The return to the office is a hot debate in any industry. In fintech even more so since so many of its workers were able to prove that they could be just as productive, if not more, when working from home in the pandemic. Fintech Magazine shares survey results in Alex Clere’s article, ‘Remote Workers Waste Two Hours Less Per Week’ stating that, concerning productivity “the findings cast serious doubt on traditional perceptions of remote workers”. Although there may have been a reduction in wasted time, it has been noted that this has come at the cost of diminished human interaction, reduced collaborative creativity, weakened connections, and an impact on the bottom line. Businesses have been looking at ways to bring in return-to-office policies and often have missed empathy and the workers’ perspective. Scoop’s ‘Q2 Flex Report’ provides data supporting the trend of finance and technology companies choosing ‘structured hybrid’ models. In some cases, across Q1 to Q2 this year, the number of businesses choosing a return to office in some way has increased by 12%.
Although there are some positive outcomes, the media continues to report on various fintech businesses, regardless of their size, stability, traditional or decentralized nature, attempting to bring employees back to the office with mandates and demands that lack a focus on the people themselves.
Is return to the office the catch-all solution?
2023 has been rife with challenges, including rising global interest rates, recurring recessions, and cost of living crises. Many leaders believe that a return-to-office plan is the solution to all problems to drive better performance. A Business Insider article published in July 2023, listed ‘major companies requiring employees to return to the office’. Within it, a memo shared by Blackrock leadership noted, “career development happens in teaching moments between team members… this requires us to be together in the office.” Little was shared about how careers can progress in a new virtual world. More aggressively, Bloomberg published an article called ‘IBM Chief’s Message to Remote Workers: Your Career Does Suffer’. The IBM CEO Arvind Krishna was pretty clear on the topic when he said, “remote work can be hazardous for your career”. Business Insider has also written on JP Morgan, highlighting that CEO Jamie Dimon publicly said “remote work slows down honesty and decision making,” He was quoted saying there was a culture of “we’ll pick this up tomorrow” because people are at home, without any consideration for those working at pace or those who need time to process decision making regardless of their location.
Career development, promotion and pace are super important factors in productive and impactful workplaces. Some businesses are looking to improve on these points by investing in their people despite a person’s workplace location. Paul Dyson, Co-Founder and CTO of the fintech Singletrack believes that face-to-face interaction can be used for specific things such as “kicking off new strands of work, reviewing what’s been delivered, performance reviews and, of course, social events.” Singletrack worked their policy around individual needs leaving huge space for flexibility. Each team finds its own balance of in-office and at-home working with some teams choosing to be face to face more regularly and some meeting one per month. Everyone has the opportunity to use the office whenever they need to, without expectation or pressure. He insists that “productivity has remained high and employee satisfaction has increased; we’ve always been more focused on what people deliver, not how or where they spend their time.”
Ali Hamriti, the Founder and CEO of the fintech Rollee, switched from a full-remote to hybrid working arrangements. His company continues hiring in several geographies while they plan several interactions between team members to fill the post-pandemic needs. It works because he promotes transparency of communication and clarity of expectation with measurable objectives for all of Rollee’s team leaders. He said, “focus on ensuring that wellness is at the core of your company” and added that “upskilling is also essential; it’s about investing in their evolution and agreeing on a clear path with specific milestones.”
Despite the big news headlines, staff investment has continued within some of the businesses in the fintech and financial sectors. Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England was quoted, saying “As employers, we are all having to face the fact that we are having to recruit people in a job market where [remote working] is increasingly part of the work-life balance.” Citi Bank has invested in their measurement of staff productivity and during a Bloomberg News Panel, the CEO Jane Fraser shared that if anyone is “not being productive, we bring them back into the office, and give them the coaching they need until they bring the productivity back up again.”
Work life balance
Getting this wrong could force performance to lower ebbs. Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics surveyed 2300 workers and the results were that “39%, say they would quit if their ability to work from home was taken away,” and “nearly half say they’d stop working as hard if the benefit was eliminated.” In a Wall Street Journal publication called ‘Why Workers Aren’t Coming Back to the Office Full Time’, the reasons for this included “workers loath to forgo flexibility”. This included the physical cost and expense of returning to the office, the loss of family life and the reduction of personal time. In addition, the article noted the decrease in “emotional labor” of not having to deal with microaggressions prevalent in the office when face to face. When considering culture, retention and productivity, these factors need addressing in-depth, in their own right.
Joanna Kori, Head of People for RegTech provider Encompass Corporation, speaking in a recent podcast, ‘The DEI Discussions’, emphasized the power of building a great culture that supports each person’s unique experience. She said leadership was about “advocating for people” and shared that especially when it comes to executive-led support of flexible working, “enabling that has made a huge difference to our employees, the majority of whom currently place it higher in importance to them than salary.” Listening to staff is at the core of truly “accommodating diverse opinions and philosophies in an environment that creates safe spaces for everyone,” Joanna added.
This melting pot of productivity, performance, well-being, promotion, communication, collaboration, safety and inclusion shows that there are lots to consider when rolling out any policy and those considerations will vary per person. Any conversation around Diversity, Equity or Inclusion in the workplace will certainly include the importance of flexible working and this element cannot be underestimated in the debate. In an industry that proclaims to need great talent and wants diversity of thought to be the best it can be this topic is central to the reality of that desire.