Two years later, financial services firms still searching for balance on remote work

It’s been two years since Covid-19 shut down the world economy and permanently changed the way all of us live and work. In a special section in the March 21 issue, the InvestmentNews team explores the new challenges, and benefits, that resulted from the pandemic and how the new normal has affected the financial services industry for the long term.

As the global pandemic reaches the somber milestone of causing 6 million deaths worldwide, signs that the Covid-19 threat is starting to wane have the financial services industry trying to figure out what normal looks like and whether it makes sense to bring employees back to the office.

With varying requirements for vaccines, masks, and social distancing, some of the biggest brands in wealth management essentially are hoping for the best and employing a range of efforts to be careful while also being productive.

At Charles Schwab Corp., the plan is to bring employees back to offices in eight groups across various locations starting April 25.

“As we move through the pandemic, we created and implemented a workplace flexibility program to provides employees the flexibility to allow for remote work options, if that’s what’s best for them,” said Schwab spokesperson Pete Greenley.

“The program is designed to balance the importance our employees place on workplace flexibility with the benefit of in-person interactions to train and learn from one another, build human connections, collaborate, and maintain Schwab’s culture as we serve our clients,” he added. “Employees have enthusiastically embraced our flexibility options, and as of Dec. 31, 2021, a substantial portion of the workforce has taken advantage of the opportunity for additional flexibility once the workforce returns to office.”

The Vanguard Group is kicking off its return to the office this month with a “multi-month return to office transition period,” said Vanguard spokesperson Laura Bulman.

Last year Vanguard introduced a hybrid model that had most employees working from home three days a week.

“Flexibility for our crew is a key component of our vision for the future of work, and while this will be a new way of working, our commitment to caring for crew and delivering on our mission to clients remains unchanged,” Bulman said.

Meanwhile, T. Rowe Price Associates and Goldman Sachs have already brought employees back.

At T. Rowe, U.S.-based employees who are vaccinated returned to the office beginning Feb. 28, according to spokesperson Brian Lewbart.

“For the majority of current associates, no final decision has been made regarding a vaccine mandate, however, associates who are required to spend a sizable amount of time meeting in person with our clients, prospective clients, business partners, or companies must be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment beginning April 1,” Lewbart said. “The policy is designed to help us serve our clients and comply with protocols set by other organizations, many of which require visitors to be vaccinated.”

T. Rowe employees who are opting out of vaccinations “can apply for non-client facing open roles at the firm,” Lewbart said. “In addition, all new hires in the U.S. are required to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or have a valid medical or religious exemption from receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.”

At Goldman Sachs, employees have been back in the office since last June, although the company did shift back to remote work when the Omicron variant was spiking in January. A Goldman spokesperson said that employees were brought back to the office in February and that since September, all employees working in the office are required to be vaccinated.

At Fidelity Investments, the strategy is a “voluntary reentry pilot” for people returning to the offices.

“Those associates who are fully vaccinated are not required to wear masks,” said Fidelity spokesperson Michael Aalto.

“For those who are not vaccinated or fully vaccinated, we require them to wear masks when in the office,” he added. “We do not require vaccinations or boosters for our associates but strongly encourage them. We will continue to monitor and modify our policies as the pandemic continues to hopefully ease.”

While culture is often cited as the biggest case for bringing employees back to the office, that attitude might be missing the way the pandemic has forced change, according to Ric Edelman, founder of the Digital Assets Council of Financial Professionals.

“I can’t say forever, but there is no question that remote working will remain dominant in the financial services industry for some time to come,” he said. “Other than management’s desires to restore its previous culture, there’s little reason for client-facing staff to be required to be in the office, since Zoom has proven to be highly effective. Rather than attempting to restore a pre-Covid culture, firms would be better off creating a new culture that reflects today’s business environment.”

When Skip Schweiss took over as chief executive of Sierra Investment Management in October, the policy was for people to spend at least three days a week in the office and, following Los Angeles County rules, employees had to wear masks in common areas.

The local mask mandate was dropped March 7, and Schweiss said Sierra went back to full remote briefly earlier this year when Omicron was surging.

In terms of future remote work policies, Schweiss said he’s still weighing the options.

“I’ve talked to a lot of other business leaders and read a lot of studies about it,” he said. “Employers have learned that people can get their work done remotely and employees have come to appreciate the value of working remotely. But I think you lose some culture when people are not in physical proximity. That’s one of the reasons we all go to conferences, for human interactions.”

Karl Wagner, senior wealth adviser at Biondo Group, agrees that the pandemic “pushed many employers to evaluate and adapt their operational procedures for business continuity in the face of government mandates.”

“Our firm was able to navigate the lockdowns and Covid-19 outbreaks by prioritizing tasks and roles,” he said. “As a financial firm, with various compliance rules, we identified the key persons who needed to maintain a presence in the office, while others were able to work remotely as per the CDC quarantine guidelines.”

Wagner said that while his firm “never entertained having remote work or a hybrid state being a permanent part of our culture,” it helped having the technology in place for such an occurrence. “While many companies note their employees work longer hours at home, we value the interpersonal interactions and collaborative environment that is supported by being in the office,” he added.

Laura Victoria, senior director at Laserfiche, is also embracing culture with a March 7 “soft open” of its new headquarters in Long Beach, California.

“We launched the hybrid work arrangement program last summer in anticipation of moving into the building in October 2021, but we had to scratch the plan due to evolving health concerns, new mandates, and employee needs,” she said. “We have a diverse workforce that works collaboratively across continents and functions. And no single work style fits all, so we are constantly looking for new ways to provide our employees with flexibility while meeting our greater business goals.”

More articles from the special section:

Messaging apps take on Wall Street

Retiring in an age of uncertainty

Brokerages want remote office inspections to be part of new normal

Advisers flock to RIAs in the new normal

Cracking the code on inflation

The post Two years later, financial services firms still searching for balance on remote work appeared first on InvestmentNews.

Andrew is half-human, half-gamer. He’s also a science fiction author writing for BleeBot.

Andrew Vincent
Andrew is half-human, half-gamer. He's also a science fiction author writing for BleeBot.
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