The financial workplace: back from the brink to rebuild credibility

A decade after the global banking crash, financial companies are breathing new life into their real estate strategies, according to WORKTECH’s Financial Workplace 2018 conference. But there is still a long way to go…

Since the great banking crash of 2008, the financial workplace has been struggling with a crisis of legitimacy, digital disruption and fragile workforce morale. Little wonder that Financial Workplace 2018 conference chairman Michael Bayler argued that the ‘transformation is no longer a programme but a core competency’ in the sector.

Held in Canary Wharf at Morgan Stanley on 9 October, this was an event that didn’t pull its punches on the big changes that financial companies need to make. One in ten bank workers don’t have even one ‘good day’ at work, according to research presented by business psychologist Jack Evans of Robertson Cooper and Paul Barrett, head of wellbeing at the Bank Workers Charity. Less than 30 per cent of financial employees feel fully productive – the challenges they face include job insecurity, information overload and an unsupportive environment.

‘Repeat scandals have betrayed progress in the banking sector…’

Many financial institutions don’t exactly make things easy for themselves, according to Andrew Cave, author of The Power of Purpose. He described the repeat scandals in the post-crash banking sector over the past decade as a betrayal of the progress made in corporate social responsibility since the 1980s. Such bad behaviour is a turn-off for the millennial workforce, which is seeking a higher purpose.

HR experts Camelia Lam of Fidelity International and Sophie Bialaszewski reinforced the idea that millennials seeking experiences, not jobs, will ‘come and go’ from the sector and there is very little financial employers can do about it. There is very little they can do about climate change either, as hotter temperatures and heavier rainfalls prompt a rethink on the specification of office buildings. The only answer, WSP head of sustainability David Symons told the conference, is for financial companies to be more ambitious than simply following the building codes. This, of course, is not something they have been especially good at.

Beacons of hope

So far, so discouraging. But Financial Workplace 2018 didn’t just sketch out the scale of the challenge – it also provided some beacons of hope. These appeared in some far-flung places. Australia’s Macquarie Bank showed the way forward with its design emphasis on the values of transparency and openness, as former executive director Will Walker explained. Iceland’s Arion Bank provided a blueprint for ‘emotional retail’ to reconnect the brand with customers in a relaxed way, according to designer David Martin of M Worldwide.

These were two case studies that set a benchmark for change in the sector. As Martin explained of the Icelandic scheme: ‘It’s not about big architectural gestures, but about domestic objects in space.’ Fixing the physical channel alongside digital transformation enabled Arion Bank to increase footfall by 15 per cent and pay back its fitout costs in just two years.

Raising the game, reducing costs

The standout story of the day, however, belonged to the workplace transformation of global brokering and advisory company Willis Towers Watson, which set out to improve human performance while simultaneously managing assets more efficiently. Global real estate manager Inabelle Fang described how her company’s ‘new ways to work’ programme cut the number of offices worldwide from 650 to 570, took the number of agile employees from less than a thousand to 18,000, and saved US $100 million in real estate costs, in just four years.

This was the type of project that hit all the right notes – from vibrant designs creating a local sense of place to the use of new technology with live dashboards – to make restless millennials to pause before moving on. The message from the conference was that the financial service industry now requires transformation as standard, as it continues the delicate task of rebuilding credibility and recalibrating performance.

More on Financial Workplace 2018 here
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