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Delivering on the promise of flexible, remote and de-centralised financial service operations in a post COVID-19 world

In financial and professional services organisations, a huge percentage of staff have embarked on the greatest experiment in remote working in history. And research suggests we don’t want to go back.

The opportunities in remote and flexible operations are tremendous – they can improve staff wellbeing and work-life balance, create more workforce flexibility and efficiency, and give organisations greater access to talent based throughout the country, or beyond.

Firms can reduce the huge fixed costs of office space and legacy technology infrastructure by de-centralising their operations with estimates ranging from 10-20% of operating cost reduction available – depending on the level of de-centralisation achieved. Furthermore, creating a more localised footprint can also allow firms to become more flexible, and resilient to future shocks as well as allow them to source previously untapped talent among those in different regions or those previously not willing, or able, to work a standard 9-to-5.

Organisations are waking up to the potential for fundamental change. Lloyd’s Banking Group have announced changes to their operating footprint, Schroders – the wealth manager – have prepared for remote working at scale and have started to repurpose their offices, JP Morgan are actively looking at reducing their footprint and Barclays’ CEO Jess Staley summed it up by saying “the notion of putting 7,000 people in the building, may be a thing of the past”.

However, without proactive steps, it’s likely things will revert to pre-lockdown standards. Obstacles won’t be removed without effort, processes won’t change without us changing them, and we won’t put in place the tools and technologies required unless we design the future rather than letting it happen to us.

Timing is important. We are now coming to the point where organisations are looking to the future and making plans. So, how can financial services organisations develop plans to maximise the potential of remote and federalised working?

Analyse the transition period and define your new reality

Firstly, it’s important to analyse what’s working and what’s proved challenging so far and define a vision that’s right for you. Not all organisations are able to move to an entirely remote operation all the time – and not all want to. The result is that firms are commonly looking at a mixed model, where anywhere between 30-60% of staff time is spent in remote settings – either at home, or at a local office location.

There is a sliding scale of options for enabling remote and de-centralised operating models. A relatively modest introduction of VPN access to systems from remote locations will allow staff to adapt to flexible working hours and improve workforce efficiency. But it won’t reduce office costs and could present issues around data security and the management of remote teams who are logging into the same physical technology infrastructure.

By contrast, full de-centralisation presents a vision where previously centralised operations – including strategic headquarters and regionally-based data processing and contact centres – transition to remote, home-based working for most staff. Regional hubs, potentially in existing branches, can then act as centres for face-to-face interactions like staff training and onboarding.

While each organisation is different, more than 80 per cent of staff in financial and professional services told us they want increased remote and flexible working in a recent LinkedIn poll. This, coupled with customers’ increasing familiarity and comfort with digital channels, means there’s potential to be ambitious, if organisational leadership are bold and can embrace the scale of change.

Getting from vision to reality

There are many potential blockers to making this de-centralised future a reality, but with preparation and flexibility, they can be overcome. We’ve seen that in the response to the COVID-19 crisis, where firms have moved to a stable and robust remote set-up for the short-term with remarkable speed and decisiveness. They have delivered everything from thousands of laptops to their staff and setting up temporary, cloud-based contact centres, to delivering digital processes to make insurance claims, apply for a mortgage or transfer a pension – things that could have taken months before the crisis. Carrying this agility and speed of decision making into the post-COVID age will help make this transition all the easier.

Organisations have had to tackle a huge number of challenges to allow their teams to work remotely, from issues of technology and access to systems, to cyber security and resilience, to repurposing processes, all the while ensuring the safety and physical and mental wellbeing of their staff and customers.

Moving beyond these shorter-term challenges and beginning to look at longer term preparation, we’ve identified a number of actions that we believe will make firms more successful:

  • Analyse the demand and productivity changes experienced during lockdown. The first difficulty is getting clarity on the demand for services per engagement channel, in particular through physical and face to face channels. These are unprecedented times, but they won’t last forever. While demand for face-to-face services has reduced for obvious reasons, it’s very difficult to know exactly what scale of demand reduction is permanent. Which means uncertainty regarding how much change can be made at the branch level and what scale of staff and real estate re-purposing is therefore possible. Organisations need to be able to monitor, analyse and influence demand for services as well as the productivity of staff per channel. Armed with this information, you can design your organisation’s approach that is the right size and shape for the future.
  • Be flexible and avoid a “one-size fits all” solution. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, we knew that agile organisations – those able to make quick decisions at local levels and learn from them – were more flexible, more adaptable and achieved better financial results. This is truer now than ever. With so many factors involved, a single solution defined at the centre is unlikely to be robust in larger organisations. Successful firms are divesting and dividing responsibility for organisational and location strategy to function, team and regional level, allowing teams to develop solutions that work for them, but also to test models, share best practice and make change happen quicker.
  • Plan for “in person” activity and repurpose your space around them. Some activities work remotely and some don’t. Whatever shape of organisation and real estate network firms decide upon, they need to ensure their locations are fit for their new purpose. This means changing from an arrangement set up for work to be done – complete with individual desks and IT – to a set up adapted for group working, with collaboration spaces, open areas set up to promote collaboration, solution development and training. While of course ensuring social distancing and hygiene standards can be maintained.
  • Prepare your leaders for remote management. The role of team leader and operational manager will change in future, and firms must prepare their staff for this change. In practice, this means giving leaders the skills to engage with their staff remotely. Such as replacing or redesign their team engagement cadence – daily stand ups, weekly development sessions, in person retrospective sessions and more formalised performance management structures. Without doing this successfully, it isn’t guaranteed that productivity will remain at pre-lockdown levels and hence undermine the ambition of the change.

Proactively navigating to the new reality

Unlocking the benefits of a remote workforce and de-centralised operations will take effort. But the coronavirus pandemic has presented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make lasting change that benefits your people and by extension, your customers – giving both cohorts the ability to work and engage with your organisation how they choose and with the flexibility they value.

As we start to look realistically at moving to the much mentioned “new normal” we see the potential for as much as 10-20% reductions in operating costs available through the repurposing of operations and release of legacy real estate costs – to say nothing of potential increases in productivity of staff, improved skills and capability from a more diverse, flexible workforce or the increase in digital engagement.

Legacy constraints will always be there and require great leadership to overcome. But today we have unprecedented impetus to be bold and drive change. So, if not now, then when?

Read the article in Global Banking & Finance Review 

Contact the author

Contact the financial services team