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Are Covid working practices endangering corporate cultures?
Lockdown highlights key role office presence plays in work relationships, networking and corporate culture
22 Jul 2020 | Keith Mullin
Keith Mullin
Keith Mullin

COULD post-Covid working practices in the financial sector – particularly in corporate and investment banking and institutional asset management – undermine corporate cultures? Should senior executive teams be concerned? What can and should they be doing about it?

We’re hardly in a post-Covid world in the UK and other European countries. But regional governments and corporate leaders are nonetheless attempting to get people back to work to crank economies back up and regain what they call normality. (I reckon the good ship Normality has long set sail, but I understand the point.)

For the people-driven cultures of investment banking and asset management, there are clear benefits to being co-located in offices. There does seem to have been pushback from employees, however, on early efforts to get people back to work in the UK in large banks and other financial institutions in the City and Canary Wharf. Voluntary quotas are being undershot even as firms stagger their back-to-office timelines. “More needs to be done by decision-makers to understand that people’s working environments may not just have changed during the lockdown period but may well have changed for good,” Theta Financial Reporting says in the findings of a UK survey it conducted of 2,000 people about the return to work experience. 

Bearing in mind the health hazards of using public transport; uneven use of protective equipment; difficulties of dealing with wellness procedures in large offices (limits on the use of elevators, social distancing, spread-out desking arrangements, one-way footfall, strict rules around activities in communal areas); and now schools breaking up for the summer, reluctance to return to the office is hardly surprising.

Even less so since investments banks and fund managers have been able to get by with the majority of staff working from home (WFH), and staff have gotten used to it. But there are a considerable number of operational, technical, risk-related issues arising from banks and investors working from home; issues to do with efficiency, focus, concentration, team collaboration as well as critical issues around achieving a reasonable work-life balance, minimizing social isolation and achieving sound mental health.

While most of the WFH narrative has been around health and efficiency aspects, I wasn’t 100% surprised to read John Waldron, president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, saying he was keen for people to get back to the office because he worries that culture will decay if people continue to work from home for much longer. “We are anxious to get some of our people starting to come back into offices and starting to reinvest in the culture and that people-development aspect,” CNBC quotes him as saying. Even if, he adds, “there’s no doubt we can run a more distributed model now. We’ve proven to ourselves that we can actually have more people working away from the office location”.

In a report on prospects for European commercial real estate, Amundi’s global head of real and alternative assets Pedro Antonio Arias made a similar point: “the lockdown experience has highlighted the key role that a physical presence at the office can play in work relationships, networking and corporate culture,” he writes.

It’s a fascinating angle and it’s certainly worth pondering the effects of this unprecedented period on broader leadership and management factors. The cultures of Goldman or any major bank or asset manager for that matter are not so fragile as to be existentially vulnerable to shifts in working practices. But the important levers that office co-location offers in this regard are missing.

Working from home has led to much more informal styles of communication not to mention physical appearance. Formerly very clear dividing lines between office and home modes of behaviour and speech have unsurprisingly shifted in favour of home styles and modes. This threatens the unifying aspects of corporate culture; aspects that drive inclusion and a collaborative way of thinking and acting.

The Covid-19 experience has posed some real questions about how leaders disseminate culture in a dispersed, dematerialized, digital and distracted environment. And how employees – and not just new employees – live and perpetuate the culture. Culture as in shared values; expected behaviours; business ethics; elements that drive morale and make companies in client-driven organizations different; elements that give rise to creativity and innovation.

I’ve been dismissive in the past about what I’ve referred to as tree-hugging hippies over-egging the culture card in investment banking. My views have not fundamentally changed. But in uncertain times, leadership and the over-arching values that define companies need to be thrust to the fore to provide continuity and stability.

So rather than dismissing the unifying aspects of (maybe for want of a better word) culture now, the onus now is firmly on the senior executive ranks of banks and institutional asset managers to push it even harder, divining new ways of setting to work its unifying properties. The current aspects of the Covid-19 environment will pass. But longer term, the pandemic has arguably just accelerated a long-run irreversible process of change.

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