Finance bosses are offering more incentives, including free meals, ping pong and “contemplative spaces” as they battle to convince staff to return to the office, while concerns about the cost and value of commuting to work weigh on attendance worldwide.
Hybrid working policies were introduced across the industry during the Covid-19 pandemic, but data and interviews with finance sector executives showed attendances falling short of expectations globally, Reuters reported.
With expenses such as fuel and food rising rapidly, workers accustomed to pocketing commuting costs have further reason to to stay away, handing employers a challenge to increase the appeal of office working.
“Employers have done a fair amount to make the office more attractive and purposeful,” says Kathryn Wylde, chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, citing a range of perks from free meals to improving social space with ping pong tables.
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But a global survey of about 80,000 workers conducted by consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) showed employees are not complying with hybrid working policies.
Where organisations have policies requiring two, two or three, or three days in the office, attendance is respectively 1.1 days, 1.6 days and 2.1 days, AWA found.
“When we came out of lockdown and regulations were relaxed, people tried coming into the office … and when they got there they found all they were doing was being on Zoom calls” says Andrew Mawson, managing director of AWA.
“The reason people are not going into offices is because they got used to a lifestyle and cost structure that suits them.”
Senior managers can be among the most adamant about staying home, says Kelly Beaver, chief executive for the UK and Ireland at polling company Ipsos, which is abandoning its two-day-a-week hybrid policy in favour of a more flexible approach.
“We find some of them are less tolerant of tiny office frustrations, or they feel travelling to an office is an unnecessary burden … but they are missing out on networking,” she says.
While younger finance industry staff are mindful of how remote working might affect career progress, jobseekers often cite remote working as a preference.
Since the start of August, 80 per cent of people searching for finance jobs on Flexa, a global online platform that lets users search for roles based on flexible working preferences, specified a preference for “remote” or “remote-first” roles, a 33 per cent increase since March, a Flexa representative said.
Employees still hold a great deal of sway, says Peter Hogg, cities director at property consultant Arcadis in London.
“It is a high-risk strategy for firms to be too directive in terms of telling people what they have to do,” Mr Hogg says.
The consultancy is busier now helping companies “retrofit” their offices — making changes such as adding more “contemplative space” in the form of indoor gardens, libraries or informal areas with soft furnishings — than any previous time since the pandemic, he says.
One British-based trading company has begun providing showers, areas to nap in and laundry amenities for bleary-eyed staff working late on deals, says Leeson Medhurst, director of strategy at Peldon Rose, which designs offices for businesses.
“Our client said, 'We're going to view our office as a hotel'; they are catering for the needs of the employee, not necessarily the financial needs of the company,” he says.
In August, the City of London Corporation — which runs the financial district — said that it had hired a “Destination City” programme curator to design events such as theatre, games and live performances.
British bank Aldermore is encouraging staff back to the office while not reverting to pre-pandemic norms, says chief executive Steven Cooper.
The bank is considering hiring a concierge to help staff manage daily errands such as dry cleaning at the office that they would otherwise have more flexibility to do at home, he says.
Those most resistant to returning to the office are people who have relocated to the suburbs and have long commutes, the Partnership for New York City's Ms Wylde says, while younger staff are most likely to turn up.
“Young people are recognising their career advancement is going to depend on relationships in the office,” she says.
Wall Street's biggest financial companies have been among the most proactive in bringing employees back to the office.
Goldman Sachs Group called its employees back to the office full-time in June last year, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan are mostly back while Citi has a hybrid arrangement.
On Thursday, Jefferies Financial Group said it wants staff back in its offices rather than in “lonely home silos”, even though it is also working on a hybrid basis.
Goldman and Morgan Stanley have also said they will lift some pandemic-era protocols in early September, including mask-wearing and coronavirus testing at their offices, memos reviewed by Reuters showed.
In March, JP Morgan made masks in its corporate office buildings voluntary and ended mandatory testing for unvaccinated employees. The largest US bank has also pared back its policy of hiring only vaccinated individuals.
Britain's weakening economy and rising energy costs could drive those worried about layoffs to the office faster than free snacks or other inducements, says Chris Gardner, co-chief executive at London-based property lender Atelier.
“If, as expected, things tighten up later this year, then presenteeism and being visible in the office will become more important,” he says.