As some financial services firms force employees to return to the office full-time, individuals are showing reluctance and demanding flexibility. Stephanie Baxter explores the debate.
The Covid-19 pandemic sparked a massive trend of working home in the financial sector and many employees are reluctant for this to change.
But there is a growing wave of firms keen to get people back working in the office.
According to recent reports, JP Morgan Chase is taking a hard stance, forcing its managing directors to come back to the office five days a week, while Goldman Sachs is said to be taking a similar approach.
But others, particularly mid-sized to smaller firms, are maintaining a flexible working culture, meaning either full remote, one day a week or once a quarter in the office.
It comes as banks are concerned about systemic risk following the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, and this is thought to be a driver behind wanting risk and compliance employees to return to the office.
PJ Di Giammarino, CEO of reg tech market intelligence firm JWG, explains that much of the push is from senior management because of the matrix hierarchy of decision-making. “That is a clear and present need because things can get complicated, and you need to make sure you have those lines of communication that aren’t always best facilitated by virtual,” he says.
Employees unhappy with return to office
A combination of return-to-office policies and the uptick in layoffs in the financial sector has led more people to look at what is best for them, and there is an expectation that the banks which are taking a harder line on return-to-the office could see talent move to competitors. Sources say that in areas like New York City people are questioning why they should waste several hours commuting.
Josh Oliveira, a Risk Management SVP who is speaking in an independent capacity, says: “For a lot of people who have been forced to return to the office, the immediate thought is ‘I’m going to start looking for another job or I’m not doing it’. It’s clear that a majority of the workforce at every level from entry level to executives don’t agree with returning to the office full time, so it’s creating an environment where you feel like you’re being micromanaged and controlled.”
Oliveira is very concerned by the negative impact of what he calls a “self-cannibalising policy” that he believes is building resentment.
He adds: “I think it has a significantly negative impact on productivity and morale, and I personally think it’s time to adapt because we’re not going back to the past. I can’t imagine that an ongoing negative work environment is good for risk management. I believe in giving people choice.”
Research by Gallup shows there is an optimal engagement boost when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time working off-site.
Meanwhile, the Integrated Benefits Institute’s 2022 survey found employees who work remotely or in a hybrid environment are more satisfied (20.7%) and more engaged (50.8%).
Concerns over systemic risk are not seen as a valid reason to force people to go back into the office full time. Oliveira thinks it is more to do with a lack of willingness to adapt to the new working-from-home culture.
“One of the issues is that a lot of managers are not willing to learn the new way of working asynchronously. And then when they see challenges within the broader macroeconomic environment and demand that people return to the office, it’s a knee jerk reaction,” he says.
There are some rumours that corporate real estate valuations might have something to do with it, says Oliveira. “A lot of the metropolitan cities are trying to get people back in to stimulate economic activity. So, I think it’s a combination of there being no playbook, proven management or leadership style, combined with the pressure to try to rebound from the loss of economic activity in these business centres.”
Tech improvements during working from home
Since the working-from-home trend took off, there have been advancements in tooling, or just using it more effectively. For example, there is more use of Teams and Slack to create more group channels and embrace a more asynchronous communication, says Oliveira.
Also, the modern nature of compliance work can be done remotely.
Di Giammarino says: “A lot of the compliance work itself is being done under a rules-based, risk-model based management, which means more and more from a compliance perspective; it’s all code that then ties back to the data and you’re really just dealing with exceptions.”
Working from home has forced employees to become more strategic in their communication and day-to-day planning.
As Oliveira explains: “Because you know you won’t necessarily get an answer straight away and communication is more asynchronous, it forces you to think ‘do I really need to ask that’? Is that really an urgent priority right now? That’s a benefit because one could argue that pre-COVID, the communication methods really weren’t working that well. People were pulling all-nighters and coming in early, but now more people are challenging that now and saying, ‘we can do it this way’.”