As Citigroup Inc.'s Asia chief started his January Covid-19 briefing for the bank's top executives, it quickly became apparent: The firm's normal backup plans weren't going to work.
Out went the idea of sending thousands of workers to alternate sites in New Jersey and elsewhere, replaced by a dash to secure more servers and routers to boost remote access. The scramble has changed not only how the bank is getting through this unprecedented crisis, but also how one of the world's biggest companies is thinking about post-pandemic life.
It all started with a simple question from Chief Executive Officer Mike Corbat as the extent of the virus's reach became clear. How many of Citigroup's 200,000 employees would be able to remotely access the firm's network at once? Mike Whitaker, the bank's operations and technology chief, told the CEO that 35,000 was the bank's previous record.
"We obviously realized that if it came to the shores of the West, we'd need a heck of a lot more than that," Whitaker said in an interview.
So he got the green light to boost that number -- and fast. Whitaker's team bought up hardware and shipped more than 40,000 pieces of technology equipment to workers' homes. Within weeks, 95% of Citigroup's trading floor was working remotely, a feat bank officials had never thought possible. Now the company can handle as many as 148,000 people logging onto its network at once.
That's given the firm more flexibility as it decides who to bring back to the office first and what its real estate will look like in the future. Citigroup doesn't plan to leave workers at home permanently, Corbat said Friday.
"All large organizations that have designated disaster-recovery sites are thinking, Do we need them, or can we have less?" Whitaker said. "We're going to look at those plans."
Banks have long maintained cavernous redundancy sites in office buildings and warehouses in suburban areas outside their headquarter cities where they can send critical workers in the midst of disasters. Some, such as Citigroup and Bank of New York Mellon Corp., are now evaluating whether they really need to maintain those locations after proving they can utilize employees' home offices if a catastrophe arises.
"That level of redundancy has always been expensive -- a space where you have a fully configured work environment for every person," said Steve Carroll, an associate at the bank-consulting firm Cornerstone Advisors. "And now with remote capabilities, that's not as necessary."