The massive work-from-home shift caused by the pandemic has resulted in a significant disconnect between employer and employee attitudes about the future of work in the financial services (FS) industry. While many employers are working to reopen offices, employees are ready for a more permanent change, bidding goodbye to five days of commuting and cubicles. According to our December 2020 Remote Work Survey, only 20% of FS employees want to be in the office three or more days each week once COVID-19 is no longer a major concern. Compare this to the 70% of FS employers who told us they believe employees should be at their desks at least three days per week to maintain a distinctive culture.
As a follow-up to our first FS Remote Work Survey in June 2020, we talked to 57 executives and 150 employees of US FS firms in December 2020. We wanted to get an updated understanding of what has gone well, and also gauge expectations of the future. Knowing when, why and how often your employees want to be in the office can help you plan more successfully for a world of hybrid work.
If you’re designing return-to-work plans for your workforce, take note. You’ll need to decide:
Here are some of our findings and our key takeaways.
Most financial services companies are clearly starting to think about bringing their employees back. When we asked executives when they hope to have half their employees back in the office, 49% said they’ll reach this milestone by April and 75% by July. This doesn’t scream “back to normal,” but it does suggest that firms hope to be well on their way back by mid-year.
Employees, on the other hand, expect to take things more slowly. We asked them when they expect to spend at least half of their time back in the office. For every time increment, the employee estimate was 10-20 percentage points lower than that of their employers.
Executives in the FS industry have traditionally been more hesitant to embrace remote work than their counterparts in other sectors: Before the pandemic, 29% of financial services companies had at least 60% of their workforce working remotely at least once a week, lower than the 36% reported across all industries. And yet, based on our results, remote work has been a success. Most employers (82%) told us it’s been successful or very successful. A similar share (84%) of FS employees agreed, far higher than the 71% who said this across all sectors. The same goes for productivity. FS employers and employees both overwhelmingly agreed that productivity with remote work was the same or better than before COVID-19. Not only that, the percent is higher than what we found in June.
So why go back to the office at all? In fact, as the pandemic redefined norms for how employees engage with each other, it’s now clear that companies should intentionally reengineer how they get work done.
Despite all the efforts to clear hurdles, invest in digital technology and maintain customer relationships across new channels, some areas are clearly lagging. FS firms were less likely than their business peers to report success in rewarding career growth, innovating products or services, collaborating on new projects and maintaining or building camaraderie. Worse, FS employees give their companies even lower marks than FS employers in all four of these categories. This is troubling given that rewarding career growth and maintaining camaraderie drive employee retention, and collaboration and innovation are necessary for top-line growth.
Each company should decide on the best balance between remote and in-person work, including which positions are eligible to be fully remote. This question of “how often” was the biggest disconnect we found between employers and employees.
Only 20% of FS employees said they believe the typical employee needs to be in the office three or more days per week. Meanwhile, 70% of industry employers believe workers should be in the office at least three days per week to maintain a distinctive culture. Employees are even less bound to the idea of an office job. In fact, only 2% want to work in an office without a remote option and 30% would telecommute five days a week if they could.
There are many aspects to building and maintaining a strong company culture. When employees buy into a culture, they’re identifying with a team that reflects distinct values and needs. The pandemic has offered a window into these attitudes. For financial services firms, there is good news: Their employees are more likely to say their companies have supported them during the pandemic than employees in other industries. But there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement. For example, only 27% of FS employees said their company has been very successful at training them to work effectively in a remote environment. To better support remote workers, start by understanding what’s getting in their way.
Hybrid work means learning to do things very differently. Consider the due-diligence process for a potential insurance acquisition, a process in which leadership teams would typically meet in person. While it’s easiest to do what we know—fly people to a single location and hash out the issues—this isn’t realistic for everyone. We’re seeing many more hybrid meetings, with some in-person attendees and others joining by video, and this requires some creativity to keep everyone engaged. If you don’t plan for that, you may miss out on participation that you really need. For the foreseeable future, we’re likely to see a mixture of approaches, so you’ll want to put in the effort to make them successful.
Some companies are using this as a technical wake-up call. For example, we now see commercial banks accelerating some digital transformation projects and rethinking their call center structures. For them, the hybrid model includes a mixture of working on-site and telecommuting. To make this successful, firms are moving up plans to incorporate chatbots and improve self-service channels. The key: thinking through seamless handoffs across service channels to improve the customer experience. Better customer transitions lead to better outcomes for companies and employees, whether on-site or remote.
As many of us work through the issues in the transition back to on-site work, it may help to take a risk-based view. The decisions you make could change your exposure to a variety of risks, including economic, operations, cybersecurity and fraud, reputational and legal. As you consider the upside of a return to the office, balance that with considerations of what could go wrong. Your employees should be part of that calculation. And, as you design controls to mitigate against other risks, remember that even small decisions may have an outsized effect on your employees' attitudes, productivity and commitment.
Partner, PwC US