Has the pandemic ushered forward a new model for structuring modern work, or is the truth a bit more complex?
That question is still being hashed out within the board rooms of the world's largest organizations. By some accounts, flexible work arrangements have become integral to HR strategy in 2021, yet other companies have brought a swift end to remote work experimentation. Goldman Sachs, for example, recently announced that employees would be expected to return to the office by mid-June.
The discourse about flexibility goes deeper than the comfort of home offices versus the camaraderie of traditional offices, however. Remote work has created extensive conversations about work-life balance and the lack of access that many, particularly women and caregivers, have to roles that allow them to find such balance.
Finastra, a London-based financial technology firm, told employees in December 2020 that it would begin the move to a hybrid work model. In an interview with HR Dive, Sharon Doherty, the company's chief people and places officer, discussed how the pandemic's impact on women and caregivers affected the decision and why hybrid work could have long-term standing in the ongoing quest to find talent.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HR DIVE: You mentioned you've been thinking about the role women have played in forming the hybrid workforce and the imbalances women in particular have faced during the pandemic. How has Finastra thought about this subject?
Sharon Doherty: COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women, and I think we see that in job losses. We see that in the amount of effort and time women are having to put into managing the home, primarily homeschooling [since] children across the world went home. And sadly, we also see it in things like domestic abuse.
I do believe that as we move through the pandemic, and it may take years, the very significant positive for women that has come out of COVID-19 is this view that flexible working actually can be as productive, or more productive, than any of us expected. Over time, the shift to more home working will ultimately create flexibility that could see more women staying in the workplace, progressing through to the senior roles that so many of them have the capability to do, but often they're having to take a step back because they want to be closer to the home.
In July last year we had the idea that we would move to a hybrid model. We also did more to signal that being the person managing a family was completely a great thing and something that we would support as well. We organized kids clubs so that parents, mothers in particular, had some respite. Often we'd have our kids joining us. It gave people permission to turn their cameras off so that they didn't feel the pressure of being on show. And if they needed to cook dinner in the background or do some extra things with their children, that was fine.
What kind of impact would you say that hybrid work has had on Finastra's workforce?
Doherty: We've seen that the best organizations have increased the flexibility they allow their employees to have, and technology has absolutely enabled this. As COVID hit and the whole world had to go home within a week, we were all forced to become more flexible. What it showed was, mostly, the view that flexible working would not be productive was a real myth. It's not completely a myth; there are some things that do take longer working from home — that's true. But in the round, apart from jobs that had a very physical component to them, most roles have successfully been done at home.
"What it showed was, mostly, the view that flexible working would not be productive was a real myth."
Chief People and Places Officer, Finastra
So we've always sort of looked at, why don't we move forward with this? It's a productive way of working. It probably gives us access to more talent than we would have had access to previously, particularly caregivers and women. That can only be a good thing. This notion of work-life integration is the next level of employee engagement that has been thrust upon us all.
Now, I think there is sophistication about the implementation. We're all grappling with [it], and in two to five years, I think we will become experts in a new way of working. Personally, I wish we hadn't had to have a pandemic and the devastation of that, but I'm incredibly excited about this new chapter in the future of work. I think over time, there's more upside than the downsides that we're seeing right now.
How receptive were managers to the hybrid work shift? Did you receive any pushback, or were there suggestions on how to implement certain aspects?
Doherty: That's a great question and I have to say it's probably the one that, when I talk about [hybrid work], I get asked most. Leaders really do need to look in the mirror about our agility and ability to evolve and change. There is quite a lot of caution in the management ranks about moving to fully flexible [work] or a version of hybrid, even though it may end up being two to three years before we get back into the workplace in the way that we knew it pre-COVID.
It's really interesting that even with the global social experiment broadly going well, there's still quite a lot of hesitancy over letting go of a way of working that, if we're honest, was invented in the industrial age, before [today's] technology existed.
We, as leaders, really do need to challenge ourselves about embracing the future and evolving. So, how did we approach that? Data and facts [are] always helpful with management teams' scenario plans. We had conversations fairly early, and so we had a six month journey before we launched in December. We did lots of listening groups and focus groups. We particularly encouraged the middle management to co-create with us. That's how we got our management team on the journey.
We spent a lot of time training our leaders. We were, by coincidence, about to run global workshops for our leaders in April of last year, and we pivoted to digital. That was a massive success and also a massive opportunity for our leaders to discuss how work was changing.
How did the fact that Finastra operates in the finance sector impact the choice to move to hybrid work, if at all?
Doherty: The financial sector is a global sector and, to some degree, that puts some stresses and strains on work-life balance and flexibility and all of those things. I think there is going to be a broad church. There will be some that say, we want you back in the office on a day. There will be some that say, we're completely happy with fully flexible [work], and many will gravitate to the middle ground.
I also think that ultimately, the very best talent will vote with its feet. There will always be outliers, but generally, we are all chasing the very best talent. So we will put in place a proposition that means that we can create progressive, engaging, working environments where people feel like they genuinely see the best of both worlds was achieved. You do get your home working, but you also get the opportunity to get into the office, collaborate with your team members, connect with the culture, solve complex business problems and help [new hires] get up to speed. These are the things that full home working hasn't helped. I think we will, as a world, gravitate [toward] hybrid work with some outliers, and financial services will end up being pretty similar in the shape with work that we find within [the broader financial sector].