Is telecommuting good for financial services workers? It depends on who you ask
By Melanie Rodier, Wall Street & Technology
13 June 2013
Earlier this year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made waves by announcing that her employees could no longer telecommute. The Telework Research Network estimates that over 3.15 million people consider home to be their primary place of work.
Working remotely is extremely popular in financial services. According to Gartner, banking and financial services is the second largest sector, after business services, for telecommuting (financial services is tied with retailing/wholesaling in the No. 2 spot). Many banks have had longstanding telecommuting programs. Bank of America started its flexible work program in 2005. State Street has allowed some of its workers to telecommute for a number of years.
Not only are there benefits for employees, but the institutions see benefits as well. Banks and their workers agree that institutions that allow remote work have higher productivity and employee satisfaction. Also a financial firm can save on real estate, power, cooling and heating for each employee who works at home. Granted, banks must provide the technology and systems connectivity for remote workers, but most firms already have that infrastructure in place. Employees benefit from lower commuting costs, more time to actually do work (no time spent commuting), increased productivity and better work-life balance.
But that’s not to say that all financial institutions whole-heartedly embrace employees working remotely full time. In fact, many Wall Street firms still place a lot of emphasis on having staff members put in a full day’s work at the office. As part of a growing emphasis on flexible arrangements, however, they’re increasingly allowing employees to work from home a couple of days a month so that they can attend their children’s soccer games, let the plumber in or attend to other personal tasks.
For Steve Rubinow, CIO of FXall, who echoes the sentiments of many technology leaders in the financial services industry, nothing is ever likely to take the place of person-to-person interaction in the same location.
“That means all the richness of communication that goes along with it: facial expression, body language, tone and voice that doesn’t come across in an email and serendipitous interaction that comes when you meet in a hallway, overhear a conversation and might join in,” he says. “Those are the kinds of things that are hard to orchestrate in telecommuting.”
The benefits of having a physical presence in the workplace, however, need to be balanced with employee needs. Rubinow confirms that it’s important to offer employees flexible working arrangements when needed because there are some people who simply can’t be in the workplace every day. “In that case, we don’t say, ‘Gee, you’re really talented, but if you can’t be in the office every day we don’t want you.’ We value our employees and want to retain the best talent.”
Likewise, TradeMonster(https://www.trademonster.com/) CTO Sanjib Sahoo says he’s not a strong supporter of remote working, as he, too, believes that sharing a physical space with co-workers is essential for collaborative work. “If you’re working from home, you feel a bit cut off from what’s happening in the office,” he says. This situation is particularly true in the dynamic financial services industry where speed is often necessary, Sahoo says.
Still, he agrees that it is important to be able to offer employees some flexibility. “If you have a need or an issue, I would rather have you work remotely than take [the day] off,” he says.
Like many financial institutions, BNY Mellon’s wealth management department equips most employees with laptops and secure tokens so that they can dial into the network and work remotely. BNY Mellon(http://www.bnymellon.com/) has also started enabling remote workers to have video capabilities, namely through a product called Vidyo, which offers high-definition videoconferencing. Anthony Perkins, CIO for wealth management at BNY Mellon, says video will also facilitate more team-building and camaraderie across all offices. Staff members can typically work from home once a week or a couple of times a month. “All of our employees have the opportunity at any given time after a discussion with their manager,” Perkins says.
Steve Neff, enterprise CTO of Fidelity, contends that the concept of being able to be highly productive regardless of where you are, which in large part has been driven by the consumerization of IT, has changed the definition of working remotely ;”In the past we used to think about remote work as meaning working from home, but today we have many IT associates who are constantly on the move, and working remotely has a much broader meaning,” Neff says. “Remote can mean impromptu work in the cafeteria with some colleagues or connecting with teammates half a world away over video while at home in the evening.”
Neff points out that Fidelity’s IT workforce is generally highly mobile. “We work closely with our partners in real estate to ensure that we have options in place to make it easier for our associates to be fully productive regardless of where they’re sitting. This includes pervasive video and self-service IT support models,” he says.
Still, most technology leaders believe that when it comes down to working remotely on a regular basis, the energy that’s created when employees are in the same location can’t be duplicated through telecommuting. Part of the problem with telecommuting, says BNY Mellon’s Perkins, is that human nature dictates that people tend to multitask when they’re on a phone call. He calls it “corporate ADD.”
“So you don’t get the same level of energy, people aren’t involved in what they’re doing [with their] heart and soul,” Perkins adds. “With instant messaging and emails, people have the tendency to lose their concentration. So it’s really important to get people together strategically when you kick off a project. Even just to get people together to socialize.”
Ultimately, Rubinow notes that remote working needs to be allowed on a case-by-case basis. Not everyone is suited to telecommuting, he argues. Further, the benefits of telecommuting depend on the type of project you’re working on. If the work is highly interactive and involves other team members, remote working won’t work. On the other hand, if employees work on their own, telecommuting is less of a hindrance. Rubinow says he generally doesn’t let people he has never worked with before telecommute.
“When you have worked with a team member and you understand each other, there’s chemistry and an established relationship,” Rubinow says. “If they then say, ‘You know what? I need to work more from home,’ that’s better. You know the person.”