Bates Research - 06-18-20

FINRA Special Alert Offers Observations on COVID-19 Remote Work and Supervisory Practices

FINRA issued Special Alert Notice 20-16 to share COVID-19-related off-site transition and supervisory practice information. The information was derived from recent FINRA discussions with small, mid-sized and large firms. FINRA cautioned that they “have not yet evaluated these practices in our examination programs,” but, nonetheless suggested that firms consider whether they are “applicable” and whether they would enhance supervisory systems and compliance programs during this period.

Bates has been reporting on COVID-19-related guidance since the pandemic began and maintains a topic page on the subject with links to both federal regulatory sites (including FINRA’s resources page) and Bates news and information. Here we take a closer look at FINRA’s observations on firm efforts to transition to remote work environments and to supervise remote work activities.

Remote Work Environment Transition Practices

FINRA reports that firms took a wide range of steps to enhance their compliance efforts and their ability to serve customers from remote locations. FINRA categorizes these steps in four areas: customer assistance, off-site work protocols, staff communications and cybersecurity.

For customers, firms took immediate steps to provide contact and branch office closure information on their web sites and to route customer calls and requests for appointments through a centralized hub. For employees, firms added procedures to better monitor and to record the location of staff, and to continuously update contact information for “compliance, legal, operations and other departments.”

Some firms adjusted communications practices to minimize the risk that staff “would use personal or unapproved systems and technology to conduct firm business.” FINRA stated, for example, that firms were providing (i) “all-hands” videoconferences on operations; (ii) “clear guidance” on working remotely; (iii) technology hardware “to better equip staff to work from home” and (iv) virtual trainings on new and approved technology platforms and applications.

Further, firms reported that they increased their use of virtual trainings and other efforts with respect to cybersecurity and the confidentiality of firm and customer information. Firms disclosed that they were issuing frequent internal reminders on compliance with material non-public information requirements. In addition, firms communicated precautions around “maintaining a private workspace from home,” including extra care when working near family or friends. Firms also said they were enhancing the oversight of their “critical information” technology vendors.

Remote Work Supervisory Practices

FINRA relayed that while firms expressed confidence that they were “relatively prepared” to supervise associated persons working from home (i.e. through the use of “checklists, surveillance tools, incident trackers, email review and trade exception reports”), some firms described additional steps they took to ensure that their supervisory practices and procedures were followed. These additional steps cover (i) overall supervision, (ii) trading supervision, (iii) supervision over customer communications and (iv) branch inspections.

Firms reported many steps to strengthen general supervision of associated persons working in remote locations. In anticipation of the lock-down, for example, some firms described special efforts to test and perform a “gap analysis” to ensure adequate remote compliance with documentation requirements. Firms also set up processes to identify emerging issues or trends gleaned from “increased alerts, exception reports and customer complaints.” These processes supported additional firm guidance to supervisors acting on these concerns, including coaching and “over-escalating” identified issues.

Some firms strengthened their existing “electronic supervisory checklists with attestations and electronic affirmation via voting buttons.” As to other general supervision issues, firms said they improved their overall communications efforts by requiring frequent and regular senior leadership meetings, opening communications channels between supervisors and compliance staff and by establishing feedback mechanisms from staff to promote best remote office practices.

On trading supervision, firms added to their oversight by tightening controls and adding new special elements to supervisory checklists. Specifically, firms enhanced their oversight capabilities by requiring additional prescreens, additional supervisory approvals (with attestations), additional testing of traders’ remote technical capabilities, and by increasing the frequency and thresholds for certain trade reporting and alerts. Further, some firms reported additional monitoring of supervisory activities and increasing the frequency of “check-ins” with traders.

In addition to supervision of customer communications through existing methods, some firms added several more layers of oversight. These include increasing the frequency of email review, enhancing communication surveillance, expansion of using recorded lines for orders, and disabling certain features of communications platforms in order to ensure full and accurate recordkeeping.

Finally, FINRA asked firms about their branch office inspections. Some firms reported that they created a temporary remote branch office inspection plan which relies on technology and video and electronic document review. Firms made clear, however, that such inspection plans merely defer the required onsite inspections to a later time and that when pandemic restrictions are lifted they will prioritize high-risk, on-site branch inspections.

Conclusion

In this Notice, FINRA documented a broad range of methods firms have devised to transition to remote offices and to supervise associated persons. These steps are, of course, a proactive way for firms to fulfill their obligation to implement a reasonably designed supervisory system appropriate for the firm’s size and business model. FINRA recommends that firms contact their designated Risk Monitoring Analyst with questions about these or other methods undertaken during this time. FINRA is once again setting the expectation that firms need to fully consider their compliance practices carefully during this time. Bates will continue to monitor and summarize these regulatory compliance developments.

Bates Compliance practice leaders and consultants are available to answer your questions on compliance, risk, supervision and audit matters to help you through this period. Please reach out.

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