Business travel came to an abrupt halt for many industries as a result of COVID-19. Travel was an integral part of the field examination process at BY&S, resulting in the need for a swift adaption to remote due diligence work as travel came to a halt. With vaccinations on the rise and cases on the gradual decline, traveling is looking to pick up over the coming months. While remote due diligence examinations may continue post-COVID, traveling will still play an important role for some engagements.
Brian Zimmermann, a Senior Healthcare Consultant with BY&S, shares his experience about how remote work has impacted the due diligence examination process and why he is looking forward to the gradual return to travel –
COVID-19 has brought upon a degree of uncertainty, both personally and professionally. For BY&S, one of the biggest operational changes was transitioning from a heavily travel-based schedule to working remotely. Although I was comfortable with working from home, I was apprehensive about not being able to interact with borrowers in person and how that would impact the exam process. Pre-COVID, I averaged around 40 weeks of travel per year. Therefore, most of my interaction with clients was in person rather than via email or phone. Considering this change, I started asking myself certain questions, which would have varying impacts externally with borrowers and internally with coworkers:
1) How different will it be to only communicate via email and phone? Oftentimes it is easier to articulate thoughts in person, especially when you can review data and examples side-by-side.
2) What delays should I anticipate with emails and phone calls? Walking into someone’s office and asking questions is a much more efficient process.
3) How will working in different time zones impact the exam process? If there is a three-hour time difference, should I adjust my work schedule to have similar work hours? Most BY&S employees work from the East Coast, so if a borrower is on the West Coast, it is quite common for us to not receive responses until lunchtime or after business hours.
After a year of working remotely, I realized that completing a due diligence exam can be much more challenging when not on-site, with communication barriers causing the most difficulties. Since COVID started, I have traveled twice for work. Not only was it pleasant to engage with people in person, but the conversations we had would have been extraordinarily difficult to replicate via email or phone. I made the conclusion that a virtual working environment is typically less personal, more inefficient, and stressful for all parties involved.
Although security and collateralization of assets, typically in the form of Accounts Receivable, is the primary focus for lenders who extend revolving lines of credit, loan agreements also signify the beginning of business relationships between lenders and borrowers. These relationships are extended to BY&S when engaged for due diligence exams. Therefore, BY&S has a responsibility to not only be the “eyes and ears” on behalf of lenders and to inform them of any potential concerns, but also foster working relationships with their customers. Since BY&S may complete exams for the same borrower upwards of four times per year, traveling and having interpersonal communication, rather than virtual communication, improves the rapport between lenders, borrowers, and BY&S. Also, putting a face to a name makes follow up communication more personal and therefore borrowers are more timely with responses.
In February, I had the opportunity to travel for a preloan (pre-funding) engagement where I did not have previous experience with the Company’s industry and billing system. Expectedly, I had questions as I worked through the data. Since I was on-site, I could have face-to-face conversations with people, which allowed us to talk through the data in a more productive setting, research examples in the system, and, if needed, bring in other employees for further assistance. Had I worked on the project remotely, drafting emails and trying to schedule phone calls could have resulted in significant delays completing our report. I estimated that what I accomplished in three days of field work could have equated to 1-2 weeks of work remotely. Additionally, by having conversations in-person, I gained a better understanding of the systems and data, which resulted in a more comprehensive report for the lender. The engagement was more efficient and resulted in a quicker report turnaround for the lender.
For me personally, working from home is not as enjoyable as traveling, meeting new people, and socializing with coworkers. BY&S is a decentralized organization, with staff residing in 12 different states. If the nearest colleague lives 500 miles away, it can be difficult to feel connected to coworkers. Traveling is oftentimes the only opportunity to socialize and build relationships with each other. Being a small company, one of BY&S’ biggest assets is the staff. Without travel, it would be more difficult for coworkers to build camaraderie and relationships. Furthermore, traveling exposes staff to the innerworkings of the exam process that may not be as easily recognizable from a remote environment. This may include deal management or listening to conversations coworkers have with the borrower. Being on-site also presents training opportunities that would not be available working offsite, which could include side-by-side training or discussing the exam while commuting to the borrower or during lunch or dinner. While personal safety for all is paramount, hopefully we can return to travel and interaction with colleagues and borrowers during 2021.