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The human cost of fintech success: can Revolut truly change its culture?

The UK’s highest-valued fintech firm recently announced that it’s planning a cultural overhaul. But this is unlikely to succeed unless meaningful changes are made in several areas – particularly at the top
Founder & Ceo Of Revolut, Nik Storonsky, Addresses The
Nikolay Storonsky, CEO of fintech firm Revolut

What happens when you merge the cutthroat environment of the trading floor with the visionary zeal of a tech company? Revolut, the UK’s highest-valued fintech firm, may provide the answer. 

This week, The Guardian revealed that Revolut wants to address what’s widely seen as an aggressive company culture and encourage a more “human” approach. It wants colleagues to become “approachable” and “respectful” and to offer each other more constructive feedback.

To this end, Revolut has assembled an internal group, known as the CultureLab, that combines the firm’s people experience and employer branding teams. This will assess the extent to which employees are adopting the desired new behaviour. 

The fact that employer branding is part of the firm’s cultural overhaul may be telling. Revolut, which operates in more than 200 countries, is based in London but has yet to secure a UK banking licence. Although the firm strenuously denies that the two factors are linked, many observers see the timing of this project as significant, particularly as the business has also come under scrutiny for failing to submit its 2021 accounts to Companies House on time

The conditions seem perfect for a big, shiny cultural reimagining, then. But will it actually work? 

Leading by example: can Nikolay Storonsky set the tone?

Culture comes from the top. Recent research by Quantum Workplace found that 83% of US workers consider senior executives to be responsible for shaping the culture of their organisations. The rank and file may contribute to the culture, but ultimately it is their leaders who must decide what kind of outfit they want to run.

When Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he understood that a culture shift was required to ensure the tech giant’s longevity. In one of his first shareholder meetings, he made this clear to the leadership team, announcing that Microsoft’s ability to adapt culturally would be the leading indicator of the company’s success. 

But culture is set by example, not just proclamation. If senior executives wish to effect change, they must model it in their own behaviour. Herein lies a potential problem for Revolut: CEO Nikolay Storonsky may be the face of the new policy, but can he adopt the desired new attributes himself?

Storonsky, who co-founded Revolut in 2015 with CTO Vlad Yatsenko, has led the company from strength to strength, earning it unicorn status in 2018. His background in the most traditional and aggressive areas of the financial services sector (he was a trader at Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse) has taught him how to compete successfully in a highly competitive marketplace. 

Storonsky wants Revolut to be the “Amazon of banking”. In pursuing this objective, he works tirelessly and expects much the same from his colleagues. In an interview in 2017, he revealed that he routinely works 14-hour days, that he goes on leave “very rarely” and that “99.5% of my life is work-related”. 

Revolut’s planned culture change may not go far enough

With such a dedicated, driven character at the helm, it’s little wonder that Revolut’s culture has developed as it has. For years, the firm has been dogged by claims that bullying is tolerated, while employees are expected to work several hours of unpaid overtime, including at weekends, in pursuit of impossibly high targets. 

A quick scan of anonymous comments left on employer review site Glassdoor reveals how Revolut staffers feel about this. One review from someone who left the firm in December 2022, described it as “aggressive, toxic and only good as a springboard to somewhere else”. Another review, from this month, called the workplace “very chaotic; forget about your work/life balance.” And one from last week simply called Revolut “the worst company I’ve ever worked for”. 

Revolut’s approach to changing such sentiments will be multi-pronged. For instance, the company will be revamping performance reviews; mandating one-to-one meetings between managers and their team members to focus on the new values; and launching a recognition and reward programme for “value champions”. 

These are all good ways to show that the company is serious about changing itself. Yet they do little to address the high-performance culture that seems to be the source of much of the negative feedback. How can employees be expected to pour their energy into being pleasant, collaborative colleagues if they are overworked, under stress and burnt out? For a true cultural shift to occur, those in charge will need to take a long, hard look at their performance demands and ask themselves whether these are appropriate.

German technology giant Siemens was forced to confront a similar problem in 2006, after the firm was involved in one of the largest cases of corporate financial misconduct on record. An internal investigation concluded that an aggressive growth strategy, which put managers under pressure to cut corners to hit their targets, had led indirectly to the embezzlement of hundreds of millions of euros from the business. 

Peter Löscher, who was appointed as CEO in 2007, overhauled the company’s culture during his six years in post by encouraging open communication at all levels of the business and implementing “integrity dialogues” into every sales meeting. Siemens’ Glassdoor rating today is 4.2 out of five, which compares favourably with Revolut’s score of 3.6.

Culture shift cannot happen in a vacuum

Culture is also about people. This means that meaningful change can happen only if it’s supported by those it will affect. Under Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft champions a process of co-creation. Every day, employees are asked one question, so that the firm’s senior team can take the workforce’s pulse. If a particular issue is mentioned often enough in their answers, it is recognised as a problem to tackle.

Revolut’s CultureLab seems to be to focusing on whether staff are living up to the new values or not – an approach that sounds more like an inquisition than part of an initiative to improve the employee experience.

Another Glassdoor reviewer, when asked what advice they would offer Revolut’s management team, said that it was “genuinely not worth it, since it will be ignored”. Their point isn’t diminished by the fact that each negative review has attracted a boilerplate response from the firm that restates Revolut’s values (“never settle”, “get it done” and “deliver wow”) and explains that an ambitious, dynamic environment is necessarily challenging at times.

For true change to occur, CultureLab would be wise to work with people who have legitimate concerns to share about Revolut’s culture, rather than dismissing their feedback. 

Is Revolut letting an opportunity slip?

While many firms in the tech sector are cutting hundreds of jobs, Revolut is looking to fill more than 200 vacancies. In August it announced that it would be increasing its workforce by 20%. Here too, the leadership may be missing a trick. 

The workplace has seen trends ranging from the so-called great resignation to quiet quitting since the pandemic struck, as people have renegotiated relationships with their employers. It would seem that many people are seeking more than a steady job and fair pay. They are looking for a wonderful place to work. As increasing numbers of skilled tech specialists enter the recruitment market, Revolut has a golden opportunity to snap them up, but it may miss out on the best talent if it cannot improve its reputation as an employer.