Historically, flexible working has not been a hallmark of the financial sector, but with the largely successful pandemic-induced adoption of remote working, that may be about to change.
The financial sector is known for its high-pressure and fast-paced working environments which are caused by a combination of high-stakes work and unchecked presenteeism. When COVID-19 forced the majority of businesses to operate remotely, traditionally managed financial teams were sceptical. Up until 2021, company cultures across sectors expected employees to show up to work every day, driven by a lack of trust and the belief that, if they couldn’t be seen to be working, employees weren’t doing their jobs.
“There was often a perception that some of the larger, more traditional teams in the firm needed to see that people were working rather than simply trust that they were,” says Matteo Timpani, Corporate Finance Partner at Crowe U.K. LLP. Of their operational strategy pre-pandemic, Timpani explains: “we were fairly agile, but we were a typical financial accounting practice – working from home was accepted by exception.” Well into the pandemic and the UK’s third lockdown, research suggests that 30% of financial firms are planning to permanently adopt some sort of remote working strategy. So how did financial companies navigate the switch to remote working and what does it mean for the future of work in financial services?
The challenges were significant from the outset, particularly for roles that typically depended on paper files or the technological infrastructure required on trading floors. But the near overnight adoption of remote working quickly revealed a degree of adaptability for the financial sector far beyond what many thought possible. “Working from home has helped us become a far more paperless organisation,” says Crowe’s Timpani. “We didn’t have access to any of our paper files and it turned out we don’t actually need them.”
For Crowe, the transformative nature of the past year goes beyond remote work, encompassing an office move that’s driven a company-wide evolution in favour of flexibility. Previously spread across multiple floors, their teams now operate from a single, open-plan floor with purpose-built workspaces to accommodate the different types of tasks staff encounter on a daily basis. They’ve also adopted hotdesking, essentially building a flexible workplace strategy into their future. “We don’t expect everyone to be in the office at the same time,” Timpani says. Consolidating their footprint has supported Crowe’s agile development and allowed them to sublet part of their new space, bringing in revenue that will offset operational costs.
The majority of financial companies are re-thinking their space requirements in light of the successful switch to remote working. Technologically-enabled employees and greater degrees of trust have proven just how unnecessary it is to work exclusively out of the office, and allowing employees to continue to work remotely part of the time means businesses need less space. It’s a win-win scenario with staff no longer expected to commute to work every day of the week and trusted to work productively outside of the office, and businesses using space rationalisation processes to get the most out of their commercial assets – often downsizing and drastically reducing overheads, or realising the ability to turn grey space into lettable premium workspace.
Remote working hasn’t been entirely positive though, with employees feeling burnt out due to longer hours and fewer breaks. “The way we’re working right now isn’t sustainable,” explains Timpani. “We’ve done a great job navigating a crisis, but ultimately success is going to be about balance.” That balance is something experts are referring to as work/life integration: a step past pre-pandemic work/life balance. True work/life integration will come from flexible working strategies that allow employees to work remotely anywhere from 1-3 days a week while providing access to core office space and a user-centric working environment.
Both office-based and remote working support employee productivity and wellbeing in different ways, but when companies push their operating strategy too far in one direction, the scales start to tip. Flexible working allows for a best-of-both-worlds solution to the future of work. By equipping staff with the ability to work from home or from a specially-designed workplace, businesses are providing their employees with the spaces they need to be productive and the ability to choose how and where they work. The result is higher productivity, improved collaboration, better employee wellbeing, dedicated client spaces and the dissolution of presenteeism.
As continued vaccination bolsters hopes for a permanent return to the office in the UK, this kind of integrated approach to work and wellbeing is a crucial part of businesses’ ability to bring people back to the workplace. Data from the City Mental Health Alliance reveals that professionals in the financial and legal sectors were judging potential employers based on their consideration of employee wellbeing and mental health even before the pandemic. With a new global understanding of the benefits of flexible working, employees are rightfully expecting more from their employers than ever before. “It was good timing,” says Timpani of Crowe’s office transformation. “I think we would have struggled to bring people back to our old office. We were clear that we’d rather prioritise our new space as a truly great place to be.”
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