A divide has opened up between financial and professional services companies with UK operations since the coronavirus pandemic, with some demanding staff return to the office several days a week, while others give employees much greater freedom to choose when they work from home.
Although most companies have adopted hybrid working, some are asking or encouraging staff to come into the office two or three days a week, including PwC, Société Générale, BlackRock, Abrdn and Aviva, according to Financial Times research.
Other businesses have stopped short of mandating a certain number of days in the office, and given many employees the chance of more flexible hybrid working, depending on their roles, and these companies include Allianz, Deloitte, EY, Lloyds Banking Group and Axa.
Greater scope for homeworking means the City of London has become a place where the busy days are Tuesday to Thursday. The Square Mile is much quieter on Mondays and Fridays.
The FT asked more than 60 financial and professional services companies employing tens of thousands of staff for their post-pandemic working arrangements.
It is clear that companies accept that following the coronavirus crisis, a blend of working from home and the office each week is here to stay in the UK.
But it is also clear there is no common approach to hybrid working, with some companies concluding the best chance of motivating and retaining staff in a tight labour market is to let employees choose how much time they spend in the office and at home. Team leaders have often been delegated the task of finalising detailed arrangements, and much depends on the nature of roles.
Other businesses, spurred on by concerns about mentoring and developing employees as well as maximising productivity, are insisting on two or three days spent working in the office.
Kevin Ellis, senior partner at PwC UK, said people were expected to spend two or three days a week in the office — and potentially more at times.
“For a services business like ours, productivity requires a certain level of face-to-face interaction to share ideas and knowledge. That’s why we’ve set clear expectations on the proportion of time we expect our people spend in the office or with clients — it’s not something we can afford to leave to chance and our people look to us for the guide rails.”
But Julie Harrison, chief human resources officer at Allianz, said the company’s model was “co-created with our employees and agreed at a team level — this means that team members have huge flexibility and can decide for themselves the number of days in the office vs at home”.
She added productivity had not suffered, and in some cases had improved. “For me it comes back to that point of empowering people to work out what’s best for their own team and customers.”
As the UK emerged from its final Covid lockdowns at the start of this year, financial and professional services companies sought a hybrid way of operating that would bring staff back to offices but also give employees the option of working from home at least some of the time. Most companies were clear about the importance of the office in helping to foster a distinct corporate culture.
Where companies had surveyed staff over hybrid working, all reported that employees felt happier and more productive with these arrangements.
But some companies want staff to return to the office at least two or three days each week.
Claire Wills, London managing partner at Freshfields, which expects staff in the office three days a week, said: “We have an opportunity here for the next generation of lawyers to achieve a greater work/life balance. At the same time, we’ve always been a firm with a strong cultural glue.”
Companies said their approach to how much time should be spent in the office often hinged on an employee’s role and which team they belonged to.
At JPMorgan, people in roles such as investment banking or trading are likely to be working four or five days a week in the office, while some technology and support staff only spend two or three days. Pre-pandemic, almost all roles involved five days in the office.
Société Générale staff come to the office on average two to three days each week, depending on role and team.
The company said: “We continue to believe that physical interaction and collaboration between colleagues remains important, particularly for client facing roles and supporting more junior employees, as well as being a key driver of innovation.”
Aegon expects its staff to spend 40 per cent of their work time in the office.
Royal London has set an average of 50 per cent of work time in the office, saying: “We understand this isn’t a ‘one size fits all’, so our people leaders are empowered to agree an approach locally which balances the needs of both the business and our colleagues.”
Other financial and professional services companies are not setting group- level benchmarks for how much time is spent in the office.
Lloyds Banking Group said the “balance of time a person works at home, office or elsewhere depends on customer, team and business needs as well as individual preferences”. Some people, such as those who work in bank branches, cannot work in hybrid ways, it added.
Cuan Coulter, executive vice-president and head of UK operations at State Street, said the “mix of in-office versus remote time our colleagues experience is determined by their [role profile] as opposed to mandated days”.
Man Group said “work — as both a place and an activity — has changed”, leading to a model that “accommodates anything from zero to five days in the office each week, depending on what works best for each role”.
“Being flexible means we can attract a wider range of people to the firm, and that’s a focus for us too,” it added.
Schroders said it had “empowered” employees to decide when, how and where they worked to best support clients, adding the company wanted to ensure it still has “face to face interaction to maintain our culture of collaboration, innovation and strong productivity”.
It “continues to see many benefits in people coming to the office and this will remain an important part of our approach to flexible working”, said the company.
One boss at a financial services business, who declined to be named, said insisting on three days in the office at a group level was often being ignored by staff.
The company has since moved to a model in which team leaders decide when people need to be in the office.
Many companies that have decided against group-level benchmarks nevertheless would like their employees to spend a good portion of their time in the office.
Conrad Davies, managing partner elect at Osborne Clarke, has set staff a goal “to work in the office more often than not”.
Other companies appear willing to let employees decide the balance between office and homeworking.
Deloitte said 96 per cent of its staff said that they wanted to have the freedom to choose how flexibly they work, “therefore there are no mandated office days”. It has since recorded high scores in productivity surveys.
Hybrid working means companies need less office space
Some companies have started to scale back their office space as employees engage in hybrid working, and many businesses have overhauled workplace facilities, according to FT research.
Companies that have reduced their office space or will do so in future include HSBC, Nationwide, Deloitte and Aviva.
Allen & Overy, echoing comments by other companies, said that “as our ways of working have evolved over time and now, as we transition to hybrid working, we know we will need significantly less office space in the future”.
Companies that have redesigned their offices to reflect hybrid working arrangements include Ashurst, KPMG, Numis and Janus Henderson.
Osborne Clarke said it had reduced office space in Bristol by 12 per cent at the same time as increasing headcount by 10 per cent given changes to facilities that include more “meeting and chill out spaces, personal storage not personal desks, follow-me tech and flexible modular fittings”.
Some companies also said the shift to hybrid working provided environmental benefits, with Lloyds Banking Group stating it had helped with its pledge to maintain travel emissions by employees at below 50 per cent of pre-Covid levels.