Lessons from Lockdown: #2 Agile working beyond the pandemic

Posted by KEA Consultants

November 25, 2020

Lessons from Lockdown

#2 Agile working beyond the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a monumental shift in the way we work. Research by the Resolution Foundation in May found that 63% of all workers were working from home, compared to 2019, when, according to an ONS survey just 5% of the UK workforce said they worked mainly from home.

In this piece, we look at the realities of flexible working during lockdown and the experiences of different investment professionals on the buy-side. Pre-pandemic, many investment professionals believed the work from home policies were not fit for purpose. The global pandemic has moved working from home from a ‘nice to have’, to a necessity. It has forced the hand of employers to put into practice more flexible and agile working strategies. We ask how we can use learnings from lockdown to create stronger flexible working policies.

Agile working vs Flexible working

Before we delve into the experiences of buy-side professionals, it’s important to understand the difference between agile working and flexible working. Agile working is about a cultural shift in business practices to find the most productive way for an employee to complete a task. Flexible working is central to an agile culture, but focuses on the person, allowing them to work where and when suits their lifestyle.

The two are inextricably linked and have been high on the agenda for some time, particularly amongst female investment professionals. Agile working has also been welcomed as a potential way to improve the wellbeing of investment professionals.

Work/life balance

Flexible working is a critical tool to help find a work/life balance. The ability to spend more time at home was seen as positive by most respondents, especially those with families. On our previous blog, we discussed the effect of working from home on mental health and wellbeing in more depth.

Before lockdown, long hours and inflexibility had been reported as a barrier to joining or progressing within the industry. Now, working flexible hours and having a few hours off in the late afternoon / early evening to spend time with family has made a big difference. Many people can now envisage a long term career at a particular firm or within the industry more broadly. This change has particularly helped junior female investors to realise their long-term personal and professional goals are not incompatible.

A crucial example of the need for flexible working is around maternity and paternity leave. Unclear and ineffectual parental leave policies have negatively affected parents and had a significant impact on gender diversity in the buy-side. Lockdown has given parents a chance to balance their professional and personal commitments without sacrificing the ‘face-time’ they put in at the office.

Although flexible working around the family was mostly viewed as a positive, it is important to make sure that colleagues are not expected to wait around and be responsive very late at night. This is why optionality is key here; we encourage the investment industry to take stock of the last few months and enact positive change that is flexible enough to support an entire workforce with different needs and lifestyles.

The right tools for the job

An essential part of flexible working is access to the right technology and tools. As the world moves naturally to a more flexible working model, funds need to provide correct and functional IT infrastructure, not just for those working from home, but for those in the office too. At the moment, due to increased remote meetings, investors that have returned to the office need to bring in laptops or tablets, in addition to their work computers. Providing technology such as webcams and tablets would allow all confidential virtual meetings to take place seamlessly.

The impact of the travel ban

Pre-pandemic, extensive travel was integral to working life. Most buy-side investment professionals, especially more senior team members, were expected to spend substantial time travelling away from home. This expectation caused issues in increasing and maintaining gender diversity in the funds.

With agile and flexible working, technology has helped to bridge the gap where face-to-face meetings have not been possible. The forced situation has led to more thought around how much international travel is necessary in the future.

Those we spoke to believed virtual conference calls and management meetings, and doing deals remotely, had been just as effective, commenting that no time had been ‘wasted’ travelling. There is recognition that some travel will still be required to build relationships, meet management teams and network more generally, but there is hope amongst investment professionals that travel for solely deal purposes will reduce. However, some investors believed it was unlikely that Partners would allow technology to lighten the load of international travel once it can resume as normal.

This issue affects those within the investment industry and beyond. A conscious shift across the working world will have a positive impact on the environment and the wellbeing of employees. Professional services need to make a commitment to change; because the industries are so interconnected, the entire ecosystem must adapt. Banks and limited partners will hopefully switch to fewer in-person meetings.

One size does not fit all

Flexibility must work for everyone. Mutual respect for people’s time must be reflected in the culture and policies of the firm. Companies that have not done this well have left employees feeling much busier than before.

Huge players like Twitter and Facebook have already announced massive changes to their working practices, so we expect these conversations to take place soon in the investment industry, if they aren’t happening already.

Funds that have spent the last few months finding out employees’ opinions through internal surveys and focus groups seem to be the most likely to take feedback on board when developing new working policies. Kea encourages firms to reach a fair medium between those who would like to be in the office full-time, versus those who would appreciate more of a work/life balance.

We encourage the larger, more traditional investment funds to make statements that set the tone for the industry. Positive initiatives like this work best when they are genuinely and actively encouraged from the top down. It’s important not to expect or allow heads of teams to drive all of the changes, as their personal preference could vary widely from the majority of the team.

Whatever changes occur to agile and flexible working practices post-pandemic, it is clear that the investing working world will never quite be the same again.

 



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