Firms wrestle with realities of new remote workplaces – Financial Times

During the Covid pandemic, global consultancy group PwC came up with an idea to help staff work better from home. It recruited 1,000 volunteers who allowed all their digital communications to be monitored by artificial intelligence, which gave them feedback on how they dealt with colleagues.

To encourage participation, PwC agreed that individuals’ data was not to be shared with managers. The aim of the experiment was to improve communication within teams working remotely using AI-powered “nudges” to change behaviour and improve cohesion.

The software rated staff on factors such as how fast they responded, and prompted them to think about why their tone was less warm when talking to certain co-workers. After seeing the resulting ratings, one participant concluded that it was time to create a plan for “how I can improve my behaviour”.

Whatever the merits of the initiative — creepily intrusive . . . benignly innovative? — it illustrates the radical changes some companies have made in response to the Covid-accelerated shift to remote working.

But, more than two years on from the start of the pandemic, many businesses are still grappling with the new workplace realities. Challenges range from ensuring that staff continue to feel part of the team to the grind of IT updates that allow people to work from home securely.

For companies in the heavily regulated financial services sector, the need to ensure digital resilience and compliance when many staff are working from home is acute.

“In terms of the risks, [the question is] how do firms still meet their regulatory obligations in a remote working environment?” says Andrew Rogan, director of operational resilience policy at banking industry trade body UK Finance.

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority recently reminded financial services companies to check they are not jeopardised by hybrid working. Under its regulations, they are obliged to test and invest in operational resilience.

According to risk management consultancy RMI, the main risks in hybrid working centre on cyber security and fraud, health and safety, business processes, and workplace culture.

“Culture is way harder when it’s remote,” says Bill Schaninger, senior partner at management consultancy McKinsey. “How do you get the hooks into people in terms of ‘what we stand for’?”

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For financial institutions, this is a particular concern. “When you think about the times that there were bad actors, there was often an underlying sense that the culture tolerated or grew it,” Schaninger says. “[Financial services companies] count on human interaction as an early warning mechanism.”

Companies have tried hard to facilitate that interaction remotely — for example, with live chat apps that give scattered teams a more casual means of communication than formal meetings.

Electronic monitoring of the sort proposed by PwC may also offer a way
to address concerns around culture, as well as helping companies comply with regulations.

Many employees who want to work from home at least some of the time accept the concept, insists Victoria Robinson, partner at PwC. “There’s a quid pro quo,” she says. More unpopular processes may be part of the trade-off for more flexibility, she argues.

Meanwhile, the office continues to play a cultural role. The new paradigm of the hybrid working week assumes some return to it for team meetings, social events and networking, with Monday and Friday often set aside for reading and email correspondence at home. Office time also enables managers to focus on giving juniors and new starters opportunities to connect with colleagues face to face, in order to build networks and develop their careers.

Managers yearning for the old order may find themselves out on a limb. “When I hear about senior leaders pushing back against change, they sound like it’s time to retire,” says Laura Empson, professor at Bayes Business School in London. “People at the most senior levels need to create spaces to get these things worked out, rather than crushing or seeking to control change.”

Some of that resistance may be motivated by concerns over security. Ensuring basic cyber security was often first on the list of risks that businesses needed to manage early in the pandemic as they scrambled to organise secure, encrypted online computer access for working at home.

Companies sent shredders to home workers so that they could destroy confidential paperwork, and used additional training to remind staff of their obligations when handling company data. Some of this involved stressing the need for new habits when working remotely — such as using a privacy screen in the local coffee shop, or avoiding certain tasks altogether in some settings.

Many companies have now moved on to look at newer technologies to improve remote network encryption, according to Tessian, a cyber security company. But, while there are important steps to take to maintain good practice around remote working, experts say that companies should not let these distract them from cyber threats more broadly.

“The primary risks are generally the same for every organisation,” says Josh Yavor, Tessian’s chief information security officer. “It’s still ransomware, phishing and social engineering [confidence tricks designed to persuade people to hand over passwords or other sensitive information].”

In addition, companies must consider the legal risks arising from efforts to adjust to new ways of working. Changes with implications for employees’ locations or salaries — withdrawing entitlement to London weighting allowance, for example — must be in line with existing agreements, warns Paul Griffin, employment lawyer and partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.

“Without looking at the [employee] contract, it would be foolhardy to forge ahead,” he says.

Many financial services companies have embraced the shift to hybrid working, argues Rogan at UK Finance, with many also experiencing upsides such as the potential to cut costs by jettisoning surplus office space.

“We are at the tipping point of how financial services work is formed and delivered,” suggests Empson. “This is a brilliant opportunity to consider the pre-pandemic ways of working that were not sustainable . . . It’s time to think more creatively about how work is done.” 

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