In finance, working from home was once a no-go. What lessons can the sector learn from the pandemic experience?
For an industry built on a hardcore office culture, banking and finance has quickly adapted during the Covid pandemic. As the sector races back to “normal”, can it retain some of the benefits of flexible working?
Across several financial institutions, those at the top of the C-Suite are clear that remote working isn’t right for the sector; some have indicated their intention to have most employees back at their desks for most of the week.
Earlier this year, JPMorgan Chase & Co boss Jamie Dimon said working from home “doesn’t work for those who want to hustle”. UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak, a former employee at banking giant Goldman Sachs, suggested young people’s careers may be hurt by not being in an office.
However, with many banks in the US now pushing back return dates due to the Delta variant and some UK institutions moving more slowly than planned, former Barclays Group CEO Antony Jenkins believes the sector’s “skilful leaders” must acknowledge three things to benefit from the lessons of the past 18 months.
“Accept and acknowledge that the world has changed. Listen to what your colleagues say and identify what is critically important for each part of the business,” Jenkins says. “This is a learning experience for everyone, so we need to be prepared to modify as we go.”
Jenkins is now the founder of global bank operating system company 10x Banking. He says the concept of work/life balance in his industry was often discussed before the pandemic but suggests things are different now that “everyone has experienced” this new frontier.
“Less time commuting, more flexibility, less business travel,” he adds. “As economies rebound, employers see the job market becoming more competitive. Those that offer flexibility will have the edge over those that don’t.”
Finastra has put such flexibility into action. The company’s 9,000 employees around the world can now choose to do two days in the office and two days from home, with the remaining workday spent wherever they prefer, says Sharon Doherty, its chief people and places officer
However, research suggests that younger workers may be particularly impacted by a lack of time in the office. They often learn on the job from more experienced colleagues and have been forced in some cases to work in cramped home-sharing conditions.
Findings from Robert Walters – which recruits for the banking and financial services sector – show 75% of workers aged 18-26 see the workplace as their number one source of meaning and social connection. A majority of Gen Z workers (54%) say they’re likely to leave their employer within 12 months if a workplace culture doesn’t return.
Lamar Dallas, 27, has been working at PCB Partners for two years. He was working at home two days a week before the pandemic but is now remote full-time. Dallas says this has been a positive thing, with the 10 hours a week he saves on commuting meaning he can reach his career goals faster.
However, eventually returning to his previous balance would be best, Dallas says.
“Nothing can beat going into an office, seeing my colleagues, building that relationship with them and meeting clients with a live interaction. That’s the way business should be conducted.”
Many younger workers have told Simon Roderick, managing director of financial recruiters Fram Search, that they want to be in an office setting. That’s especially true for those just starting out in their careers.
Roderick believes hybrid working has the potential to be “confusing and slightly chaotic” when it comes to scheduling meetings and collaborating. However, “firms will need to give hybrid working every opportunity, as those who perfect this way of working will have an advantage. They will be able to look further afield for skills and it may help those with childcare responsibilities to balance work and home life.”
The City is working hard on diversity, he adds, so will welcome the potential ability to tap into different talent pools.
Time for change
Roderick has two decades of experience in financial recruitment. In the future, firms will need to deliver a good office experience to attract the best talent, he says, and must give careful thought to balancing the interests of all team members.
“Days in the office will need real purpose and I think we’ll see them being used for teams to bond,” he says. “Perhaps lunches will take on more meaning. Equally, the spaces teams work in will have to be more informal and comfortable, with those firms who are able having more lifestyle-enhancing services onsite.”
A lack of flexible working could adversely impact talent attraction, some suggest, while many believe that banking’s reputation for overwork, toxicity and burnout must now change. Indeed, recent research for Koa Health found 36% of organisations in the UK finance industry say mental health is not a cultural priority.
Kevin von Neuschatz, group CEO at Stanhope Financial Group, says the change must be led from the top. The banking industry has operated with draconian working models for years, he says, and the Covid pandemic has forced through some long-overdue changes.
“The rise of challenger brands, Fintech companies and flexible working is already ushering in an era where graduates can learn and develop without being chained to an office desk for 14 hours a day,” he adds. “The old school burn-and-churn culture is completely out of step with the modern world and at odds with attracting and retaining genuine talent.”