By Mike Coates, Managing Director at Commercial Expert
The finance industry has been under pressure to ‘modernise’ since way before the pandemic struck, but this was led by the rapid digital transformation taking place in other linked sectors and the growing demand from customers to do things quicker.
Now, as we emerge from almost 18 months of homeworking, we’re faced with a challenge we never saw coming; the demand for non-office-based operation. The issue? Leaders in the sector are, as a result, under immense pressure to respond with flexible working options, even when it’s not right for the business itself.
Question is, what long term effects is this going to have on the mental state of those in management positions who don’t conform to societal pressures?
Return to Office Guilt
If you’re running a business, you’ll be familiar with the torment of head and heart conflict. You have a difficult business decision to make; you can guarantee that you with your business head on doesn’t agree with you with your heart on your sleeve. Making a decision in one direction, particularly the business direction, therefore often results in a period of feeling overwhelming guilt.
Of course, you should always take a team first approach in business, but there are times when business decisions need to be made in order to ensure that a team can remain. In the finance industry, I fully believe that bringing people back to face-to-face working is one of those times. However, knowing it’s the right thing to do doesn’t mean to say it’s an easy pill to swallow.
Having those conversations with employees who have got used to the flexibility of home working is a difficult thing to do, even when you know it’s in their best interest to be around the team, have the opportunity to seek instant support from everyone in the office and experience the positive workplace culture.
We know that throughout the pandemic, many in the financial industry began to experience burnout following the inability to switch off and separate work life from home life. As an employer, it’s our responsibility to manage that and put in place solutions. That’s why I fully believe that encouraging a return to the office is in their best interest. But like I said, the pressure from external sources and the acknowledgement of the contradicting benefits of remote working is causing major guilt.
Remote and flexible working as a topic is everywhere right now. Whether it’s the media, friends, or family, everyone is talking about it. Quite rightly too. It’s something most people have done for the last 18 months, and we need to continue having healthy conversations about the effects of the pandemic.
The problem with this is that with so much attention on those who are adapting their policies, shutting up offices for good, and telling employees to work from anywhere, those who don’t introduce these policies feel as though their risking their reputation.
In the last few months in the financial sector, we’ve seen the likes of HSBC, Schroders and Santander announce major changes to their working policies, from shutting offices to four day working weeks, and even hybrid working models. This has added fuel to the fire and reiterated the “if the larger firms can do it, why can’t the smaller ones” narrative.
Any firms in the financial sector appearing to be inviting people back to the office are immediately demonised as ‘forcing people back to strict office life’, with assumptions being made around lack of trust in the workplace and poor leadership. We’ve even seen HR firms have to adapt their service offerings in response to the popular question “can my employer force me back to the office?”.
As you can see, all of this not only makes it more difficult for employers to have conversations with their employees, but also paints the firm in a bad light, making new business relationships and recruitment a challenge.
Now’s the time to consider how all of this is going to affect our mental health before we find ourselves in the middle of a mental health crisis.
What’s the solution?
As an industry, I fully believe we need to work together to renormalise working together face to face. We’ve done it for decades and it worked. It stuck around for a reason. People appreciate and respond to routine and separation from their home life. The more noise we make about it as collective group, the bigger impact we can have and thus prevent leaders potentially being so consumed by guilt that it becomes a mental health issue.
However, I do believe that whilst face to face working should be encouraged and each of us should be ambassadors for it, we do need to review what that looks like. Making offices/workspaces less like commercial spaces and bringing more home comforts into the workplace are definitely up there on my list of suggestions. If we can recreate some of what our employees are used to at home, then we are seen to be understanding and responding to their needs.