The logistical challenges of taking a 95,000-person tech team remote made 2020 a slog for Cathy Bessant, chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America.

The job got done. Now, it’s time to reverse the process and bring people back to work — eventually. The timetable is uncertain, but the preparatory work has begun.

In a recent interview, Bessant — who topped American Banker’s Most Powerful Women in Banking from 2017-2019 — shared her thoughts on going back to offices and what she anticipates for 2021.

You’ve had to shift 97% of your 95,000 employees to working from home over the past year. Do you think some of this change will stay, that there are some people who will just never go back to the office?

CATHY BESSANT: We’re a company that believes strongly in co-location for lots of different reasons — culture, the ability to train and supervise, the nature of problem solving and creativity. And despite the fact that I read articles every day about productivity being higher in a work-from-home environment, we have not found that to be true. That doesn’t mean that a lot isn’t getting done, but typically it’s getting done over a much longer day, which is not sustainable and not good for anyone’s health and welfare. So we will be a company that does return to co-location. There will be a set of people who are high risk and therefore we’ll customize solutions for them. But we will try to come back to the office. No question.

Cathy Bessant, chief operations and technology officer, Bank of America

Working from home leads to “a much longer day, which is not good for anyone’s health or welfare,” says Cathy Bessant, chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America, shown here on a Zoom call with colleagues in the Tampa, Fla., area when the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team was in the playoffs this year.

That will have to be challenging in your Bank of America tower in Charlotte, N.C., just getting everybody through the testing process and through the elevator.

The logistics are complicated. I credit Andrea Smith, our chief administrative officer, with pulling off incredible logistics to bring people back in places where it’s safe to make it happen.

Our primary concern is the safety of our people and their families. Nobody gets invited back until the atmosphere meets our health and safety criteria, and people are comfortable. This is not a forced march. This is a thoughtful, safety-based approach, but at some point we will get back to co-location.

You mentioned that the days are much longer for everybody at your organization. How have you managed to maintain work-life balance, if you have?

In the beginning, I didn’t. I don’t think anyone did who was involved in the fundamental equipping of a 200,000-person company to work remotely. Also, we had a number of things thrown at us, such as the need to be completely responsive and ready for implementing government programs and literally writing code before the final regulations were actually issued. That makes for a long day. And I think we’ve lost a sense of boundaries. [Before the pandemic] you would never have heard me on the phone, if I could avoid it, at eight o’clock at night, and now it’s routine. That takes a toll.

What would you say have been the biggest challenges for the tech team?

There has been a challenge of trying to ascertain how best to reach out to clients and customers, when in many of our business segments they prefer individual interaction and face-to-face. How to make that same feeling of closeness happen virtually has been an important part of the work that we’ve done. And I think more than anything else, getting people comfortable with the natural day to day of connectivity virtually, how to stay human, how to stay focused, how to continue to be empathetic when there’s camera contact, but not so much eye contact, those have been some of the big challenges.

Is it hard for people on your team to carve out focus and time for innovation when, as you said, the regular workday has gotten so much longer?

Everyone is different. I think for most of our people, it’s motivating to be able to push the envelope in terms of what’s new. I have found a great sense of human spirit in the higher levels of Maslow’s needs hierarchy in terms of higher level intellectual needs to produce market-leading work.

Are there any technologies that you’ve been leaning especially heavily on this year? I’m guessing Zoom is one.

We’ve determined that we have to even be more militant than we’ve been before about consistency. So for example, we allow a wide range of workflow management technologies. As we’ve been adaptive, trained people, and retrained people, something that should be as simple as a workflow management tool gets in the way of adaptability. So we’re thinking a lot more about narrowing a wide range of tools down to one, so that we can continue to be responsive.

Are there any changes that you’ve seen within your company, in the industry or among your customers during the pandemic that you expect will continue throughout this year?

I believe digital adoption is permanent. We have record-setting levels of people using our digital and electronic channels to conduct every element of their business, their investing, their savings, including all the way up to our large institutional customers.

The other thing I expect to persist is a hypersensitivity on flawless delivery as our customer adoption of digital grows. Even the slightest blip in performance is magnified in terms of importance, first of all because people are under a tremendous amount of stress. And second of all, because the tolerance for a failure to deliver brilliantly is much lower.

I read that you cried when you heard Jane Fraser was going to become the CEO of Citigroup this year. Do you think things are changing for women in this industry?

Well, you know I’m a crier anyway. I put my head on my desk and I cried because Beth Mooney at Key was really the pioneer for women CEOs in the top 25 financial institutions in the United States. Jane is the first woman to break into the top five. And that’s incredibly important. And the reason I was emotional is because I felt finally we have a visible path for every young woman in banking to believe that if she works hard enough and if she is good enough, she can be a CEO, which is hard to do when there are no women CEOs.

It is a game-changer. Once you get past the first, then you have to work on it not being the only. And so this is a very important milestone.