Why the financial world is split over hybrid working

By Matt Weston on 6th April 2021

With major institutions like HSBC and Lloyds announcing large cuts to their office footprint, there has been renewed speculation across the financial world about the long-term future of the office. This is borne out by the latest research, which found 89 per cent of business leaders expect hybrid working between home and the office to remain a permanent feature, even after the pandemic is over.

However, despite such a strong majority, the debate is far from settled, especially after the latest comments from David Solomon, chief executive at Goldman Sachs. Solomon called home working an ‘aberration’ that must be corrected ‘as soon as possible’, indicating that the working patterns across the financial world may be set to diverge sharply into two distinct camps. On the one hand, having people physically together can reinforce organisational culture and a spirit of collaboration but, on the other, allowing greater flexibility over location enables firms to broaden their talent pool and boost agility and productivity.

When it comes to attracting and retaining the top talent, managing these issues can be tricky. A company’s approach to hybrid working – whether embracing or rejecting it – makes a big statement about corporate culture that can significantly affect the type of candidates’ managers can attract when trying to build a top performing team. But in a fiercely competitive market, what is the right balance to strike?

Managing the move to remote working

When discussing the need for financial professionals to return to the office as swiftly as possible, Solomon made no secret of his issues with remote working, speaking about his desire for Goldman to maintain its innovative and collaborative culture, as well as his concerns about the impact remote working has on training and development for junior staff. And Solomon isn’t alone – when asked about the problems of having a hybrid workforce, a survey of 1,500 executives were almost unanimous in citing these five key issues:

  1. Monitoring workloads
  2. Complicates hiring/onboarding new staff
  3. Maintaining culture
  4. Assessing employee wellbeing and mental health
  5. Hard to optimise engagement/collaboration

Adapting to meet these challenges isn’t easy and businesses are having to make significant changes in how they operate, such as adjusting working hours and standard processes for remote employees or redesigning job descriptions and responsibilities to reflect workers capabilities. On top of this, nearly half (49 per cent) of remote-working employees are looking to switch to a four day working week to help cope with burnout which, if adopted broadly across the industry, would require major restructuring of teams and responsibilities for almost every firm.

Yet despite the disruption that moving to a permanent hybrid model can cause, there are excellent reasons for banks to embrace the change. The first and most obvious is that it’s what employees are demanding, with an overwhelming 92 per cent saying they would like to either work from home full time or having the ability to choose on a daily or weekly basis – unsurprising when remote working has been shown to boost job satisfaction and productivity in the long run. This means that, for the vast majority of open roles, prospective candidates may be put off by a company which demands they be in the office five days a week. On top of this, adopting a hybrid approach enables firms to dramatically expand their potential talent pool for new hires as well as retaining key personnel who might otherwise leave.

Best of both worlds

It’s up to each financial institution to balance these trade-offs and find their own unique blend that enables them to retain their company culture while also attracting and retaining their best talent. However, there are several key steps that can help frame such discussions.

The first is gaining visibility into how each role might be impacted by longer-term remote working – for example, our research has found that activities such as fund management, risk & compliance, or financial planning are among the easiest to be done remotely – and then analysing the impact of offering hybrid working solutions on the company as a whole. This means not only understanding how hybrid working might alter the organisational structure and culture, but what this means in comparison to competitors in the market.

Then, once this is established, it’s about making sure that the right candidates are being targeted – not just in terms of professional skills but in terms of ethos and personality. There are good reasons why companies, such as Goldman Sachs, may choose not to allow remote working. However, this will inevitably limit the talent pool they are able to draw from compared to competitors. Therefore, they need to be partnering with experts who not only have access to find and access the best local talent, but who also understand the company culture and can find candidates who have the right personality to fit in from day one.

Finally, it’s important to review these assumptions regularly as technology evolves, and job roles change. For instance, while financial advisors used to have to meet clients face to face for important security checks, today video conferencing has rendered a great deal of this face-to-face interaction optional. Financial institutions need to make sure they are keeping up with the latest trends and don’t fall into antiquated thinking about how certain jobs ‘should’ be done.

The future of work - redefined

With the fight against the pandemic far from over, it’s too soon to say what longer-term working patterns will look like in the aftermath of COVID-19, especially when it comes to the future of the office. Despite this uncertainty, financial executives need to decide where they stand on hybrid working (if they haven’t already). Making these decisions isn’t easy but, by ensuring they have a strong grasp of how each role will be impacted by remote working, and a good understanding of the ways in which the market is moving, it’s possible for the financial world to turn this disruption into a competitive advantage in the ongoing war for talent.

Matt Weston, Managing Director, Robert Half UK

A version of this article first appeared in Financial IT

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