “not available for an indefinite period”. So, I searched all pharmacies and paper shops in district 1 and at my home to get at least small quantities. In the meantime, fortunately, all ordered items have arrived.

Some people asked me how I deal with being in contact with many different people every day. On the one hand I felt quite safe, thanks to the fact that without further ado a parking place was made available to me and thus I could drive with my car directly from door to door, but on the other hand I was also eager to touch all door handles, openers, lift buttons etc. only with disinfectant wipes and to wipe everything constantly and of course to keep the necessary distance. In my private life I have isolated myself very much. Apart from my partner and occasionally my two sons, I had no further contact with other people. Thus, in a short period of time, a relatively good and secure feeling was established for me.

Basically, my conclusion from the experienced, partly very hectic time: The changed circumstances have led to more togetherness, help, understanding and nice encounters, “although with the necessary distance”.

“My wish would be that one or the other “good thing” from the experienced time could be retained even after an opening and that everyone keeps to the instructions and stays healthy”.

 

We thank all colleagues who contributed to this blog post with their personal contributions and gave our readers a small, individual insight into their “abnormal office life”.

Take care, dear reader, and stay healthy, all of you.


Markus Angst
Head of Banking Services Aquila