Return to Office Trends in US Financial Services Sector

Published: March 12, 2021

After a long period of uncertainty, banks in the US seem to be doing all they can to ensure a safe return to office for their employees. Several large banks – JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, M&T Bank – in the last months of 2020 were delaying their return to office – but not without reason.

JP Morgan was one of many banks that resumed work-from-office early but had to stop when employees working out of offices tested positive. Naturally, it is employee safety that most leaders are concerned about.

A few weeks ago, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said, “There are a lot of our colleagues that would come back to the office tomorrow if it’s safe. So once the vaccine is in, we’ll adjust to see how that all works.”

With the vaccine’s availability, most expect to resume working from the office by mid-2021.

In this article, we focus on trends, key concerns, and the steps taken by BFSI companies for returning to the office.

Emerging trends in return-to-office

Many banks across the US have adopted innovative solutions to ensure a safe return-to-office for employees. We present to you six key trends:

1. Banks have moved as much of business as they can online by actively encouraging customers to use mobile, online, and voice banking services.

2. To that effect, banking institutions have temporarily closed physical spaces for customers of the services performed online. For example, American Express has stopped operating Centurion® Lounge locations and is handling travel-related queries online. It has also extended work from home policy till September 6, 2021. Speaking at the Citi’s Global Property CEO Conference, the CEO of Amex, Stephen Squeri observed, “I don’t think the work environment as we left it will be the work environment we come back to.” He also said Amex might now consider hiring talent from cities where it does not have offices.

3. Drive-through tellers, which were either closed or turned into ATMs, are making a comeback. It helps minimize contact between employees and customers. Bank of America has gone a step further and set up mobile banking units – including both financial services and ATMs – in a few areas to help customers.

4. Even as the return to office process has begun, there is a greater acceptance of work-from-home. Deutsche Bank, for instance, has been considering letting employees work from home for two days a week.

5. Several banks are shedding office spaces – Llyods and HSBC announced a 20% and 40% reduction, respectively. As reports suggest, most of it is due to employees wanting to work from home. According to Noel Quinn, CEO of HSBC, the cuts were enabled by “a very different style of working post-COVID than we had before.” He added, “They’ll be much more of a hybrid model of people working in the offices, but in a different way, but also working from home when they want to (sic). The reduction of workspace could also be due to the fact the banks could save US$10,000 per employee per year by reducing their real-estate.

6. Rapid adoption of technology has been another hallmark of the COVID-hit times in the BFSI sector, be it online health screening, strengthening IT stacks, or warding off cybersecurity threats. It’s also one reason why top executives want their teams back at the office.

Recommended Reading: What is a hybrid workplace model? 

Key Concerns

Without a doubt, for most banks, employee and customer safety is a priority. With mutant strains emerging across the globe, and the efficacy of vaccination still unknown, banks are wading uncharted territories for the second year in a row.

Last year most had successfully transitioned to work from home at a remarkable speed – 85% of Bank of America, nearly 90% of Citigroup, and 75% at Wells Fargo went remote in few weeks. While still reeling under the shock of the sudden shift, the leaders of banking and financial services institutions are concerned about making another significant change. Here are the four key concerns when necessitating return-to-office:

1. The primary concern, and one that will have a long-term impact, is culture. Physical workspaces foster cultural engagement through interpersonal interactions. Lack of interpersonal communication could damage the cultural fabric that binds a team together. As Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan puts it, “culture, character, learning, you can’t do a lot of that remotely.”

2. Second concern is the need for personal interactions between employees and clients. Admittedly, the banking sector needs it more than others. When it is about money, significant opportunities, and risks, human interactions become all the more necessary. Another more fundamental aspect of in-person interaction is the human need for it. Commenting on Zoom calls, Brian Chin, head of Credit Suisse, said, “People are having a bit of fatigue over this setup and not being able to see colleagues and actually see clients (sic).”

3. Third one lies in the application, maintenance, and limitation of technology infrastructure. With almost every service moving online, even the most robust processes and solutions are vulnerable to cyberattacks. If not the banking systems themselves, many customers have suffered it. As banks underwent operational changes to cope with COVID, phishing attacks increased by 667% in the past few months.

4. The fourth concern in the BFSI sector is productivity. The jury is still out on productivity. Even as there is evidence of little impact, it varies by roles and people. With changing work habits and an increase in overall digital proficiency, productivity is likely to increase in the time to come.

Bonus Tip: Overcoming Hybrid Workplace Challenges 

What steps are BFSI companies taking to ensure a smooth transition back to the office?

Most banking and financial institutions are devising strategies for a partial and gradual return to the office. Given the regulatory scrutiny they attract, the risk management and trading functions were the first to return.

Return of other teams and functions would be largely need-based for now. It would depend on balancing the feasibility of remote work with health risk involved in return to the office. Since the pandemic’s early days, most senior executives have advocated this approach.

With employees’ hesitation to work from shared spaces, operating an office at full strength now looks like a thing of the past. A KPMG report pointed out that only 20% of employees are willing to return full time; another 20% prefer a hybrid model. The vast majority would like to continue working from home, visiting the workspace only for special events.
A Deloitte survey of senior executives at different organizations revealed that the return could depend on the role and the geography.

To allay employee fears and create a safe transition, banks are taking several steps at operational and policy levels, including:

Testing (screening) employees for COVID-19: Many financial institutions have launched testing programs for their employees to facilitate a safe return. While some are using PCR or antigen tests on their premises, others require their employees to check a health check survey through a mobile app before entering a workspace.

Actively implementing social distancing norms: At the operational level, organizations are rolling out seat-sharing policies, staggering work hours, and allocating large rooms for smaller group meetings. Several workspaces also using contact- and workspace-tracing apps to maintain social distancing.

Also Read: How to Reopen Offices Safely  

Sanitizing offices: Regular deep cleaning is just one of the many aspects of sanitization. Many organizations are now leveraging smart building management technology to ensure the workspace remains free from the virus. The use of UV cleaning equipment, air quality sensors, thermal screening cameras inspire employees’ confidence.

Redesigning workspaces: Retail BFSI locations, such as bank branches and concierge-style investor centers, are up for a vast transformation. While some centers intend to limit customer access to the lobby, others are putting up plexiglasses that were once limited to tellers. Like the major retail stores, banks are trying to avoid face-to-face interaction wherever possible.

Enhancing customer experience using tech: To reduce the need to step inside a branch, financial institutions are now using Interactive Teller Machines (ITMs). An ITM is essentially an ATM with live video chat that enables consumers to speak to a teller or other financial professional remotely. It is an innovative self-service technology that offers personalization without sacrificing safety.

Creating more employee-friendly policies: Adopting a more empathetic approach, several banks and financial institutions have made significant changes to their employee policies. Some of these include:

  • Paying employees who are absent due to actual or suspected illness, quarantine, and those under high-risk categories
  • Compensating those who stay home due to branch closures
  • Opportunity to enroll themselves and dependents in the health care plan
  • Fee waiver for telehealth consultations
  • Additional paid leaves to accommodate school and daycare closures
  • Adopting hybrid workspace models: The concept of work being an activity, distinct from a place, is fast gaining popularity.

Several employees performed complex, client-facing activities from home through the days of the pandemic. To a certain extent, it negates the argument for going back to a full-time model.

Also, given the cost-benefit of a hybrid workspace model, several banks are willing to explore this option. Consequently, they are investing in technology infrastructure to make it sustainable in the long term.

So, should you return to the office?

The return-to-office plans of banking and financial institutions across the US are at different stages of maturity. Some leaders are clear on how do they want to go about it. Others are still quantifying the benefits and formulating such a move’s objectives. However, a few considerations can help you decide better.

1. Have an ambitious plan for the future – Planning only for survival or short-term cost benefits could work against you as and when new avenues for growth open up. An optimistic approach will help you invest in the right technology, processes, skills, and culture. You could make several tactical corrections as you move forward.

2. It is about work – Even as the world debates the benefits of remote work, remember it is ultimately about work. Plan your future operating model by focusing on how work happens rather than where. Yes, real estate cost savings matter, but would that be a deciding factor? Will it help your clients?

3. Nobody knows – No matter what the surveys tell you, the fact is that nobody knows what the future holds. Take predictive surveys and opinions with a pinch of salt. Your business and customer data are the best source of truth. However, the time for which these would be relevant has dramatically shortened. So, make the right decisions fast.

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