Even the Substitute Phrase of “Return to the Office” Is Based on Assumptions That Don’t Make Sense in the New Normal
“Return to work” is a misnomer often used when people mean to say, “return to the office.”
But here’s the truth: Most employees never stopped going to work during the pandemic. It’s just that the meaning of “work” – and more, precisely, workspaces – changed for many of us to primarily refer to kitchens, home offices, bedrooms, dens or even cupboards and laundry rooms.
Wealth management firms and other financial services businesses spent the past 18 months figuring out how to enable their employees to work remotely from these spaces.
And in large part, employees managed to soldier through the darkest days of the pandemic quite successfully. In fact, many firms saw substantially higher productivity as workers avoided stressful commutes and other burdens of the physical workplace.
At the same time, these changes have made the already blurry line between work and personal time even more difficult to distinguish. And while some found more time to efficiently get their job done, for others it resulted in an increase in workload, with 84 percent of compliance professionals officers reporting an increase in scope during the pandemic, according to our recent ComplySci Stats survey.
Leaders across industries no longer need to facilitate remote work – workers have proven it’s possible and, indeed, there may be meaningful benefits for companies as well as employees.
Now, the challenge is balancing the attributes of the traditional in-person model with what we learned about remote work since the pandemic started. We can’t pretend COVID didn’t happen and return to “the way things were” – rather, we must embrace the entirety of this shared global experience and find a new way forward.
Change Isn’t Coming – It’s Here
Leaders must realize work will look different than it has in the past. Coming to this realization wasn’t easy for me.
The office was central to my understanding of our company culture, and work was typically done in person. I loved the camaraderie and fed off the shared energy and collaboration of the office, though this had tradeoffs; I often missed family dinners.
The past 18 months has showed me there are few tasks I could do in the office that I couldn’t get done at home. Yes, I miss being in the office and seeing the team, but we’re finding new ways to connect and collaborate. We’re still cultivating our company culture. I’ve enjoyed being home for family dinner, and I know many of my colleagues have as well.
The lesson has been clear: The changes endured over the past year-and-a-half, though difficult, can enable us to make better decisions for our businesses, clients and employees.
We need to ask ourselves and our teams frank questions about the culture we want to foster.
Let’s start with this question: How important is it to be together every day during normal working hours? It may not be as important as we once thought.
The Best of Both Working Worlds?
Moving forward, firms should aim to capture the best of both working worlds – highlighting the value of flexibility and remote working environments and the benefits of having a corporate home base to foster connection with coworkers.
At ComplySci, we have given our employees flexibility in determining how and where they work best, whether that’s remote, in an office, or a hybrid of both – And we think it could be a template for wealth management and other financial services firms in general.
The key features include:
- Office Open Three Days a Week. When we open our offices in 2022, we will be open Tuesday through Thursday, with Monday and Friday set aside as all-staff remote days. This mitigates commuting and still allows teams to have in-person interaction if they choose.
- Employee Choice. Employees can choose how frequently they wish to work in the office, or they can remain fully remote. Employees who commit to working in the office at least once a week can request a dedicated desk, while employees who work in the office less than once a week can reserve a desk on demand.
- Equitable Growth and Access. We established an all-virtual onboarding program and specifically designed training and growth opportunities to ensure career growth is equitable, whether an employee works remotely or from the office.
The aftermath of the pandemic provides us an opportunity to reshape our understanding of the work. And according to a recent ComplySci Stats Survey we conducted among regulatory and compliance leaders, 78% say most of their employees support a flexible work policy.
However, leaders must stay true to their own companies’ cultures, and this requires an honest accounting of how culture shifted during the pandemic. Our culture changed, and other firms’ cultures likely did too.
Clear, Honest Communications
Leaders must be honest about what is essential for the company and valuable to the team. If in-person collaboration is critical to unity and work output, companies should stand by that and find a way to make it work – if not, it’s time to adapt.
Clear, honest, regular communication provides leaders the opportunity to explain the company’s culture – actions allow them to live it.
Taking a culture-centric approach to post-pandemic office life will help all employees push forward and feel connected, whether in an office, at a kitchen table or somewhere in between.
Amy Kadomatsu is CEO of ComplySci, a New York City-based provider of employee compliance software and solutions for wealth management, private equity and hedge fund firms