Banking’s back-to-office fight does not need to happen

A new survey indicates that, in some cases, managers are planning for more remote work than employees actually want.

The banking sector seems to be barreling toward a showdown that pits employees against management. In one corner, senior banking figures that have publicly denounced remote working and advocated an accelerated return to the office. In the other, growing evidence that staff will change jobs if they don’t get the flexible work schedules they want. Getting the balance right is going to be crucial for banks’ success.

As early as last September, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon required traders to come back into the office, saying that remote working has slowed decision-making, hampered apprenticeships and reduced spontaneous learning and creativity. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon called remote working an aberration that was “not a new normal.”

More recently, however, Microsoft’s “Great Resignation” research found that 41% of employees are considering leaving their jobs this year, often because they can work remotely.

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The truth is much more complicated. The office may be more attractive to workers than we believed, and management may have misjudged what employees want from their workplace. This could leave managers underprepared to deal with this complexity, although new research identifies ways to calculate what workers want.

A recent poll of leading U.S. and European banks found that while there would be a sharp decline in employees working five days a week in the office, the largest group still wants to work there four days. This data turns the consensus on its head, since bank managers are planning for more remote working than employees are demanding.

This view emerged this summer from an Infosys poll of 520 managers and employees at top U.S. and European banks. Seventy-one percent said they worked five days a week from the office pre-pandemic. Now, just 27% say they want that same schedule post-pandemic, although few want to be fully remote.

Bank managers and employees are seemingly out of sync on back-to-office plans, which have been delayed slightly due to the Delta variant-related spike in COVID-19 cases.

The largest group of bank employees (36%) say they want to work only one day remotely and the rest in the office. But fewer than half of managers (15%) anticipate that employees will seek this schedule. Also, managers consistently overestimated the number of workers who want to be in the office from one to three days a week.

Still, managers can better understand what employees want, based on their banking segment, job role and personal factors. The Infosys research found that investment bankers want to spend roughly three and a half days in the office each week, a half-day more than those in commercial or retail banking.

Among job roles, the breakdown fell along expected lines, with back office employees wanting to spend less than three days a week in the office and the front office staff expecting to work there nearly four days. Those in lines of business and middle office fell about halfway in between.

However, the most predictive factor was where employees worked during the pandemic. Those who were fully remote don’t want to spend more than three days a week in the office. Hybrid workers most likely want to work four days in-person. And those who spent every day in the office want to keep that schedule. The research also found that employees with more dependents and with less suitable home workspaces want to spend more time in the office.

Some banks have anticipated these issues and are making it clear they welcome remote work. Citigroup is highlighting its flexibility and “betting that a softer approach will help them poach top traders and deal makers,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Most lender roles will be at least three days in the office and as many as two at home.

The stakes are high for banks that aren’t able to satisfy their employees. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that more than half of U.S. workers were willing to take a “sizable” pay cut to work from home part of each week.

The Infosys survey of bank employees found that 62% would switch jobs if they could not work remotely for their desired number of days. This office vs. remote dynamic is a difficult calculation that executives need to get right if they want to successfully reorganize their office space and retain talent.

Dennis Gada is head of financial services, North America, at Infosys.