When BNZ boss Angie Mentis flew back to Sydney in March to be with her family amid a spreading worldwide pandemic she had no idea she would be trapped there for four months.
"I went back to be close to my family and I don't think any of us could have expected that we were going to be in lockdown for that length of time."
That didn't stop Mentis, an Australian who has been in the top job at the BNZ for two and a half years, from managing the bank from across the ditch.
"I [used Microsoft] Teams to attend every [BNZ] meeting across the country ... as a leadership team while we were in lockdown level 4 we met every day. We had daily stand-ups; we had our gold incident management team meetings.
"And you wouldn't have known where I was working from."
For Mentis it meant her working day started at 4.30am Australian time (6.30am NZ time) so she could be ready in time for a daily 7am online meeting, and also extended late into the day.
"I made sure, especially in those first couple of weeks, I spoke to hundreds of our clients and customers and as we came out of level 4 I stayed connected with five customer calls a week.
"That kept me grounded in exactly what was happening in our customers' worlds and that really helped me with the way we shaped our responses and the support for our people."
Mentis says looking back now to those first few weeks under lockdown the banking industry had a huge responsibility.
"There was a huge responsibility on us as an industry ... to really support businesses to keep open and retain Kiwi jobs."
On top of that the bank was fielding thousands of calls a day from people wanting to defer payments on their mortgage or switch to interest-only payments amid job losses and fears of financial uncertainty.
Instead of the remote working situation presenting a challenge Mentis says it actually brought the bank's workers closer together and it has kept going with using virtual meetings and online messaging.
In the past 90 days it has hosted over 100,000 virtual meetings and had nearly 7 million chat messages pass between staff.
"And those chat messages, when you talk to our employees, that is how they have felt they have collaborated."
It has resulted in a permanent shift to more flexibility. Since June the bank has been working on a three-two cycle - either three days in the office two days from home or vice versa.
"I think we will continue with some sort of cycle that way. Even our contact centres all their over-time, early starts and weekend work is all from home."
BNZ has around 5000 employees and Mentis says bar around 20 to 30 people at any one time the company was able to operate with the rest all working from home.
"We did some amazing things at pace."
Mentis points to a partnership it signed with DocuSign which allowed the use of e-signatures for documents where two-factor authentication was required.
"We had over 4000 loan documents that we enabled this way and we saved about 175,000 pieces of paper."
Now the bank and Mentis are trying to figure out the new normal way forward.
"I think there is an opportunity for us to envision and create a different culture. We are doing that already. I saw it during the lockdown, the way we moved at pace. The way we made decisions, the way we stayed so connected with our people. We were able to create a sense of community and belonging."
Mentis says now the bank has the opportunity to work through what is the right hybrid of virtual and in-person way of working.
"Because it does require different leadership, it does require different practices to really make sure people still have that sense of identity, sense of belonging, social cohesion."
Mentis said feedback on the three-and-two cycle showed people were enjoying spending more time with family but also things like problem-solving on the whiteboard when together in the office and getting out in person to meet customers face to face again.
Return to NZ
Mentis returned to New Zealand in late July after the country returned to alert level 1. She had to get permission from the Australian authorities to leave Australia as well as the New Zealand authorities to come back here.
"The approval took a couple of weeks from when we put the paperwork in. But I think I was lucky because I had a nice little letter from the board just to confirm that I was running the Bank of New Zealand. I'm sure that helped," Mentis quips.
"I didn't have any doubt that I would be allowed back in. It didn't even cross my mind."
During her two-week stint in managed isolation she just kept working.
"I continued to work remotely so the busyness of work actually made it go really fast."
But she admits the difficult part now is being separated from her husband and children as well as her parents who she is very close to.
"I'm doing lots of Facetime. The husband and I speak twice a day. It's just making sure I am staying very close and connected.
"I have an incredibly supportive family."
She texts her parents daily and talks to them on Facetime every two days.
"Mum's baking me things and sending them over and I'm like that will be interesting but we will see how we go."
She plans to head back home to Australia for Christmas even if she has to work through two stints in managed isolation facilities to do it.
"I've had a little practice run. We need to cross our fingers that we can start living and managing this dreadful virus in a better way and I am looking forward to there being a transtasman bubble. I hope that occurs next year and it will be easier for me to be crossing between New Zealand and Australia."
Future of banking
Mentis says the virtualisation of the workforce is here to stay and that means it is considering how much office space it will need in the future.
"I don't see us needing all of our corporate office space."
During the strict level 4 lockdown most banks just opened some branches for one day a week for limited hours. Under level 3 banks extended to two days and many were only returning to some form of normality under level 1.
Mentis says branches like the new one it plans to open in Auckland's Commercial Bay shopping centre soon will look very different.
"That is going to be more of a shared space and a place for our customers to visit for support."
Covid-19 has sped up the move to digital. Mentis says cash withdrawals were at the lowest on record during the lockdown as well as use of ATMs.
"Every customer I speak to is moving to those more digital channels."
Mentis says for new retail customers over 90 per cent are joining the bank digitally and over 96 per cent of small business customers are doing so.
An over-70s support phone line it launched at the beginning of lockdown has also seen a big rise in older people going digital.
"We used to have 20 of those customers a month digitally activating and we now have 1500 a month. We don't see any of that slowing down.
"That has an impact on our physical footprint and it's an exciting opportunity to make sure our people are upskilled. And we are doing a lot of work on that as well."
Mentis predicts the physical footprints of bank branches will continue to shrink while the digital experience will expand.
"We have a saying at the BNZ - digital first and human when it matters - that is the bank of the future."