Innovative working patterns and digital wellbeing in the financial services

Live More Offline had the privilege of presenting at the FinTech North Leeds Conference 2023. We take great pride in being part of this community. In this article we spotlight the evolving nature of hybrid work and the significance of digital wellbeing in aspects of leadership, EDI and talent retention within the financial services and fintech sectors.

As hybrid becomes the new normal in offices around the globe, it has been alternately blamed for over-indulging workers and praised for setting them free. Nowhere is the debate about hybrid working hotter than in the financial services.

High profile hold outs against the adoption of hybrid working from the likes of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan and David Solomon, CEO of Goldman-Sacks give the impression of a traditionalist sector that is stubbornly resisting the future of work. However, these headlines obscure the overwhelming adoption of hybrid and flexible working patterns in financial services.

The new normal of hybrid

Scoop’s March 2023 survey shows just how prevalent hybrid working has become throughout the financial sector, with only 20% of firms requiring full-time presence in the office. This is backed up by WFH Research’s surveys of US residents that found finance and insurance have the second highest proportion of hybrid working in the economy.

Although structured hybrid has become the single most common working pattern, fintechs and SMEs operate much more like other technology startups with a very high proportion of fully flexible working patterns.

This data on working patterns shows just how much fintechs diverge from industry norms but as we’ll see, larger companies can be just as innovative when it comes to their working cultures.

Workplace innovation

The exceptional prevalence of hybrid work challenges the stereotype that banks and insurance firms are slow to change, when in fact they have proved among the fastest in adopting digital working. As WFH Research’s surveys have shown, hybrid had already stabilised as the dominant working pattern in financial services by Q4 2021, a big change from before the pandemic.

By early 2021, major banks were moving towards permanently structured hybrid work. HSBC’s CEO Noel Quinn was an early advocate for hybrid work, seeing it as an opportunity to reduce costs by saving on office leases. Quinn rolled out a hot desk policy for senior managers and converted private offices into meeting rooms and shared spaces. Lloyds similarly repositioned office space for teamwork and embraced hybrid work as an opportunity to attract younger talent. Standard Chartered took this a step further by letting employees choose their work arrangements and giving them the option of working at any of IWG’s 3,500 global workspaces. These were seismic upheavals to decades-long working practices and by and large, the industry hasn’t looked back.

A lot of critics of flexible working have said that productivity is going to come down, and my challenge to them is, productivity has been used interchangeably with presenteeism (working while sick). We believe that by leveraging technology well we can enhance productivity.

Tanuj Kapilashrami, Standard Chartered Group Head of Human Resources

Digital wellbeing in leadership by example

In a March 2021 blog post, Citibank’s CEO Jane Fraser set out a new policy of making hybrid the main working pattern. This combined a promise of greater flexibility with three days on-site for the in-person benefits of belonging, collaboration, learning and mentoring. However, Fraser also recognised the need to be intentional about digital work with three policy changes intended to address digital wellbeing challenges: reducing video call fatigue with “Zoom-free Fridays”, setting healthier work boundaries by only scheduling calls within traditional working hours, and encouraging full use of vacation quotas that included an additional company-wide holiday called the “Citi Reset Day”. This cultural approach to workplace design was forward-thinking in its intention to alleviate burnout and increasing competitiveness and productivity by focussing on wellbeing.

Personal acknowledgement of the toll taken by excessive workloads is part of an ongoing transformation of how leaders talk about mental health and wellbeing. Monzo founder Tom Blomfield’s candour about how his struggle with mental health influenced his decision to step down as CEO, exacerbated by isolation in the pandemic, is an example of a leader modelling the behaviours and values that best serve their people. This is especially true of burnout in the financial services sector. Leadership plays an important role in challenging beliefs within ‘always-on’ cultures that results in presenteeism and the expectation of constant availability, which have a damaging impact on productivity and wellbeing.

Wellbeing and culture have become human resource priorities at banks due to their importance for talent acquisition and retention but design of workplace cultures is understandably difficult in large financial institutions. With over 200,000 employees in 32 countries, Santander is an example of a bank that has responded to this challenge by aiming for global consistency in its corporate culture. Santander focuses on a set of key behaviours as an organic means for guiding their company-wide culture, rather than trying to rigidly enforce cultural policies. This includes daily recognition of positive behaviours that stimulates engagement and contributes to a sense of belonging, as well as identifying training and leadership needs through surveying of employee experiences. Dan Strode, Director of Culture & Strategy at Santander, emphasises how Santander’s progress in meeting its business aims is inseparable from the development of its culture.

The cultural transformation of any organisation goes hand in hand with the business transformation

Dan Strode, Group Director of Culture & Strategy, Global Human Resources at Santander

Evolving workplace culture in fintech and the talent shortage

Fintech has had a dizzying ascent, attaining mass market adoption and becoming a staple of financial services in a decade. During this time, the industry was slighted by reports of toxic cultures and a ‘growth at all costs’ mentality among some of their rising stars. However, as the growing pains of the sector have eased, fintechs have refocussed on employee experience. Fintechs and challenger banks are agile in responding to worker desires for location flexible working and are also readily able to trial innovative working patterns. A good example is Atom Bank’s trial of a 4-day working week, which Atom Bank credits with improved productivity and customer satisfaction.

Some fintechs have had a reputation for a ‘growth at all costs’ mindset synonymous with burnout. The lived experiences of recent times, of the pandemic and of economic uncertainty have forced firms to prioritise sustainable growth and profitability. This requires stability, loyalty and productivity from happy and engaged employees.

Helen Beurier, Chief People Officer of Zopa

The perception that the industry has turned a corner is important for the quest for talent. Investment in fintech has reached its zenith during a tight labour market and demand for skills remains at an all-time high. Fintech has gained a solid reputation for high salaries but prospective jobseekers are looking for much more than just money. Glassdoor’s research shows that culture and values are still the primary contributors to employee satisfaction, even after the uncertainty of the pandemic. Employees have only become more belief-driven and likely to change jobs based on corporate values, a challenge for fintechs that were used to competing for talent mainly on compensation. For fintechs, these corporate values include wellbeing, diversity and seeing employees as stakeholders. Digital wellbeing is absolutely a priority for new entrants to the industry, who want to know that they won’t experience digital overload, burnout and constant connection in their future workplace.

Recruits are often concerned with the low gender diversity pool of the fintech industry. Most of our recruits are millennials, who often regard contribution to a business and ethical values as the top of their list when choosing a company to work for.

Ben Rosen, CEO of Inspiring Interns

Gender inclusion in fintech

The Great Resignation has obliged companies to broaden their talent pools and make belated efforts to address diversity and inclusion, particularly with respect to gender. In the UK, gender representation in fintech resembles that of the technology sector and trails behind other financial institutions. While 58% of recent boardroom appointments within UK financial services were female, women account for only one in ten of fintech board members. At 22%, the gender pay gap in fintech is also higher than the UK average of 15%. This matters because inclusive cultures have far happier people who are motivated to give their best. As noted by the Fintech Diversity Radar, gender diverse companies have a stronger brand, are better at retaining talent, are more understanding of their customer base and foster more collaborative, creative and meritocratic workplaces.

Fintech has a long way to go in improving gender inclusion but there are signs for hope. EY’s survey of female employees at fintechs found that 76% considered their workplaces inclusive and 56% felt they were diverse. While still at a low level, the proportion of female founders of new fintech startups is increasing. EY and Innovate Finance have called for better support for female founders, more inclusive and flexible working environments and a focus on reducing gender disparity through review of recruitment processes, mentoring and earlier engagement that begins in schools.

As so much of work in this industry happens in online, it’s important to recognise how much digital wellbeing affects inclusivity. Meritocratic collaboration spaces that make achievements visible and improve virtual connections within teams, location flexibility to provides better access for mentoring and active sponsoring mentees on digital platforms are examples of how a well-designed digital culture goes a long way to promoting gender equity.

We are at a pivotal point in time where the industry now needs to accelerate progress and further support women; whether it be negotiating around salary or accessing the funding they need in order to grow their business. There is a real opportunity for the FinTech sector to lead the way in driving greater gender equality

Anita Kimber, EMEIA Business Transformation Leader at EY

EDI in a digital future of work

Hybrid and flexible working have undoubtedly improved employee experiences in a world where five days in the office no longer makes sense but the digital future of work has also brought its own unexpected EDI challenges. For example, flexibility and working from home are disproportionately favoured by gender minorities but it can leave them at the mercy of proximity bias, with managers favouring the careers of those they interact with more regularly. As Amanda Blanc, CEO of Aviva, points out, this is likely to harm the careers of women. In fact, in a Deloitte survey found that 60% of women feel excluded in hybrid workplaces.

Working patterns are just one aspect of the challenges to inclusion that have emerged in the new normal of digital work, especially when poor management practices are transferred online. For example, managers who are used to judging performance based on attendance in the office may be checking the green light status of their employees on Microsoft Teams or even monitoring their webcams. Aside from how counter-productive this is for business performance, it also has an outsized and exclusionary impact on anyone whose needs fall outside of a narrowly defined margin of workplace behaviour. A key part of organisational transformation is therefore changing the way that we measure performance. Instead of tracking attendance, as shown in these examples of e-presenteeism, managers should get to know how their people are experiencing digital work through 1:1 check-ins and surveys of digital experience. The insights gained from employee experience will highlight where team leaders can focus their efforts to foster a sense of belonging in which people feel valued, included in decision making and able to communicate freely about their working experiences. Based on these outcomes, team leaders should also be empowered with the training and autonomy they need to find solutions that work best for their people.

Skills and data for an inclusive future of work

Technology is upending the landscape of finance, with retail banking an increasingly digital experience and tech replacing whole rafts of the payments industry. As it seeps into every corner of the sector, technology is blurring the lines between fintechs and traditional services. A consequence of digitalisation is that the skills required by different kinds of financial organisations are beginning to converge. The “talent war” between fintechs and other financial services distracts from the pressing need for upskilling and reskilling of existing employees. To survive in a rapidly changing industry, financial services will need to invest in both the technical capabilities of their people, as well as training them in ways to renegotiate their relationship with technology. Success will increasingly depend on healthy and productive digital cultures where employees can best collaborate and innovate. This includes smarter ways of digital working, challenging counter-productive myths and beliefs that hold back digital wellbeing, establishing a sense of belonging through virtual connection and the attitudes and skills in leadership needed to drive positive organisational change.

In this future of work, the strategic emphasis on diversity and inclusion as a means of acquiring talent will become more strongly encoded in corporate values. Corporate involvement in initiatives like the FinTech for All Charter will be the norm rather than the exception. Regular surveying of employee experiences will emerge as powerful means of demonstrating a track record in equity, diversity and inclusion, while yielding valuable performance data that proves the business case for inclusive cultures. This kind of data collection will become more widespread and in time, develop into a recognised benchmark for the industry as a whole.

Digital wellbeing is the common thread that ties together these themes of skills, productivity and inclusivity. As we look forward to the future of work in the financial services, the innovative workplaces of tomorrow will be those that embrace this vision for a healthier and more productive relationship with technology.

To find out more about equipping your employees with the skills to thrive in the healthy and productive digital workplace of the future, simply get in touch with us on our website or find us on LinkedIn.

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