Daniel Behar / 29 September

September Newsletter – Back to the office

Overview

With restrictions surrounding COVID-19 continuing to ease, one of the final, and most controversial stages seems to be getting employees back in to the office. A poll by the Chartered Management Institute surveyed over 1,000 managers. The results showed that more than four fifths of those still homeworking in July said that “at least” some of their staff would be asked to return to the workplace in September.

It is an issue that has divided both workers and bosses alike and as of now, there’s yet to be a unified response in the industry. Many managers have opted for a hybrid model, whereas others have pushed the back to office drive, and some have stuck with a full-time working from home policy for now. In this newsletter we will look at the difficulties and challenges of these policies and the potential implications for businesses.

Hybrid working

The most popular choice amongst asset managers is the implementation of a hybrid model, where employees split their time between homeworking and going in to the office. According to a survey from Magellan Advisory Partners, 75% of management teams across 62 fund houses globally want the post-Covid hybrid working environment to be permanent. Many larger houses have chosen this approach, favourable due to the number of employees coming in and out of the office, with certain teams designated to certain days. For many firms this is likely to stay in place until at least the end of the year. Abrdn have said on their hybrid model that “we envisage this to be around 2 days a week [in the office] for most colleagues from early September, with a view to increasing to 3 days a week in 2022”. Janus Henderson has given similar guidance but said some staff were already coming in more than this.

Some companies however, more often than not smaller ones, have either gone one of two ways. There are those who are pushing harder to get workers back in the office full-time. These are the firms who tend to have been hit hardest by the pandemic, and whose reliance on workers going back to the office cannot be understated. Then there are those who have decided to continue the WFH policy for the foreseeable future have gone even further by closing their offices entirely in order to save money on rent, with all work to be conducted remotely.

Then there is the challenge of new employees and junior staff. How will this impact their career development? There has been much debate around whether a lack of office hours may stunt the development of junior staff and it seems the consensus lies with flexibility, as 79% of firms stated that interns, graduates and junior staff will be afforded the same balance as their senior peers. Among the minority who believe junior staff require firmer oversight, there is a preference for them to be in the office full-time, although the duration of this varies.

Managing the transition

After 18 months of homeworking, transitioning back to office life is not going to be an easy task, for both larger and smaller institutions. Large firms, who already had capacity issues pre-pandemic, are even more constrained now, with many workers having to use a booking system to determine which days to go in as only a certain number can come in at any one time. Indeed, many companies are being guided by staff sentiment as they plan hybrid work policies. Flexible working policies are not a new thing and many organisations in the past did have flexible or homeworking policies, but the assumption was that most people would be in the office, and the balance of power was very much with the employer. Today, the power rests more with employees. Even organisations who don’t want to change are being forced to change.
Of course, logistically, there are certain areas and roles within businesses that remote working doesn’t work quite as well. For instance, client facing staff, traders and portfolio managers have been prioritised to get back to the office 4/5 days a week.

The biggest challenge to hybrid working for companies is the potential loss of corporate culture. Thus, for any firm looking to transition back to some sort of normality, it is vitally important to create a culture of inclusion and belonging for everyone that helps mitigate the risk of remote work inequity. Furthermore, firms’ need to establish clear business roles around new ways of working such as rules around safety protocols, and give people clear guidance on tactical things like teaching meeting leaders to encourage participation from employees who aren’t physically present in the office. The use and introduction of new technology to replicate in-office culture for remote workers is also vitally important.

Employee mood

According to a recent study from PwC, almost two-thirds of employees have a preference for some sort of remote working. Almost a fifth (19%) of all employees would like to be fully remote, even if COVID-19 were no longer a concern. An almost equal number (22%) would like to be mostly in the office, with a further 15% saying that the nature of their work does not allow them to work remotely at all. If we were to drill this down further to focus solely on the asset management industry, the number of employees who would prefer
to work remotely jumps to close to 75%.

This shows a potential reluctance to transition back to the traditional way of working and companies will have to be mindful in case their policies create a disgruntled workforce. The PwC study found that the main reasons employees are leaving their jobs were salary, benefits, career advancement and flexibility. With returns to the office looming, the number of workers leaving due to flexibility, or lack thereof, is likely to rise.

Attracting & retaining talent

Another potential issue for businesses is attracting and retaining talent to their organisation. Since the pandemic, one of the most frequent questions we as recruiters are asked by candidates when briefing them on a role is what the firms’ policy on remote working is, as well as the usual salary and comp questions. With such a large number of employees favouring remote working arrangements, those businesses with the most flexible policies are in a much stronger position when it comes to attracting new employees to their organisation. By contrast, those who are not offering as much flexibility and are pushing employees to come back to the office full-time will struggle to gain traction when it comes to hiring new staff.

This is a similar case for retaining talent within their business. If firms aren’t doing enough to appease staff – whether that be by offering a flexible working policy, or by doing enough to help staff who are working remotely – then the likelihood is that those staff members will be less inclined to stay and begin to look for opportunities elsewhere.

Conclusion

To conclude, things are beginning to go back to some sort of normality in the City this month, and bosses across the City of London are hopeful that staff will start to spend at least some of the time at their offices, offering incentives such as social events and free food alongside policies that will insist on a minimum number of days’ attendance. However, this reintroduction to the office comes with significant challenges in how many days employees should be going in, how employers should manage the transition, and how their policies could affect their efforts in attracting and retaining talent. How these issues are faced remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure – there is no one-size-fits-all approach, we are very much still in unchartered territory. The only way we will know what does and doesn’t work for the future workforce is by experimenting.

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