COVID-19 has required firms to rapidly embrace remote working. This presents a unique opportunity to embed new ways of working in preparation for the ‘new normal’.
Despite the existence of robust frameworks, strong employee demand and proven benefits, at the beginning of this year new ways of working had yet to be widely adopted. However, over the past two months,we have seen companies shift abruptly to remote working arrangements, in some cases literally overnight.

Initially this was typically viewed as a temporary measure to ensure that firms and their employees could continue to operate effectively in the short-term. There was a sense of ‘treading water’ until the eagerly awaited end of lockdown was announced and business as usual could resume. But as the weeks have passed and government measures have been extended, there has been a growing realization that this new way of working is likely to persist for the longer term.

As they look to the future, financial services institutions can expect to move through three distinct phases as they refine remote working, plan how they will reintegrate employees, and begin to lay the foundations for a workforce of the futureand a more holistic talent strategy.

The first rapid response phase is a business continuity- driven adoption of remote working, and at this stage is mostly complete. The priority for firms now is the second phase of adapt and enhance in order to optimize ways of working. The focus should be on enhancing the effectiveness of remote work, maintaining employee well-being, upskilling teams on remote collaboration to ensure key milestones are still hit, and ensuring that tooling is in place to allow teams to do their jobs. These should not be ‘sticking plasters’ that will leave institutions with a COVID legacy to solve for but rather robust strategic enhancements.

Finally, the third phase is the transition into the ‘new normal’ that will emerge post-COVID, and the potential pivots required as part of that journey. Central to that is a re-imagination of what the workforce of the future looks like and openness to embracing a new model of business as usual.

So why this pre-COVID resistance to the adoption of new ways of working? After all, prior to enforced remote working, employees almost universally saw it as an attractive benefit, with no less than 99% stating they would choose to work remotely, at least part time, for the rest of their careers [2019 State of remote work report]. Productivity concerns had been cited a key concern, but the data did not seem to back this up, with 85% of companies saying greater location flexibility led to an increase in productivity [Wundamail 2019 State of Remote work Survey].

Either way, the tone of the conversation has now changed – perhaps forever. Jes Staley of Barclays recently stated that “the notion of putting 7000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”. Forecasts from Global Workplace Analytics undertaken and published in April 2020 suggest that 25-30% of the workforce will be working from home for multiple days each week by the end of 2021.

“This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold,” Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumblr owner Automatic, recently noted. Mullenweg’s company is already ‘distributed’, and he predicts the changes could also offer “an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility”.

Employee choice is also expected to shape the ‘new normal’ – indeed, it would be naïve to think this will be dictated by employers alone. Will employees want to go back to the way they worked prior to the crisis, having productively worked remotely for an extended period? Will staff challenge employers regarding the benefits of being present in the office? What might this mean from an HR, risk and cost base perspective.

There remain many unknowns and an even larger number of variables that will influence what happens next – and by extension, engagement with new ways of working. But there is also a certainty that things will not simply revert to pre-COVID conditions. Companies that can offer their workforce the right tools, culture and operating structure to help employees through this transition to the new normal will emerge more focused, resilient and better positioned to prosper in a new competitive landscape.

What should companies do?
Ensure your teams are thriving rather than surviving in the new environment – and if not, create the culture, instill the behaviors, and implement the tooling they need. It’s also essential to protect your teams’ mental health and well being.
Maintain productivity across key programmes by rapidly deploying agile and ensuring high-risk or critical programmes are kept on track by leveraging ways of working practices.
In parallel, plan proactively for the reintegration of those elements of the workforce whose return is business-critical. Don’t wait for government mandates to commence your scenario planning and evaluate your options
Finally, grasp the opportunity to reimagine the art of the possible. Organizations can emerge from the crisis with an enhanced employee value proposition in place alongside a fresh perspective on cost reduction opportunities
As we emerge from the initial and any subsequent lockdowns, firms will need to strike the optimal balance between adhering to government guidelines, respecting the desires of their workforce, and delivering on their own goals. Those financial institutions that grasp the opportunity to reassess, re-engineer and reimagine their workplace in a proactive fashion will be best placed to offer a differentiated employee value proposition, and will also reap the benefits of increased efficiencies and ultimately a significantly lower cost base