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Tim Wiggan, executive managing director and head of global equities and commodities at TD Securities,in Toronto, on April 9, 2020.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

On the afternoon of March 5 – at least a week before most Canadians had an inkling of the pandemic lockdown then on the horizon – Tim Wiggan was part of one of the most crucial decisions being made at one of the country’s largest trading operations.

TD Securities’ head of global equities and commodities walked into a meeting to discuss the looming threat of the coronavirus outbreak that was spreading through Asia and Europe. Specifically, he and other senior TD executives had to decide whether to proactively split up the firm’s global trading business in Toronto, centralized on a huge open floor in a downtown office tower. The idea would be to send some employees to remote backup locations in the suburbs as a way of preventing infection from galloping through a major financial institution.

By 4 p.m., Mr. Wiggan and his fellow executives decided the bank would quietly “flip the switch” on its trading operations and begin to relocate most of its 357 members out of the city’s downtown.

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The result was an unprecedented move that went far beyond merely shifting traders to TD’s backup locations. Within two weeks, the vast majority of the bank’s traders were working from home – something that had never been done before. Replicating a high-tech trading floor in hundreds of residential dining rooms and spare bedrooms posed a massive technological challenge for an operation whose staff, as of early March, didn’t even have laptops.

"Given the complexity of marketplaces today, this is an incredible example of execution and logistics management,” says Mr. Wiggan. “Not only were we dealing with moving people to work from home, but we’re also dealing with a health crisis – a health crisis that led to a financial crisis.”

Trading floors, commonly associated with stock exchanges and futures, are where financial securities are bought and sold. They’re not far off from what you’d see in a classic movie like Wall Street: large, open-concept floors that hold hundreds of traders side by side at cubicle-style desks. Typically the traders work on desktop computers with multiple monitors, including Bloomberg terminals to access financial data, and need high-speed internet connections to trade in real time.

As part their business contingency plans, all banks have backup trading sites at remote locations, stocked with enough desks and computers to keep crucial operations running in the event of an emergency. Though they’re tested annually, these remote locations don’t get much use – the last time TD sent traders to its backup site was during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

As if the technological challenges of moving an entire trading operation weren’t bad enough, TD faced an extra layer of complexity, as pandemic panic set in and global trading volumes began to surge.

On March 9, the Toronto Stock Exchange plunged more than 1,600 points – its worst day since 1987 – and oil prices fell by more than 30 per cent. By the end of the month, the TMX Group Ltd. had logged a record 22.9 billion shares traded across all its equities markets, almost double the 12 billion trades in the previous month.

Back-office staff began to work overtime to ensure all trades were being cleared, and IT operations stayed on schedule to move as quickly as possible. The original plan involved moving half of TD’s traders to its remote site, but as it became clear people needed to be isolated, that changed abruptly to getting everyone up and running at home.

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Now, 84 per cent of TD Securities’ global markets trading division is working from home – about 300 traders – with another three per cent in a remote location and 13 per cent still on the trading floor (spread out to adhere to physical distancing rules).

For Ty Panagoplos, TD Securities’s chief information officer, the biggest challenge was hardware: As of early March, fewer than 25 per cent of TD Securities trading staff owned a laptop or tablet they could use to work remotely. That meant the bank had to buy 297 laptops to give traders remote access to the TD network, which includes individual connections to essential Bloomberg trading terminals.

Fortunately, Mr. Panagoplos’s team had started testing out flexible work arrangements more than a year ago – including work-from-home scenarios.

“We’d previously done this in a few incarnations, and it never was hugely successful,” he says. But during last year’s trial, TD developed a new portable router device that could be placed in a home to broadcast the TD WiFi signal, allowing only company machines to connect to the secure network.

At the same time, Mr. Panagoplos set up an agreement with a technology vendor to build a work-from-home bundle that included laptops, large monitor screens and the network routers. As part of the deal, TD didn’t have to buy the packages until it needed them, allowing the bank to quickly order all the required equipment within days rather than weeks, he says.

The first wave of TD traders began to move on March 18. To test out the system, traders conducted only “non-voice deals,” meaning they didn’t need access to a trading turret – a specialized phone system designed for traders who handle a high volume of calls and need access to multiple lines.

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Several days later, the second wave of traders began to work from home, which required the installation of trading turrets. Since stricter quarantine rules prevented operations and technology teams from entering employees’ homes, IT staff had to walk traders through the setup by phone. Some of them had issues with their home internet speeds being too slow to handle a surge in capacity, especially if their entire families were working off the same connection.

“Even though I knew the remote infrastructure was solid, watching the first actual trading applications in real time, as if they were in the office, was really surprising,” says Mr. Panagoplos, who began monitoring the move from his own home office on March 18. “I thought we would see some latency in some of the readings, but we didn’t.”

By March 25, almost 90 per cent of the bank’s trading division was working remotely, with plans already in place for the remaining staff to move if needed.

Mr. Panagoplos says the quick response time in Toronto is due in part to the bank’s experience in Singapore on Feb. 10, when the government upgraded the severity status of the coronavirus. The change in status triggered TD Securities to move 30 traders from its Asia trading operation in downtown Singapore to a remote location 15 kilometres outside the central business district.

“It was at that point that we said we should probably run some scenarios on what we would do if we were pushed into a similar circumstance in Europe or North America,” says Mr. Panagoplos. “Singapore has a lot less people, and [a move] is a lot less traumatic. In North America, that’s really the meat of the operation, so it becomes a lot more complicated."

Unlike New York and Singapore, where trading floors are fully closed down, there are still 40 employees – including Mr. Wiggan – working on TD’s floor in Toronto. But a complete closure isn’t out of the question.

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“It would be the absolute extreme,” he says. "But it’s something we’re openly talking about and considering as a reasonable probability at this point.”

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