Working models are evolving, but COOs will test out plans first

Working models are evolving, but COOs will test out plans first

Key headlines to feature on website

  • Chief operating officers (COOs) are planning for colleagues to work at home and in offices, but they will spend time testing plans before committing to this approach over the long term.
  • COOs want to retain flexibility, trust and a focus on wellbeing, but they are worried about the return of presenteeism.
  • They are also concerned about undoing years of good work on culture, communication, and diversity and inclusion.
  • Some are building their future of work plans around what’s best for customers, but all acknowledge that people want to work differently.
  • COOs face a world of grey areas and paradoxes, so they will gather feedback from employees and customers as they progress.

Recap of UK Finance COO Network virtual event

The future of work is an important topic, but delivering it effectively and in a manner that will endure long-term presents challenges for chief operating officers. In May, during a virtual event with members of the UK Finance COO Network, COOs explained why they will take small steps before making big decisions.

Financial services companies will change the way they work but are set to experiment before making long-term commitments. UK Finance COO Network members recognise the workplace is evolving as they contemplate how their teams will balance time between working at home and the office. But they want to test new plans first.

This approach makes sense. In the past year, COOs have focussed on solving immediate challenges. Thousands of people have been working at home and dealing with the anxiety of the pandemic. The way they feel about returning to work is not clear cut, so leaders want to take small but purposeful steps.

The COO of one international bank said her colleagues wanted to work differently. But she also revealed an interesting paradox from internal surveys of staff: people want flexibility around being in the office, but they also want time to collaborate with each other in the office. In the future, they will spend between 40 and 60 per cent of the week at home, with structure around when they meet in person. The plans will be agreed to by each team and everyone will be encouraged to find common ground. There will be a record of what is agreed, but no one will be strong armed into anything, she added.

The workplace is changing

A lot has happened in a short time. Some estimates suggest that change programmes, including remote working, have been achieved 20 to 40 times faster than before the pandemic. This has created opportunities for companies to operate differently, but it has presented new challenges for them as well.

During the event, Protiviti offered some perspectives on the future of work. We said that expecting people to get up at the same time, to work in the same place, and do the same thing, was outdated. Offices could be used for connection, collaboration, creativity, compassion, and celebration, but the internet could connect more people more quickly and help deliver business in new ways.

We also explained the impact of this trend on the structure of companies. In the future, there would be a permanent core of staff, assisted by other groups of workers. These would include managed and outsourced services, contractors, and freelancers. The rise of the ‘human cloud’ means that, for many, flexible work is now an active choice.

Dealing with evolving challenges

There were a number of other notable takeaways from the virtual event. First, COOs want to address their short-term challenges: some colleagues are worried about returning to offices before they have been vaccinated; others are unsure about using public transport again. Leaders are helping people to overcome these barriers with ‘keeping in touch days’, but they are mindful of getting their approach right.

Secondly, they are thinking about what could happen: if banks in America started going back to the office, one person asked, how long before London and the UK would have to follow suit? And if people start spending more time in the office, then presenteeism might become an issue. One participant said that despite good intentions, there was a risk of women being at home, because of childcare commitments, and men drifting back to the office full time.

Another sentiment voiced during the event: It’s likely that delivering business in person, remotely, and a combination of the two, will demand more than one business model. It isn’t enough to say: ‘let’s make it hybrid, and everything will be OK.’

Testing the future vision

Despite these challenges, COOs at the event said a combination of working styles and locations would be a natural next step. They have learned to deliver business in new ways and have created an environment that can work better for some people. Also, with regard to climate change and ESG issues, they all want to reduce the impact of their business on the world, too.

But they are patient and keen to gather evidence because there will be lessons to learn along the way. COOs in financial services are looking for examples of companies in other sectors that have adopted new ways of working. They think their plans will work, but they don’t know what will happen until they put them into practice.

One participant captured the mood when she explained her own experience. She joined an international bank during lockdown and spent her first year working remotely. She enjoyed the experience of getting to know colleagues, and felt the culture had developed well, even online. But she was also aware of not rushing into long-term decisions. In terms of working models, the leadership team was looking at every role to see what was best for the employee, the bank and customers, she explained. They were considering the use of technology, but also diversity and inclusion, because no one should lose out: the bank didn’t want to undo the good work it had already achieved. As a result, the leadership team was treading carefully and planned to gather additional feedback in the next few months.

Getting comfortable in the grey areas

For some COOs, this flexible approach is going to be familiar. Leaders used to working in agile ways, testing out concepts and ‘failing fast’ will navigate this process more smoothly. But for others, perhaps those who are slower to embrace change, the prospect of experimentation is going to take time.

The COO of one bank said it would require a new approach. She said that projects were usually classed as successes or failures, but acknowledged that experimentation was needed now. The senior team would learn as they go and work hard to bring employees on the journey with them, she said.

The future of work provides a great opportunity for business models to evolve. But it also includes many grey areas and paradoxes for COOs and their teams to navigate. That’s why financial services firms want to take their time and explore this new chapter first, before making permanent decisions.

UK Finance’s COO Network event, which was held in association with Protiviti, took place on 18 May 2021 online. This is a quarterly event held under Chatham House rules. For more information and to find out more about the work of UK Finance, contact head of member communities Zoe Bailey.


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peter richardson
Peter Richardson
Charlie Newman
Charlie Newman
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