The Financial Sector’s Remote Working Debate

Dr Nick Earley, Head of Psychology at Helix Resilience, explores the financial sector’s divide over the future of remote work.

The pandemic has placed overwhelming stress on the financial sector as it deals with one of the worst recessions in history. Before the pandemic, the number of working days lost to stress per worker per year in the industry was 31% higher than the average between 2007 and 2010. The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated stress levels even further. Just last month, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) warned that staff at financial firms in Britain were suffering from lockdown fatigue and urged bosses to make sure all employees were able to speak freely about their experiences.

It’s an uncomfortable truth but it’s widely accepted by those in the business that to work in financial services you must be able to cope with permanent, unrelenting stress. Research by a Banking Standards board in 2019 found that for the third year in a row, a quarter of employees in London felt their job had a negative impact on their health and wellbeing.

2020 forced rapid change as organisations across the globe adapted to remote working. Some have opted to keep these policies in place permanently, benefitting employee wellbeing as well as overall productivity.

However, employers in the financial sector appear to be split in their attitudes towards remote working. In February, HSBC announced it will halve its global office space as it embraces hybrid working permanently, while representatives of Goldman Sachs recently commented that this won’t become the new normal for them.

Working in a way that benefits everyone 

While working amid the challenges of the pandemic will have been tough for many, adapting to the loosening of restrictions could also prove difficult for employees in financial organisations. Research shows that 35% of UK workers believe going back to normality will hurt their mental health. For many, returning to the office full-time is seen as problematic, with 57% saying they don’t want to go back to working in an office environment with normal office hours.

Bosses in the financial services sector need to consider the positives of giving employees a more flexible arrangement – choosing when and how often they work from home to suit their lifestyle and domestic arrangements. As Forbes reports, improved productivity, performance, engagement, retention and profitability are key benefits of remote working.

This is not to say that working from home is a positive experience for everyone. Research has found that one in three people working from home are neglecting their own mental health because they’re too busy with work. More than half (52%) said the boundaries between work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred. No two employees are the same, which is why banks and other financial service organisations need to focus on a flexible, adaptable approach that suits everyone.

Managing wellbeing remotely

While some organisations might have experienced decreases in the quality of work employees produced during the pandemic, this can’t be solely attributed to working from home. Busier working schedules, lack of guidance and structure, global uncertainly, elevated stress levels and other personal circumstances may all have contributed to this.

David Blunt, Head of Conduct Specialists at the FCA, has said that finance bosses should continue to monitor how they lead teams remotely. Whether or not financial organisations decide to adopt remote working could come down to how easily they feel they can manage stress and wellbeing in their remote teams.

Recognising the signs of stress and mental health issues might seem difficult to do remotely but it is possible with the right approach, which may include access to relevant digital tools and content. Line managers and mental health first aiders should be trained to look for cues in the virtual environment, such as tell-tale body language signs, or individuals appearing distracted or opting out of having their webcams on during interactions. Employees, especially those working in high-pressure environments, should have access to platforms that educate them on resilience-building techniques and wellbeing practices to help manage difficult situations when they occur.

Businesses should communicate an open culture from the top-down, with leaders being open about struggles they’ve experienced – ensuring employees know it’s ok to not always be ok and encouraging them to share any concerns they have, without fear of negative repercussions.

A question of culture, not location

Embracing remote working shouldn’t simply be about where employees are allowed to work, but how where they work impacts their wellbeing. Allowing workers the flexibility to choose will help financial institutions get the best from their people while helping them achieve the best possible quality of life.

Employers should avoid making sweeping decisions about remote working based only on productivity. They need to take note of the scientific evidence and, most importantly, listen to their employees. By adopting a hybrid approach as part of a wider wellbeing push, financial organisations can reap the rewards through a healthier happier workforce that brings increased engagement and productivity.

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