Discover Moved 25,000 Employees to Remote Work During Pandemic

Financial services company lets employees decide when to come back

By John Egan June 12, 2020
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​Since mid-April, Discover President and CEO Roger Hochschild has sent e-mail updates two to three times a week to the thousands of employees at Discover Financial Services Inc. He routinely engages in one-on-one chats with the company's more than 8,000 U.S.-based call center workers, thanking them for their contributions and seeing how they're holding up during the coronavirus pandemic.

And the Riverwoods, Ill.-based company—whose financial products include credit cards, bank accounts, and loans—regularly surveys employees to gauge opinions about matters such as working from home and returning to the office.

Andy Eichfeld, executive vice president, chief human resources officer, and chief administrative officer, said the company has "focused on ensuring transparency and maintaining Discover's strong company culture in our communications with our employees."

In the coronavirus era, employers like Discover are truly discovering the vital role that internal communication plays during a crisis.

"Your internal communication is the cornerstone of your organization. No matter how big your business is, you need to have the right mix of internal communication tools and processes to connect and engage with your employees," said Helsinki, Finland-based Smarp, an employee communication platform, in a June 4 blog post.

Internal communication was a cornerstone at Discover well before the pandemic. A 2015 article published by Forbes highlighted the priority that Discover places on employee engagement, most notably through companywide surveys. Discover "knows that engagement is a critical driver of customer service, retention and hard business results," Forbes wrote.

Today, employees of companies like Discover are hungry for constant updates about the coronavirus pandemic, said Lisa Ross, U.S. chief operating officer at PR firm Edelman and president of its Washington, D.C., office.

"Employees are turning to business as a source of truth on the daily issues they're facing," Ross told PRWeek. "So we're counseling our clients to keep up a continual cadence of credible information."

At Discover, that information includes what's happening with work-from-home and work-at-the-office policies.

In mid-March, Discover began shifting more than 18,000 employees in the U.S., including all of its call center agents, and 7,500 contractors to working entirely from home, Eichfeld said. By early April, 98 percent of the entire workforce was home-based.

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Before the pandemic hit, nearly one-fourth of Discover's call center employees were already working remotely. By March 20, Discover had 95 percent of those agents working from home using a thin-client device that mirrors their office desktop computers, according to American Banker magazine.

Discover relied on a March report from the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, to help shape its work-from-home and work-at-the-office plans. The report outlines a three-phase approach to reopening U.S. businesses.

In late May, Discover said it would let employees work from home through the end of 2020 but opened the door for them to voluntarily return to the office.

"The majority of employees have the tools and resources to work from home, so currently only employees that feel comfortable returning to the office are in physical locations," Eichfeld said.

Discover won't exceed 50 percent capacity at its offices to ensure there's enough separation between workstations in compliance with local social-distancing guidelines, he added.

"We want our employees to be—and feel—safe in their work environment," Hochschild told Crain's Chicago Business in an e-mail. "We realize everyone's circumstances and concerns may differ, and their decision to return on-site is a personal one that we will trust and respect."

In an April survey conducted by the publisher of American Banker, 41 percent of executives from financial services employers like Discover said they expected their companies to return to office settings in one to three months. Thirty percent put the timeline at four to six months. But 11 percent said they'd never be able to go back "to the old approach," American Banker reported, "as the pandemic had irrevocably changed their approaches to work."

Dennis Michel, Discover's senior vice president of customer service and engagement, told ZDNet in late April that long-term expansion of the company's remote working capabilities will hinge partly on how to replicate the workplace culture at home. He described the current work-at-home scenario as a "very large A/B test" that so far shows remote productivity is on par with at-the-office productivity.

"While it's too early to tell how well we perform over an extended period of time when all employees are remote, we do realize that we may never return back to what we considered 'normal,' " Eichfeld said. "We had several thousand agents and others working remotely full and part time in the past and likely will have more in future." 

John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

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