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Microsoft Teams surveillance: another compliance headache or a silver-lining during COVID?

There is nothing good that has come out of this awful global pandemic. For compliance officers, an adjustment to a ‘new compliance normal’ was required. New communications channels and a new remote work environment made it difficult, especially for the surveillance function.  But perhaps, if you’re a Compliance Officer in financial services, you did find some respite in the fact that Microsoft® Teams surveillance was an available option so that your colleagues could communicate securely to keep the business and economy churning forward.

Why the interest now?

The adoption of eComms and e-Collaboration tools has been on the rise over the past couple of years. Not only in financial services, but broadly across all industries. I asked Magdalena Glowacka, a business solutions consultant at FIS Global if she thought that the rapid adoption of e-Collab tools like Microsoft Teams was a temporary artifact from the pandemic. She didn’t think so, stating that “The rapid increase of Microsoft Teams as a preferred means of business communications has become a key marker of this trend towards e-collaboration.”

These work solutions offer tremendous convenience, cross-platform integration and have the ability to manage files and search across multi-media, including unstructured data like videos and compressed (zipped and archived) data. These features, and others, make eComms and e-Collab tools attractive to employers and their staff who use them. Moreover, the 1:1 and group chat functions make them indispensable as a means of rapidly communicating with colleagues using whatever languages (often mixing languages in the same sentence), emojis, gifs or other complex forms of dialogue that they choose to use. The problem has been that all that activity, such as document versioning, editing, commenting and deleting chats went unmonitored – until recently.

With the immediacy of COVID-19, small and large financial firms, and every size in between, shifted overnight to working from home – beyond the reach of most firms’ regulatory compliance efforts. I wanted to get the perspective of Nirvana Farhadi, a renowned RegTech pioneer and thought leader. She had this to say, “Today the world stands on the precipice of change, an inflection point in how businesses will operate going forward and what will the “new normal” be? A leading cause of this shift is due to COVID-19. This global pandemic has certainly accelerated our timeline to fully embrace digital transformation.”

Will we revert back to our old ways?

This is the question that nobody knows the answer to. However, all signs are pointing to a “new compliance normal” given the sustained (and unwelcome) persistence of the novel coronavirus. Behaviors repeated often enough and for long enough become habits and rituals which have been proven extremely difficult to break. Working with e-Collab and eComms tools so proficiently over the past few months of global lockdowns, self-isolation and social distancing have already ingrained them into our daily operations. In fact, they’ve become our core tools and appear to be wholly indispensable to work. As such, despite their added complexity and creation of yet another data silo for technologists and Compliance Officers to contend with, shifting away from e-Collab tools in the near future seems highly unlikely. In fact, the success of remote working is shaking the foundations of work and city lifestyle and as such surface the possibility of making this (or similar) remote working the new normal standard.

I pressed Farhadi to say more about the emergence of the new normal, “During this time, remote working became a critical enabler of business and our economy, and many predict that this will continue to be the ‘new normal.’ After all, working remotely can reduce business overheads, improve productivity, not to mention improvements to the environment. With this new way, we have seen a surge in the use of centralized communications platforms and collaboration tools, which come with (documents, chat, video, etc.) such as Zoom, MS Teams, where businesses are trying to continue against the backdrop of uncertainty.”

Reducing the risk

At the onset of COVID-19, particularly in mid-March when the world almost simultaneously went dark – and went home – regulatory authorities like the SEC and numerous others offered conditional regulatory relief. Back then, most governments divided their efforts into two prongs: public safety and health for their people and preventing financial collapse. Since that time, public and financial health has remained in the spotlight for nearly every country around the globe.

Regulators understood this conundrum: brace for financial fallout and grave economic stability but prod the economy forward by whatever means necessary – even at the temporary peril of compliance. But that was four months ago. The world has more-or-less figured out its collective business continuity plan and health management plan with the solemn recognition that COVID is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Communication Compliance Officers were initially given a bit of wiggle room, but the reins are tightening once again.

Farhadi sees a silver lining, “Although it’s true that the compliance risks of this method of work can have tremendous regulatory and business risks for organizations and their employees, we are seeing many good robust solutions in the market. Many are being designed with compliance embedded in the development of the products. This will help enable best practices and ensure compliance obligations are met fully.”


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