Human communication

Businesses grapple with new workplace realities

During the Covid pandemic, global consultancy group PwC came up with an idea to help staff work better from home. He recruited 1,000 volunteers who allowed all of their digital communications to be monitored by artificial intelligence, giving them feedback on how they dealt with their colleagues.

To encourage participation, PwC agreed that individual data should not be shared with managers. The objective of the experiment was to improve communication within teams working remotely by using AI-powered “nudges” to change behaviors and improve cohesion.

The software rated staff on factors such as how quickly they responded and prompted them to think about why their tone was less warm when talking to certain colleagues. After seeing the scores obtained, a participant concluded that it was time to create a plan for “how I can improve my behavior”.

Whatever the merits of the initiative — scary and intrusive. . . slightly innovative? – it illustrates the sweeping changes some companies have made in response to the Covid-accelerated shift to remote working.

But, more than two years into the pandemic, many companies are still grappling with the new realities of work. Challenges range from ensuring staff continue to feel part of the team to implementing IT updates that allow people to work from home safely.

For businesses in the heavily regulated financial services industry, the need to ensure digital resilience and compliance when many employees are working from home is acute.

“In terms of risk, [the question is] how do companies still meet their regulatory obligations in a remote work environment? said Andrew Rogan, director of operational resilience policy at banking industry trade body UK Finance.

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority recently reminded financial services firms to check that they are not at risk from hybrid working. Under its regulations, they are required to test and invest in operational resilience.

According to risk management consultancy RMI, the main risks of hybrid working relate to cybersecurity and fraud, health and safety, business processes and workplace culture.

“Culture is much more difficult when it’s remote,” says Bill Schaninger, senior partner at management consultancy McKinsey. “How do you hook people up in terms of ‘what we stand for’?”

For financial institutions, this is a particular concern. “When you think back to when there were bad actors, there was often an underlying sense that the culture either condoned it or fostered it,” Schaninger says. “[Financial services companies] rely on human interaction as an early warning mechanism.

Companies have worked to facilitate this remote interaction, for example with live chat apps that offer dispersed teams a more casual means of communication than formal meetings.

Electronic monitoring of the type offered by PwC may also provide a means
to address cultural concerns, as well as to help businesses comply with regulations.

Many employees who want to work from home at least part of the time accept the concept, insists Victoria Robinson, partner at PwC. “There is a quid pro quo,” she says. More unpopular processes can be part of the trade-off for more flexibility, she argues.

Meanwhile, the office continues to play a cultural role. The new paradigm of the hybrid workweek assumes some return for team meetings, social events and networking, with Mondays and Fridays often reserved for reading and email correspondence at home. Office time also allows managers to focus on enabling juniors and newcomers to connect with colleagues face-to-face, to network and grow their careers.

Managers who yearn for the old order may find themselves on a branch. “When I hear about senior leaders who oppose change, they make me feel like it’s time to retire,” says Laura Empson, a professor at Bayes Business School in London. “People at the highest levels need to create spaces to push these things forward, rather than crush or seek to control change.”

Some of this resistance may be driven by concerns about security. Ensuring basic cybersecurity was often high on the list of risks companies needed to manage early in the pandemic as they struggled to organize secure, encrypted online computing access for working from home.

Companies sent shredders to home workers so they could destroy confidential documents and used additional training to remind staff of their obligations when handling company data. Part of that involved emphasizing the need for new habits when working remotely, like using a privacy screen in the local coffee shop or avoiding certain tasks altogether in certain settings.

According to Tessian, a cybersecurity company, many companies have now turned to new technologies to improve the encryption of remote networks. But, while there are important steps to take to maintain good remote working practices, experts say companies shouldn’t let them distract them from cyber threats more broadly.

“The main risks are generally the same for each organization,” says Josh Yavor, information security manager at Tessian. “It’s always about ransomware, phishing and social engineering [confidence tricks designed to persuade people to hand over passwords or other sensitive information].”

In addition, companies need to consider the legal risks arising from efforts to adapt to new ways of working. Changes with implications for employees’ locations or salaries – the withdrawal of weighting allowance entitlement in London, for example – must be in line with existing agreements, warns Paul Griffin, employment lawyer and partner in the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.

“Without looking at the [employee] contract, it would be reckless to go ahead,” he said.

Many financial services firms have embraced the shift to hybrid working, says UK Finance’s Rogan, and many are also experiencing benefits such as the ability to cut costs by getting rid of excess office space.

“We are at the tipping point of how financial services work is trained and delivered,” suggests Empson. “It’s a great opportunity to reflect on pre-pandemic ways of working that were unsustainable. . . It’s time to think more creatively about how work gets done.