(The New Normal) Jane Mason: With Right Technology, Servicers Proved Remote Teams Can Excel

Jane Mason is CEO and founder of Clarifire and the original architect behind CLARIFIRE, an application that brings all parties within mortgage servicing operations together onto one secure platform. She has years of leadership experience building process automation technology solutions for the financial services and mortgage industries. She has received numerous awards and accolades for her service to the mortgage industry and local business community, including the Mortgage Bankers Association’s 2020 Tech All-Stars Awards. Contact her at jmason@eclarifire.com.

(This is part three of a four-part series, “The New Normal,” in which STRATMOR Group Senior Partner Garth Graham, NewDay USA Senior Vice President Pooja Bansal, Clarifire CEO Jane Mason and Superus Careers CEO Larry Silver examine how industry employment changed last year and the pros and cons of moving forward with in-office, work-from-home or hybrid platforms.)

Jane Mason

Mortgage servicing has certainly seen ups and downs over the years, although nothing compares to the level of upheaval that we saw last year—nor the speed at which it occurred. Out of the chaos, however, new opportunities to excel have emerged, and perhaps the biggest one of all has been the ability to run a remote workforce with success.

As servicers dealt with work-from-home orders and the full brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic on their businesses, they learned plenty about how to maintain productivity with remote teams. Now, as hope grows that the end of the pandemic is in sight, it’s a great time for servicers to determine whether a remote workforce is their best step moving forward—and whether they have the technology to do so.  

Why Remote Work is Working

While it really depended on an organization’s leadership, servicers overall handled last year’s chaos very well. After the first spike in anxiety over having to work virtually, the pandemic gave all servicers the opportunity to innovate and improve the way they engaged with customers and with each other.

Initially, the prospect of implementing a work from home (WFH) model sent a panic throughout the industry, not just from a business continuity perspective, but because of the enormous market changes that were taking shape. First was the enormous wave of forbearance requests, followed by the huge spike in refinancing that began over the summer, when mortgage rates fell under 3 percent.

While the number of borrowers on forbearance is dropping, there are still 2.5 million plans in effect, and we don’t know how many borrowers are going to be able to resume payments when they end. Fortunately, the same technologies that provide servicers with more advanced loss mitigation technologies can also be accessed remotely by WFH teams.

Today, servicers that had no choice but to rely on new technologies to work remotely now see no point in going back to the old days. This positive experience with WFH models tracks with what researchers are seeing nationally. For example, PwC’s most recent U.S. Remote Work Survey, released in January, found that 83% of employers said the shift to WFH has been a success, up from 73% from seven months earlier.

Based on the conversations I’ve had with our clients and colleagues in the industry, it sounds like most servicers will continue with WFH models on some level. I see two reasons for this—one is that there’s been a societal attitude shift about remote work, and people don’t want to give up the flexibility that comes it. The other is the increase in productivity that organizations have gained through a WFH workforce—at least those that had the right tools in place.

The Importance of Self-Service

One of the biggest tools that helped servicers manage volumes and velocity of customer demands over the past year was automated self-service technology, which enables borrowers to get the help they need quickly without having to speak with a live person. This technology has been available as a compelling innovative solutions implemented  by forward thinking servicers. When the CARES Act was implemented last year, millions of borrowers began flooding their servicers with requests for forbearance. At that point, most servicers had no choice but to lean on automation to help borrowers and their internal operations teams find the help they needed quickly.

By doing so, these servicers were able to realize they didn’t have to hire more people to address higher volumes, nor did they have to retrain their staffs to determine the latest workout scenarios. With a click of a button, borrowers could find out what approved current workout options they were eligible for on their own, which enabled servicers to shift their teams towards areas of the business where they could be most effective in their new roles.

Automation also made it possible for servicers to improve the customer experience even when borrowers needed human assistance. For example, one very large servicer we work with is using technology that places all of a borrower’s information and prior activity on a single screen, so that when the borrower calls in, the servicer’s representative knows everything about that person—including if they are on forbearance, when the forbearance plan ends, how many extensions or deferrals they have had, and what permanent solution options are available to them. This automation takes the angst out of working from home facing daunting volumes of work to manage.

New Ways of Working

The rub on WFH models is the notion that people won’t be as productive in their jobs. But what most servicers have found is that the opposite is true—because employees aren’t spending time commuting to and from the office, they have more time and energy to work.

In addition, technology is enabling organizations to better monitor worker productivity from a management standpoint. Companies now have visibility to see when their teams are logging into their systems and what information they’re accessing. Technology is also enabling servicers to stay on top of any regulatory changes and loss mitigation options, regardless of whether their teams are working in the office or home.

Servicers that will be best prepared to excel with WFH teams are those that built a strong, vibrant culture before the pandemic. In our own case, we’ve found that treating each other with kindness and respect and injecting a bit of fun into our workplace—even virtually—has benefitted our performance tremendously.

However, one of the challenges with a remote workforce is that it’s more challenging to nurture culture in a virtual environment. For example, since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been holding many different events on Zoom, including games, parties, happy hours, even cooking classes, which everyone loves. But frankly, we’re running out of ideas. You have to really work at it, especially if you’re trying to get everyone to feel connected, included, valued and engaged.

Another thing we’re seeing with servicers—and certainly within my own company—is a blurring of the lines when it comes to organizational structure. In many ways, the silos that banks and nonbank servicers have used for years are diminishing because of remote work. Meanwhile, people are moving to and from different departments to handle new functions, such as forbearance request and refis. In this way, servicers have a real opportunity to smooth the lines between departments in ways that increase productivity and possibly build stronger organizations than before.

The bottom line is that the remote approach is giving mortgage servicers a real opportunity to embrace different ways of working and new ways to communicate internally and externally. Over the long term, we may see servicers rethink their need for office space and lessen their leasing footprints or pursue some form of space sharing. However a servicer, or any of us for that matter, chooses to structure their remote workforce in the months and years ahead, they’ll need the right modern technology  and flexibility to work differently to do it.

(Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect policy of the Mortgage Bankers Association, nor do they connote an MBA endorsement of a specific company, product or service. MBA NewsLink welcomes your submissions. Inquiries can be sent to Mike Sorohan, editor, at msorohan@mba.org; or Michael Tucker, editorial manager, at mtucker@mba.org.)