As part of our Look Up From Lockdown campaign, we’re inviting senior leaders to reflect on their experiences and learnings from addressing the challenges of the pandemic, and to look ahead to how their organisations will be returning to the office. I had the pleasure of interviewing NatWest Group’s Chief Digital Information Officer Wendy Redshaw on these topics, and she shares her fascinating and wide-ranging insights below.

Please can you give us an overview of your organisation?

NatWest Group is a majority state-owned British bank and insurance holding company, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, with ~65,000+ employees, ~4bn annual turnover, servicing more than 19 million customers across Retail, Commercial, Markets and Wealth businesses. We have offices across the UK, in locations such as Edinburgh, London, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Belfast, as well as international offices in India, Tokyo, Singapore, Honk Kong, Zurich, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Dublin, Singapore, Hong Kong and the US.

How would you say NatWest Group has fared during the pandemic?

At our core, we are guided by our purpose-led strategy, and we’ve made a meaningful contribution to customers, communities and colleagues during the pandemic through our three focus areas of enterprise, learning and climate.

Last month our CEO Alison Rose spoke to our 2020 results. Like many organisations, we’ve reported an operating loss before taxes, however against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and disruption, we’ve delivered a resilient performance with underlying strength. We’ve exceeded our core lending and cost reduction targets, while accelerating our digital transformation and we continue to operate with one of the strongest Common Equity Tier (CET1) ratios of our European peer group—at 18.5%—and have a well-diversified lending book.

What would you say have been the biggest challenges of the pandemic, professionally and/or personally?

I think that the topic of wellbeing has probably been one of the biggest challenges that we have all faced professionally and personally. COVID-19 has had a profound impact on individuals, families, communities and businesses across the world. There are many aspects to wellbeing that are to be considered, whether it be mental wellbeing and keeping our minds healthy, physical wellbeing and staying energised, social wellbeing and staying connected, or financial wellbeing.

The pandemic has challenged all of us every day. I think building and maintaining that resiliency over such a prolonged period and in the face of so many uncertainties and variables has been the biggest challenge, and will continue to challenge us as we navigate coming out of lockdown.

As a bank, we absolutely recognise that colleagues across the group are doing an amazing job supporting our customers, helping people, families and businesses to deal with the crisis. This has meant delivering support quickly and at record pace, and in difficult circumstances while adjusting to new ways of working.

Prior to the pandemic, NatWest Group already had a wellbeing strategy in place; however, this past year has certainly refined its focus and in response a wellbeing plan was put in place working with colleagues to ensure it reflected what they were going through as individuals. We also launched a wellbeing hub for our employees, a virtual GP service, and ensured our employee assistance programme was featured along with guidance on how to remain healthy and resilient.

What have been the biggest opportunities or unexpected positive outcomes?

From my own personal perspective, I think that the biggest unexpected positive outcome from this whole experience is the overwhelming sense of community and connectedness that each and every member of the team feels to one another. Despite not being in the office and in physical contact with one another, we are in some senses closer, having shared a collective and global experience through lockdown.

There are numerous examples of folks proactively reaching out to one another, taking the time to have meaningful conversations, or participating in events and fundraisers in communities to help make a difference.

Over the summer, I have been humbled and inspired by colleagues across the globe who I have spoken with as a part of my morning check-ins, or as a part of my Circle of 5 sessions (in which 5 randomly selected colleagues and I get together to talk candidly about any topic on our minds). These encounters have reinforced that while we all face unique challenges, our resolve and determination is universally underpinned by warmth, compassion, and human-ness.

How has the pandemic accelerated innovation at NatWest Group?

Our focus—as it has been throughout the pandemic—is on supporting as many of our customers as we can with the appropriate lending or support. We are doing all we can to support our customers’ needs, especially for the most vulnerable. Being able to deliver on our commitments through new and innovative ways, and at pace, has been an underlying theme throughout the last year. As a result of our efforts, we have been able to:

  • Provision 240,000+ initial mortgage holidays
  • Consistently keep more than 95% of branches open
  • Make 320,000+ proactive calls to support elderly and vulnerable customers
  • Deliver more than £2 million in cash securely to vulnerable customers
  • Develop companion cards and “get cash” codes to enable cash delivery for customers who are shielding
  • Introduce Banking my Way, a free service that allows customers to record information about the support or adjustments needed to make banking easier, especially for our customers in vulnerable situations
  • Implemented a dedicated emergency line for NHS workers
  • Offer free Financial Health Checks – a face-to-face, by phone, or by video, confidential service open to customers and non-customers that offers a chance to talk through your money plans with a Senior Personal Banker

What effects do you think the pandemic has had in relation to diversity and inclusion?

During the pandemic, the tragic death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement brought into sharp focus the lived experiences of our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. At NatWest Group, our Purpose is to champion potential, helping people, families, and businesses to thrive. It is a clear call to action for us all to break down barriers that hold people back, including those challenges that persist for people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

I believe we’ve a substantial role to play in tackling these inequalities. To help challenge this we brought together a taskforce to listen, learn and understand what more we can do to champion the potential of everyone. Their work will build on the progress we have already made over the past five years to create a more inclusive and diverse culture.

Alongside targets to increase Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic representation across our workforce that have been in place since the beginning of 2018, our Executive team and senior leaders across the bank have taken part in our multicultural network-led reciprocal mentoring programme with Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic colleagues. We’ve shared inclusion learning resources in our NatWest Group Academy, and we’re making important progress with our early careers initiatives, such as our Social Mobility Apprenticeship programme – a first of its kind in banking.

Led by the co-chairs of our 5,000 strong multicultural network, the taskforce is setting out commitments that will set the standard for how the we engage with our colleagues, customers and communities. These commitments are in addition to the existing target already set to have at least 14% Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic leaders in senior UK roles by 2025. We’re also introducing a new target to have 3% Black colleagues in senior UK roles by 2025. This target is being introduced because there is a higher under-representation of Black colleagues in senior roles than other ethnic minority groups, relative to the UK’s working population. This target will help to address the imbalance.

We’re fully committed to building a culture at NatWest Group that will embrace diversity and inclusivity to allow our colleagues and customers to thrive. At our best, we are an open, inclusive, progressive organisation, but until that is everyone’s experience, every time, we have more to do.

As a leader, how have you coped with the challenges of this unprecedented year?

As a leader, I have found that I have needed to create new ways to re-energise and build resiliency within myself. I am naturally a very people-oriented person and I have found it challenging to not have that daily co-location element. For me, there are three mechanisms that I have employed that have helped immensely in this last year:

  • Firstly, I have prioritised my relationships with people, in that I am taking purposeful and proactive action to hold meaningful conversations with people every day that are not necessarily about work or deliverables. As mentioned, I host small circle sessions and call around to colleagues in the mornings to do check-ins and this really helps me to connect and fulfil that part of myself that craves connection with people.

  • Secondly, I been practising mindfulness and gratitude. This may sound like a popular buzzword, but for me mindfulness comes in many forms. As a leader, it is important that I prioritise even just 15 minutes to disconnect from the computer and reconnect with nature. Taking a quick walk outside, having a cup of tea in the back garden where I can focus on birds, trees, plants etc., helps to clear my mind and actually increases productivity when I do return to my desk!

  • Lastly, it is realising that as humans we are the sum of our component parts, and that if one part is ‘off’ it will have an impact on the whole self. Personally, I have been trying to take a more disciplined approach to physical wellbeing, ensuring I get enough sleep, trying to eat healthier and, while I won’t be running a marathon anytime soon, I have noticed a marked improvement in my overall energy levels by making small changes.

What does the transition to the New Normal in the post-vaccine world look like for NatWest Group and will you carry forward any new ways of working?

There is still uncertainty over what the future holds, and we are still in the very early stages to say exactly what the New Normal will look like. Some of our colleagues and staff have returned to the office already, and those colleagues who work in branches have been continuing to support customers throughout this past year, keeping more than 95% of our branches open.

We know that some organisations like Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Salesforce will be shifting to a more long-term work from home strategy, and we are evaluating all of our options when it comes to working from home versus in office working, or a hybrid of the two.

How has NatWest Group been able to give back to the community during the pandemic?

NatWest at its core is about Purpose, and championing the protentional of people, families, and businesses. In addition to all of the great tangible customer outcomes that we have been able to deliver on throughout the pandemic, from a wider community perspective, we have also been actively involved in supporting through:

  • Launching a £1 million fund for those affected by economic and domestic abuse in partnership with SafeLives
  • £10 million raised as we matched customer donations for the National Emergencies Trust (NET)
  • Edinburgh head office turned into a foodbank, preparing 1,500 meals a day
  • Contributed £5 million to the Prince’s Trust Enterprise Relief Fund
  • Launched Island Saver – the world’s first console game teaching financial literacy, with more than 1.4 million downloads

Fundamentally however, it’s not just what we do but how we do it that matters. Our cultural strength and purpose-driven strategy are clear – and our colleague engagement scores are sector leading with:

  • 95% of colleagues thinking we’re doing a good job responding to the pandemic
  • 92% are proud of our contribution to community and society

When you look back over the last year, what are NatWest Group’s biggest achievements or the thing you are most proud of?

In February 2020, we set out a commitment to become a purpose-led organisation – to become a more sustainable business so that we can deliver better outcomes for our customers, colleagues, shareholders, and for wider society. Becoming purpose-led has meant shifting to a model that measures success through the strength of our relationships with all our stakeholders.

Our purpose is to champion the potential of people, families, and businesses and our purpose-led strategy puts sustainability at the heart of our future.

The thing I think I am most proud of in the past year is that while we were delivering at pace for our customers during a global pandemic, we were simultaneously building a more sustainable bank, bringing stronger governance, stronger policies and a more sustainable framework to the centre of our strategy. In this way, we will create more sustainable value for a wider range of stakeholder groups.

Purpose is at the core of all our decision making and is something we aspire to live by every day. NatWest Group identified three areas of focus where we can make a big impact,

  • Enterprise, and the barriers that too many face in starting a business
  • Learning, and what we can do to improve financial capability and confidence for our customers and communities, as well as establishing a dynamic learning culture for our colleagues
  • Climate, and the role we can play in accelerating the transition to a low carbon economy

As you look to the year ahead, what are you most excited about?

There are a lot of things that excite me about the year ahead, but there are probably two key things that stand out: 1) our commitment to be a leader in Climate and Sustainability; and 2) our commitment to building financial confidence

1) Climate and Sustainability

Climate change is a significant challenge, probably the greatest we are likely to face in our lifetimes. Solving this will require UK and international industry, regulators, governments, and experts to come together and find solutions. We are determined to not just play our part, but to lead on the collaboration and cooperation that is so critical to influencing the transition to a low carbon economy.

We know that we must act now if we are to build a resilient economy for the future. This means not just preparing ourselves and our customers for change, but also looking at how we can help our customers to take advantage of the many opportunities transitioning to a low carbon future offers.

In our role as COP26 banking principal partner, we want to show how to lead the way in helping people and businesses across the UK to tackle climate change.

Our ambition is to be the leading bank in the UK and Republic of Ireland helping to address the climate challenge. Climate is a key areas of focus in our purpose-led strategy alongside enterprise and learning.

Our climate strategy sets out ambitious targets including to:

  • At least halve the climate impact of our financing activity by 2030 and intend to do what is necessary to achieve alignment with the 2015 Paris agreement.
  • Provide over £20bn additional funding and financing for climate and sustainable finance by 2021.
  • Make own operations climate positive by 2025, having already achieved our ambition to make them net carbon zero by the end of 2020.

We recognise that climate change is a critical global issue which has significant implications for our customers, employees, stakeholders, suppliers, partners and therefore NatWest Group itself. Taking the necessary actions to address the climate challenge has the potential to create jobs, transform communities and touch every family in the country. To tackle climate change, we must think long term and act quickly, working in partnership with others to achieve together, what cannot be achieved alone.

2) Our commitment to building financial confidence

Lack of financial capability is estimated to cost the UK economy £108bn* over the next 30 years – with most people seeing their bank as the number one source for offering financial guidance. That’s why, along with climate change and removing barriers to enterprise, financial capability is one of three issues Alison Rose has set out where she wants us to take a lead in making a real difference to people’s lives.

When we look at some of the facts about financial capability in the UK, it is staggering. It is estimated that 4 out of 10 adults do not feel they are in control of their finances, and statistics show that individuals in the UK waste an average of £39.49 per month (that’s £2bn as a population) on unnecessary Direct Debits such as unused gym memberships. We know that many people are struggling to manage their finances and save for the future, with approximately 12 million adults not saving enough for retirement, and 22% of UK adults having less than £100 in savings.

It is for all of these reasons, and more, that we as a bank have set a target to reach 2.5 million people each year to improve their financial capability and have committed to helping an additional 2 million customers to start saving by 2023. We want to reduce the stigma around money by encouraging conversations among families, friends, neighbours, customers, colleagues and communities. Talking openly about money can have a huge impact on managing money worries, and is important for our overall health and relationships. The impact of COVID-19 has made it more important than ever to start conversations about money to look after our financial wellbeing, even if those ‘conversations’ are digital.

NatWest has been running its MoneySense programme for over 25 years – a free financial education resource for schools, parents and young people aged 5-18 to help improve financial confidence. Since MoneySense began, the bank has helped more than 9m young people learn about their finances. We also offer free Financial Health Checks, either via face-to-face, by phone, by video banking, or digitally as a confidential service open to customers and non-customers that offers a chance to talk through money plans with a Senior Personal Banker.

On behalf of myself and Scott Logic, I’d like to express our huge gratitude to Wendy for so generously giving her time to share her insights with us.