Years after the pandemic ended, the battle over WFH rumbles on. The latest salvo came last year, as European banks tried to lure employees across the Atlantic, offering flexible working arrangements that many Wall Street bods couldn’t bring themselves to accept. Liam Murphy talks to Annemarie Matze-Mennes, the future of work and hybrid working programme manager at ABN AMRO, and Claire McCartney, a senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, to understand how European banks create a progressive but productive working environment, the specifi c advantages of WFH – and whether this new reality is here to stay.

During his two decades designing spacecraft for the US government, Jack Nilles often circled back to two fundamental questions: “Why are we doing things this way – and why can’t we use technology to do things better?” This inquisitive mindset would help him undertake major NASA operations – notably around enabling medical information to travel via satellite from Africa to the US, offering swift support after natural disasters along the way.

Important work indeed. But many will know Nilles from his work on solid ground. While studying a burgeoning idea he called ‘telecommuting’ – initially, a theory involving the creation of terrestrial offices closer to commuters, reducing car pollution – he found himself stuck in traffic. He glanced at a traffic signboard ahead, which read: “MAINTAIN YOUR SPEED”. Nilles sat, completely stationary. The irony of the situation and the inefficiency it represented was not lost on him. Why was the working world doing things this way? Couldn’t the situation be made better?

At the time, primitive technology limited the practical applications of Nilles’ revelation. But just under 50 years since that life-changing traffic jam, telecommuting’s modern rebrand – working from home or hybrid working – is a central tenet of many sectors. It was relatively niche before Covid-19, with under 5% of US workers doing their job from home in 2014. The pandemic changed this drastically. With strict lockdowns implemented across the world, firms had to alter their daily working method – in some cases literally overnight.

Remote work has become entrenched across the banking sector, with supporters attracted by the flexibility it offers staff, especially in back office roles.

With lockdowns now a thing of the past, however, businesses have an important choice to make. Do they embrace flexible working policies and trust that their workers – formerly watchable in a cubicle a few metres away – will be as attentive and committed to their tasks? Or do they rule against working from home to the chagrin of many of their employees?

The banking industry continues to struggle with these questions. Some institutions, for their part, have implemented a permanent flexible work policy. HSBC, for example, slashed its global office space by 40% in 2021 – with CEO John Hinshaw describing it as a shift towards a more “hybrid model”.

But elsewhere, opinions on working from home are not so rosy. According to a recent survey by KPMG, nearly 70% of bank CEOs expect a full return to the office within three years. David Solomon, boss at Goldman Sachs, described remote work as an “aberration” at the start of 2021. The US, in fact, is one of the main battlegrounds where employees are facing off with executives over the issue. Over in the EU, however, it’s a different story. Midway through 2022, every one of the top 12 European banks was allowing employees to work remotely for part of the week.

The European way

How to explain these distinct transatlantic approaches? Listen to experts and it seems to come down to a fundamental difference in attitude. “It felt that, being that we are a large employer, we had a responsibility to our workforce and to the country not to aid the spread of the virus,” explains Annemarie Matze-Mennes, programme manager for future of work and hybrid working of ABN AMRO. Like pretty much every other white-collar business in the country, the Dutch bank moved work from home for the foreseeable future when Covid-19 hit.

Speaking to Matze-Mennes roughly two years since lockdown, there is no doubt that flexible working is here to stay at her employer. Before 2020, ABN AMRO’s staff worked an average of one day a week from home. Nowadays, however, many workers spend the majority of their away from the office. Matze- Mennes is quick to explain that it isn’t that simple though. “ABN AMRO’s flexible working policy is based on the specific activity being undertaken,” she stresses. “We encourage teams to have a discussion about what will be the most effective means of working for each activity. Leaders play an important role in making this a success by encouraging an open discussion and facilitating social cohesion in the team. It is not a ‘onesize- fits-all’ situation.”

It is no surprise that, given its location, ABN AMRO would have such a progressive outlook. Research from mid-2022 has shown that the number of workers either in a fully remote or hybrid model in the Netherlands had gone up by over 20% to 65% in just two years, making it the country with the highest number of partly or fully remote workers in the EU. The country also became the first to bring in legislation declaring that employees have a legal right to request to work from home – stressing that employers must provide a valid reason to deny them.

All the same, Matze-Mennes reiterates that ABN AMRO’s approach is basically circumstantial. “Work is at the centre of the policy. The work you do and the team you belong to determine whether you work from home or in the office.”

This lack of a one-size-fits-all approach can be troubling for banks as they introduce new ways of working, but the importance of flexibility is reflected by external experts too. As Claire McCartney, a senior policy adviser specialising in flexible working at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), puts it: “The key part of flexible working is looking at options that might work for your setting and piloting different options.”

Productivity paranoia

When looking at the negative reaction of some American banks to working from home, it seems that many perceive flexible working to be a drain on productivity. For instance, JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon told clients that remote work fosters a less honest work environment, where employees are more prone to procrastination.

Many will recognise these sentiments as ‘productivity paranoia’ – a phrase which emerged over lockdown, as managers felt their ability to easily follow employee productivity slip away. These fears are clarifie d in a survey by Microsoft, which found that 85% of business leaders felt hybrid work affected their confidence in employee productivity.

Though Matze-Mennes is sympathetic to this way of thinking, she prescribes one antidote: communication. “I think the key to ridding yourself of this mindset is communication,” she explains. “The experience of leaders is different than the teams in some cases, so the solution is to bring those two parties together.” This task, she adds, is a vital part of her job role at ABN AMRO. “We’re carrying out research in 14 teams across the organisation to get their qualitative input and to share these stories with management.”

This is building what McCartney refers to as “trustbased cultures”. These are working environments where “people are managed by their outputs and, of course, if any performance issues are raised these are dealt with effectively”. All the same, McCartney is quick to push back against the assumption that working from home is less productive. “Our data suggests that productivity has actually improved with opportunities for people to work from home or in a hybrid way, often due to having more concentrated time for detailed work.”

The stats are positive elsewhere too. For instance, research from the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that 78% of people who worked from home said it improved their work-life balance – with over half finding they completed work quicker and suffered less distractions.

According to Matze-Mennes, the story is much the same at ABN AMRO: “We work with an outputfocused methodology, and I’m happy to say that the results have been positive.”

More than ergonomic support

If there is any industry that knows the importance of supporting people through transformational periods, it’s the banking sector. After all, the mark of a great bank has increasingly become how they assisted customers in the shift to a more digital banking environment. In ABN AMRO’s Dutch homebase, indeed, 85.7% of the population now use online or mobile banking. The move to working from home arguably requires them to offer the same kind of support – but internally.

Matze-Mennes herself spoke to me while sitting in an ergonomic chair at an ergonomic desk in her own home – via a screen and keyboard that were all provided by ABN AMRO and are offered to each and every team member. Useful guidance on home working is also given to staff. “We developed workshops and a useful playbook to help people settle in and make the most of working from home,” she explains.

European finance institutions have been quick to embrace WFH, unlike their American counterparts.

This playbook caters to members of ABN AMRO’s staff up and down the corporate hierarchy, providing tips on deciding whether tasks should be tackled at home or in the office, as well as offering advice on setting up a workspace to maximise productivity. It also hones in on skills relevant to particular hierarchical levels in the bank – like tips for leaders on how to effectively manage their team remotely.

With support like this, it’s probably unsurprising that flexible working seems here to stay. In EY’s 2022 Work Reimagined survey, for instance, it was found that there had generally been a major shift in power towards the employee – with the proliferation of flexible working being a major factor in the change. At many banks, including ABN AMRO, managers are seeing WFH as an opportunity to attract the best talent. “I firmly believe it also makes us an attractive employer,” Matze-Mennes says. “Prospective employees appreciate that flexibility.”

Annemarie Matze- Mennes, future of work and hybrid working programme manager, ABN AMRO.

There are other advantages to a more flexible methodology too – which may come to play a larger part in industry conversations as time goes on. One worth highlighting is the benefits to a company’s sustainability. PwC found that its workers saved over 20 tonnes of CO2 from being emitted as they worked from home over the pandemic. Additionally, McCartney states that it is CIPD’s belief that flexible working “can increase the inclusion of marginalised groups” in the workplace. “Flexible working practices,” she adds, “are key to creating jobs that can work for people with caring responsibilities and those with disabilities or long-term health conditions”.

Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

As for the next big trend, the CIPD’s guess is sure to make sceptical CEOs very happy: the four-day week. “There has been a positive outcome from UK companies that have been trialling this way of working,” McCartney says. Of the 61 companies that participated in the trial, to give one example, 56 are continuing with it. Either we test these theories now and assess their value – or trust in the now-fragile status quo and fight it out with employees if and when they start to think: “Why are we doing things this way?”