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Finance has always been something of a traditional sector. Even as other industries have abandoned formal dress codes and introduced flexible working, many businesses in financial services have stuck to a 9–5 working day, usually centred around a traditional office space. But all of that changed earlier this year when the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented lockdown, spurring firms to adapt their operationsto facilitate remote working at very short notice.
Now, for almost three months and counting, staff across the UK have been working from home full-time, using tech to support meetings in place of face-to-face interaction. And, there are signs that these changes might be set to continue long after life has returned to normal. Some senior figures have even suggested that the old model may be gone for good, with Jes Staley, Chief Executive of Barclays, stating that the notion of having thousands of employees in a centralised office "may be a thing of the past" (Guardian).
But what has led to this cultural shift? In this article, I'll take a closer look at some of the reasons that home working and more flexible working conditions are likely to become the new normal for those in the finance sector.
There's a lot of evidence to show that the majority of workers prefer remote and flexible working, andthose feelings seem to have intensified during the pandemic. Since the restrictions came into force, 55% of finance workers have reported that they hope to be able to continue working from home after the lockdown has ended, according to a survey by Hitachi Capital UK. Respondents cited skipping the commute, saving money on transport costs, andavoiding pointless meetings among their primary reasons for preferring to work from home.
Clearly, remote working is an attractive prospect for many employees. As such, if businesses want to remain competitive on the jobs market and attract the best talent, they may have to make remote working a permanent option rather than an additional benefit. While full-time home-working may not be possible for most people in the finance sector under normal circumstances, it's likely that many people will want to continue to work from home for at least a couple of days a week after the lockdown is over. This would provide a compromise between the needs of the employer and the wishes of staff.
Giving workers the opportunity to work from home isn't just good for employee satisfaction: it can also have a positive impact on a company's bottom line. The cost of maintaining a brick and mortar office — including rent, utilities, furnishings, cleaning, and maintenance — is a major outgoing expense for most businesses.
But now that staff are working from their home offices, kitchen tables, and spare rooms just as effectively as in an office, many executives will be wondering whether a large-scaleheadquarters in a prime location is really worth it. Given that many employers have been hit hard by financial turbulence and cash flow issues during the pandemic, it may be the case that home working is the only economically viable option moving forward.
Working from home isn’t totally free to implement, of course: workers may will still need to be provided with tech, and businesses may need to invest in software to facilitate online collaboration and monitoring of staff activity during work hours. But, this is almost always a much more cost-effective scenario than the traditional model. So, it may be the case that we start to see many businesses look to downsize as more and more employees begin to work from home more frequently.
The pandemic has driven a cultural shift in terms of how remote working is perceived. Before the lockdown, many businesses viewed long-term home working as unproductive and impractical, particularly in industries that rely on face-to-face meetings.
However, the government restrictions have forced even the most traditional companies into an extended trial run of remote working.And, by and large, it’s been a success, allowing financial businesses to remain afloat during an incredibly challenging trading period. Just look at Barclays, a bank with £1.4 billion on its balance sheet, which has been able to operate efficiently while the majority of its 80,000 staff work from home, a revelation that chief executive Jes Staley has hailed as "extraordinary" (Guardian).
Now that staff have proven they can work effectively outside the office, it'll be hard to claim that the old structure is the only feasible option. This means that staff will have a lot more negotiating power over how and when they work in the future, because they can point to the successes during the pandemic as an example. Additionally, companies have had to rapidly invest in updating their tech and software options to facilitate home working. So, it may be the case that they'll want to continue putting this investment to good use after the restrictions have eased.
Many industry leaders may also be thinking about future-proofing their businesses against further outbreaks. Some health organisations have raised the possibility that we may face further lockdowns if the virus returns, which would necessitate another period of remote working. And if that happens, companies that have already shifted to home-working for at least part of the week will be in a much stronger position to weather the storm. As such, making the switch may be the best way for businesses to adapt to this "new normal".
While the pandemic has caused a lot of disruption for businesses across the UK, one positive outcome has been a cultural shift in terms of how remote working is perceived and valued. So, I think it's quite probable that many businesses in the financial sector will continue to offer remote working long after the lockdown has eased.