Cultural implications of new work practices

Office working has changed forever in the shadow of Covid-19. How are firms around the world tackling the cultural and social issues that arise from this?
by Paul Golden


After the initial upheaval of lockdown, financial services firms and their employees appeared to settle pretty well into the new world of work. But the transition was not entirely straightforward. In an April 2020 report on the UK wealth management sector by global talent consultancy Sheffield Haworth, Simon Worthington, managing director, wealth management at Sheffield Haworth, notes that senior managers are concerned about junior members of staff experiencing a market downturn without the support they would usually receive in the office.

He also suggests that team leaders have increased the level of communication with their teams to "ensure successful team management and support", but this has led in some cases to "information and time overload", and managers are "still finding the balance".

To determine what drives behaviour within a firm, the FCA looks at four factors behind a firm’s culture: its purpose as understood by employees; its leadership; its approach to managing and rewarding people; and governance arrangements. Looking in more detail at employee behaviour, culture within a firm, as described at the CISI Financial Planning Conference 2020 by Barry Horner CFP™ Chartered MCSI, CEO of Paradigm Norton Financial Planning, is:

  • what goes on when nobody's looking
  • the firm's social order or silent language
  • how it's done around here.

This article looks at how firms' cultures have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the possible solutions for building, maintaining and enhancing culture, including maintaining and building networks.

Regional responses

The pandemic has tested firms' business continuity plans, which we covered in a previous Review article. The article highlights compliance challenges while working from home, and actions taken to address these. For example, in New Zealand, the central bank altered its guidance on anti-money laundering and customer due diligence and the FCA published a Dear CEO letter detailing supervisory flexibility over 10% depreciation notifications (a requirement under the EU’s second Markets in Financial Instruments Directive).

Working from home pros and cons


- Increased level of communication with teams
- People more receptive to catching up
- Mental health and productivity benefits from not commuting
- Fewer distractions 
- A more level playing field for assessing talent
- Virtual events mean no travel and more opportunities for networking

- Information and time overload
- More difficult to onboard a new joiner, who may feel isolated 
- Monitoring and surveillance technology used at home can be stress-inducing
- Virtual meetings rely on technology to work, and people can more easily speak over each other, with less opportunity to pick up on body language.

Some companies also took the time to consider the cultural impact of working from home, helping workers settle into their new regimes, but specific responses have varied by region. For example, London-headquartered investment manager Brewin Dolphin’s initial focus was on ensuring all employees had information about how to set up workspaces at home and create a new working routine. It also provided financial support for employees in the form of interest-free loans for impacted households and flexible working for those that needed it with no impact on pay.

In Asia, many wealth managers continued to work from their offices because their governments were not offering generous furlough schemes, says Mathew Bate, Chartered FCSI, director of Hong Kong-based Private Capital. "We were eligible for a small government subsidy scheme if we did not make any staff redundant, but this was capped at £900 per month for six months."

When US-based financial services company Square sent its employees to work from home, the company's benefits team distributed a document to help the transition to remote working. These included tips for working parents on home-schooling and mental health resources.

Onboarding, training and intra-networking

Helping existing employees settle in to a new way of working is one thing, but what about onboarding new employees? At Brewin Dolphin, all new joiners are invited to a virtual induction session and the firm has ensured that access to development programmes has been promoted via internal channels, says Adrian Godley, head of HR partnering at Brewin Dolphin. "We have encouraged interaction between new joiners and colleagues across the business, which previously might have been restricted due to physical distance."

This merging of boundaries between new joiners and more senior colleagues has been seen more generally, according to Julie Chakraverty, founder and CEO of workplace advice platform Rungway. She says the platform saw strong demand during the pandemic from organisations looking to foster a greater sense of connectedness while employees were working remotely, and to allow them to ask questions anonymously and reach more experienced colleagues to learn the "unwritten rules" of an organisation.

Wei Li, managing director at BlackRock, says it’s essential for younger people and those starting out in their career to have visibility and expand their networks while working remotely. "They need to be more active and deliberate in relationship building," she says. "People are more receptive to catching up with new people because there is that element of office chat that has been missing in a remote work environment, that is particularly important for new joiners. I benefited a lot from being a mentee and a mentor while growing my career, and I encourage all young professionals to explore what mentorship, and sponsorship, can do for them."
"We’ve tried to do socials virtually but it’s tricky when you’ve got 15 people on a video call all trying to talk at once"

Sarah Woodard, an analyst at Goldman Sachs who joined the firm 12 months ago as a graduate, found her ability to network with colleagues almost immediately curtailed by the initial lockdown. "Because I’m quite junior and have only been working for a year, it’s important to be able to build my network," she says. "At Goldman Sachs there’s a real 'coffee culture', which involves chatting as you walk past colleagues’ desks. Working from home has put a stop to that. The communication within my team was very high, but I’ve noticed that my colleagues and I only tend to reach out to other teams if we have a question or something that we need help with. I haven’t spoken to as many people as I did when I was in the office."

Sarah responded to that realisation by following her mentor’s advice and reaching out to schedule video calls with colleagues in other areas of the business. She found her approach was welcomed. "Everyone was delighted that I’d taken the time to connect with them and it got a really positive response. I now chat to a lot of the people I caught up with during the initial lockdown on a regular basis. I’ve definitely developed and maintained relationships," she says.

Where a significant impact has been felt is in the informal, social connections that were such a vital part of working life pre-Covid: the chats while walking back from a meeting, the drinks on a Friday after work, even the office Christmas party. And it’s challenging to recreate those experiences in the virtual space.

"I’ve really missed the social side," says Sarah. "Going out socially as a team really does improve your work because even though you might be talking in a social setting, there’s still a lot to learn from people. We’ve tried to do socials virtually but it’s tricky when you’ve got 15 people on a video call all trying to talk at once."

Monitoring the mental health of employees

"During the past six months we have increased our focus on social wellbeing," says Adrian Godley. He explains that the firm has a network of wellbeing champions who are trained as mental health first aiders under the auspices of the Mental Health First Aid England programme, who help monitor the mental health of employees. "We also rolled out resilience training for employees and managing mental health training for our line managers," he says.

According to Julie, firms have had to rethink the processes they use to uncover issues and gauge employee sentiment. "A number have launched employee support tools where employees can post questions anonymously and tap into support and experience across the organisation at a time when mental health and anxiety are heightened," she says.
"To help maximise idea sharing, it is a good idea to set up breakout groups so you can split the group"

But working from home has brought opportunities as well. Many Rungway users have championed the mental health and productivity benefits of not commuting and of being away from the constant distractions of the open plan office. At an organisational level, this has also brought a more level playing field for companies to assess their talent, no longer dominated by those who can spend the longest hours in the office.

Monitoring could be taken too far, though. A Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development report, published in July 2020, says that employers now have many more ways of monitoring staff, "including keystroke logging and monitoring usage of virtual communication platforms". It says that workers and managers reject the idea of "heavy workplace monitoring", which is perceived as "stress-inducing, demotivating and dehumanising". (Read more about the use of surveillance in our ‘Ask the experts’ on psychological safety in the upcoming flipbook edition.)

Networking events in a virtual world

Online conferencing and virtual events are booming in a pandemic landscape. According to Virtual events and interactions report by Knowingli, which analysed data collected by GlobalWebIndex in May 2020 of 1,998 respondents aged 16-64 in the US and 1,001 respondents in the UK, eight in ten consumers in both countries have attended a virtual event recently, and six in ten have no plans to return to live (indoor or outdoor) events in large venues for some time. The CISI, for example, hosted its inaugural virtual Financial Planning Conference on 13–14 October 2020, where 190 delegates from around the world attended break-out groups and 'coffee sessions', allowing them to meet new faces and catch up with fellow financial planners.

Being able to remotely join a virtual meeting or a conference without being there in person (due to location differences) has surely been a benefit to the new way of virtually networking. For Wei Li, "While the travel ban has posed restrictions to client engagement and is not ideal, I am pleased to have discovered how effective it can be to connect with clients across the globe. We managed to make the most out of virtual forums and do more (reaching more clients, doing more meetings) with less (time and energy associated with traditional travels)."

Transforming meetings

Disadvantages to virtual meetings include unreliable technology; a lack of engagement or, conversely, people talking over each other; and less opportunity to pick up on body language. Also, running presentations can be more challenging virtually. (Look out for an upcoming Review article on how to create an engaging virtual presentation.)

Cathal Sheridan, chief operations officer at Davy, says maximising engagement when meeting via video has been achieved by placing more focus on pre-read material and concrete agendas and using the ‘raised hand’ feature on video calls. "We have seen an uptick in the use of shared project sites to coordinate work through document sharing and automated project update notifications, while online whiteboard tools have been particularly useful in product design and strategy meetings," he adds.

CISI's new neighbours

Changes to work practices will inevitably have implications for commercial real estate. Following a review of their property footprints, the CISI and the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) agreed to share the same workspace, with the CII subletting part of the CISI’s office space at 20 Fenchurch Street from early 2021. It will have separate office space on the same floor as the CISI, and will remain legally separate to the CISI.

Covid-19 is "going to make some very structural changes to how we work", explains CISI CEO Simon Culhane, Chartered FCSI, on the Eddie Mair show on LBC Radio on 6 August 2020. He says that CISI members have told the institute that they will not spend as many days in the office in the future. He notes a difference between doing existing work from home, such as writing essays or reports, and tasks that benefit from face-to-face interaction, such as creativity, collaborative work and new business development.

He says, "Fundamentally we’re never going to come back to the same office we used to. Even with the vaccine, we’re in for some big long-lasting changes."

Adrian agrees on the value of a well-communicated agenda with clear desired outcomes, which gives participants a chance to prepare and provides a common purpose. "To help maximise idea sharing, it is a good idea to set up breakout groups so you can split the group, they can go off and discuss the topic in hand and come back with their thoughts and ideas," he says. "You need to ensure they manage their time carefully, but this is a great way to get more out of people, especially the quieter ones." In December 2020, Microsoft reported that its Teams platform has launched a breakout room function.

Julie recommends implementing a more interactive agenda, mixing things up from week to week and asking more questions of participants.

Returning to the office?

In the US, Square and Twitter, who have the same CEO, Jack Dorsey, were two of the first big companies to announce that its employees can permanently work from home. However, most firms plan to wait until there is a sense that the pandemic is under control before making long-term decisions on how (and how many of) their employees return to the office.

"We will follow the recommendation of the health authorities, but some specific activities cannot be done at home," says Etienne d'Arenberg, limited partner at Geneva-based wealth manager Mirabaud. "At group level, approximately 30% of staff are working from the office, but the situation can be different in each country based on guidelines from local authorities and the specific individual circumstances of employees."

The Department of the Taoiseach in Ireland has classed financial services as essential, meaning that, under current level 5 restrictions, physical attendance at workplaces is permitted, but only if the services cannot be provided virtually. So, says Cathal, the vast majority of Davy’s staff is working from home. "This won’t change until the guidelines do in Ireland," he says. "We have drafted a ramp-up plan to reintroduce teams in waves to control reopening once we are able to do so. We are also trialling hot-desking and agile working now so that post-Covid-19, those who wish to continue some level of remote working will be fully enabled to do so."

Brewin Dolphin has established a working group to ensure staff return to its offices in a safe and appropriate way. Adrian says "We are working with colleagues on how we can create a hybrid model of home and office working that will be best for our employees and our clients."

This approach is a likely way forward for the sector in general. The working world changed vastly in 2020, and some of these transitions, such as virtual conferences, may be carried forward into 2021 and beyond.

Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email
Published: 08 Jan 2021
  • Compliance
  • Fintech
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • working from home
  • networking
  • mental health
  • lockdown
  • culture
  • Covid-19

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