As pandemic restrictions begin to lift in many countries, a hot topic is what form a return to the office will take and whether it presents an opportunity for banks to improve workforce productivity.

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At the start of the pandemic, banks across the world were relieved (maybe even a little surprised) that having the vast majority of their staff work from home (WFH) functioned much better than expected and business didn’t collapse. In fact, many reported that productivity stayed at the same level or even increased, mainly due to eliminating the commute, as well as a blurring of the line between where work life ended and home life began.

However, this uptick in performance was not uniform across all job functions. John Garvey, global head of financial services at PwC, says that the consultancy’s research has shown ups and downs in productivity during the pandemic. “For the repetitive tasks, there has been an increase in productivity; however, productivity is way down for creative activities, client-facing interactions and generating new business,” he says. “It is much harder to do any of those things in a remote world.”

Many have now concluded that the office environment is important for culture, creativity and networking. “One lunch or dinner with a client is worth 15 Zoom meetings,” he adds, echoed by a number of senior executives in recent interviews.

Goldman Sachs was the first to announce it was calling its US and UK bankers back to the office in June. However, not all banks are implementing a wholesale return to the office, with many favouring a more flexible or hybrid approach, allowing employees to WFH a few days per week. This trend, which may endure as banks look to reduce their office footprint, has led many to focus on understanding their workforce’s productivity, now that it is so distributed and remote, Mr Garvey says.

Many have now concluded that the office environment is important for culture, creativity and networking

He also believes that while the regulators have allowed banks some leeway at the start of the pandemic, soon they will be asking them tougher questions about controls and compliance.

According to a PwC report, Productivity 2021 and beyond: Five pillars for a better workforce, 43% of survey respondents plan to implement additional measures and tools to measure the productivity of the workforce within the next 12 months. Yet many financial institutions remain reluctant to deploy tools due to employee resistance.

In order to overcome this opposition, PwC has been helping clients explain to their employees why they should track their own time and self-report. “Ultimately, it helps the organisation spread the work equally among staff, to avoid the situation where one group is totally overloaded and another is sub-utilised. Monitoring will also help to identify training needs and make performance evaluations more objective,” says Mr Garvey. As hybrid working becomes a desired option, banks can include self-reporting and monitoring as part of the agreement for staff to be allowed to work from home, he suggests.

Once an organisation understands what its workforce is doing, it can then reorganise the work better, as well as automate many administrative and repetitive tasks. PwC is working with clients on citizen-led automation, which is training non-IT people to use the powerful tools to perform tasks that previously only the IT department could perform.

“IT departments in the past have had to perform many routine tasks like writing reports, but now there are low-code or no-code tools, such as Tableau, UiPath and Power BI, that give users the ability to take the workload from IT and allow them to concentrate on more complex and value-added activities, such as artificial intelligence and cloud transformation,” says Mr Garvey. “This is what many of our clients have been doing and is a huge productivity booster.”

The PwC report also highlights the productivity and cost efficiency gains that can be made with greater use of the ‘gig economy’, which financial institutions have only just begun to tap. Mr Garvey says, “Banks pay a huge sum for armies of contractors that they source through third party contracting firms. Now new talent platforms are emerging, such as Upwork and MBO Partners, which are building private talent exchanges for several enterprises. This allows organisations to respond to the ebbs and flows of demand without carrying a big workforce on their books.”

Joy Macknight is editor of The Banker. Follow her on Twitter @joymacknight

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