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This article was first published in The Investment Association's Future of Work publication.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing financial services executives to reimagine the workplace of tomorrow whilst simultaneously scrambling to ensure they can operate safely today. The moves they make in the next few months in shaping how colleagues return to the office could have ramifications for years to come.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, firms have learned that some, but not all, of their business functions can be carried out remotely, whether they be customer interactions, back-office operational tasks or talent management. Firms have also learned that many of their employees have come to appreciate remote work because it allows them to avoid commuting, better serve as caregivers or carve out extra time in the day for themselves.

But which tasks, and which people, should be remote, and which should be together?

One of the central challenges of the next 10 years in financial services will be to strike the right balance between organisational imperatives and employee wellbeing. The simple answer may be hybrid working arrangements. But finding the right mix isn’t easy.

It is important to begin with establishing what the overarching objective(s) should be. Does the firm seek increased productivity via higher employee engagement and retention? Increased operational efficiency via more predictable work patterns? Reduced costs via optimisation of real estate and office expenses? Improved customer service via increased coverage? Or some combination of all of the above? This should act as the North Star to guide the design of the future of work.

Having established clear objectives for its hybrid model, the firm should then move to define how will this be operationalised.

Will it be primarily employer driven, meaning the employer defines how many days one will work from home, or employee driven, allowing employees to make their own choices? And how will the preferences of the two groups of stakeholders interplay? For example, if the employer defines the number of days to work from home, how does it cater for employee preferences such as whether to work from home on Monday or Friday?

Three parameters will determine whether the hybrid work model should be primarily employer- or employee-driven. The first is the nature of the work itself. Does the work require in-person interaction or are there regulatory requirements for on-premise presence? The answers may vary between job families, with some parts of the organisation being more hybrid-ready than others.

Second, the corporate culture: Has the firm historically been an organisation that values face time? If so, moving to a hybrid work model will be particularly challenging, with a risk of slippage back to old habits -- in which case an employer-driven model would work better and allow a reset of the culture.

Third, is the firm in a highly competitive market for talent? If so, offering more flexibility is important. If all the firm’s competitors are offering remote work options, then in the long run the firm might face challenges attracting top candidates. For these types of situations an employee-driven model works better.

What is clear is that a one-size-fits-all approach probably won’t work. Although good practice varies between the boundaries of the two models based on the specific circumstances of each organisation, we do have some sense of what bad practice looks like. For example, letting each manager independently decide how to approach this for his or her own team doesn’t work well. It creates an inconsistent operating environment with different treatment of employees in different teams, fails to factor in the broader impact that individual manager choices have on the team and the firm, and leaves little to no room to cater to employee preferences.

So how can an employer-driven model work in practice? Simply put, the company defines who can work where and when. We see many companies now requiring employees to spend at least three days in the office. The question, of course, is which three days and who decides. Firms choosing this path generally designate the degree of remote working by using structured customisation. They typically start by segmenting job families (such as by the ability to execute remotely vs. level of human interaction required), then review key interfaces between internal teams and clients. Finally, they formalize their approach, requiring, for example, all jobs in an area of operations to be in person at least three days a week with specific guidelines about how to ensure smooth operational continuity so that everyone isn’t remote on Fridays or flocking to work on Wednesdays.

Firms should complement this kind of role analysis with an assessment of employee sentiment and analysis of various “personas,” or fictional characters that represent the different types of people who perform various functions. While someone might belong to the same job family, a new joiner living in a flat shared with three friends in London will have very different needs from an experienced professional with small children and significant caregiving responsibilities at home.

If a firm has a high level of persona variation, the employer-driven model may be more challenging to implement.

In the employee-driven model, the employees define where (and possibly when) they want to work. This can then be broken down further into manager approved (retaining some level of employer control) or manager informed, where at the extreme an employee can wake up each morning and decide not to go to the office that day, or chose to work fully remotely 100% of the time.

Subcultures within the same organisation, such as in different business areas or geographies, might make a manager-informed, employee-driven approach entirely inappropriate in one place but perfectly feasible in another. Likewise, a strict employer driven model might not be desirable if a key goal is employee retention. The model doesn’t always have to be applied universally.

Through our work with clients across the financial services industry, we have identified the most important steps to take and considerations to make in determining the best model for a particular firm:

Ensure that the new work model considers and caters to your client needs – be they internal or external-- for service, support and interaction. For example, a support function coming into the office to sit on Zoom all day providing services to a remotely located front-office would be frustrating, and vice versa.

Consider how to maintain a culture of collaboration (within and across teams) and apprentice learning. This is difficult to do fully remotely and is particularly important for growing the next generation of talent.

Always take different life stages and personas into account. Focusing only on the job to be done is a mistake and is likely to mean your model is not fit for purpose and might not work in practice.

Think carefully about how you will practically implement a model of hybrid working practices in a fair and effective way across teams. Consider how you will ensure equal opportunity for employees working under different arrangements.

Ensure you institutionalise the appropriate guidelines to run effective hybrid meetings. Use this opportunity to greatly enhance diversity and inclusion. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to level the playing field for all employees who in the past had to leave careers or slow down at work due to life circumstances that left them unable to work in the office, such as new parents.

Last but not least, build flexibility into any new working model to enable you to test, learn, pilot in different areas and course-correct over time. Couple this with staying open and honest with employees, letting them be part of the solution, and giving them as much certainty and advance notice as possible.

In the end, each firm needs to take its own circumstances and culture into account as it develops a hybrid working model. Those that do this thoughtfully, using the advice offered here, will create a new model that will serve them well for years to come.