The post-pandemic office needs to reflect the radical change staff have gone through during the past two years. International Women’s Day is an opportunity to look through a gender lens at what the new normal should look like.

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Out of the “great burnout” experienced by working women during the pandemic, with extra work in the office and at home, has come the “great reflection”, where many are thinking about a big career change. This could lead quickly on to the “great resignation” and a scarcity of banking talent in the market. According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 study, 33% of women in financial services surveyed said they had considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce, compared to 25% in 2020.

Undoubtedly, retaining female talent and delivering on diversity targets may become much more challenging for banks as they develop plans to return to the office environment. Worryingly, there seems to be a growing disconnect between what many banks are expecting and the flexibility women want.

According to a 2021 Accenture survey in banking, capital markets and insurance in the US, more than 80% of financial firms polled wanted staff in the office four to five days a week, whereas 46% of the women surveyed wanted to be in the office between one to three days and 25% wanted to work fully remote.

More than half (52%) of the women polled said they would forgo compensation for additional flexibility in their work location.

“Covid-19 has changed my perspective of the importance of balancing work and life. The ability to have flexible working, which BNY Mellon offers, is hugely important for retention,” says Laide Majiyagbe, head of financing and liquidity at BNY Mellon, with more than 15 years in the financial services industry.

BNY Mellon, for example, is starting with three days in the office and two days at home. “There is also more flexibility for staff in how they organise their workday, as there is not just one type of flexibility,” says Ms Majiyagbe. “For example, some mornings I may want to drop my five-year-old off at school, so I'll do my calls from home in the morning and then come into the office later that day.”

Flexible working can also benefit menopausal employees, as they can better control the temperature at home or use coping mechanisms that they would feel embarrassed to use in the office, such as putting their feet in cold water and placing memory aids around their desk.

But flexibility is just the beginning, as editor-in-chief of BNY Mellon’s Aerial View Magazine Katy Burne points out in her article, ‘Is finance finally listening to women?’. “Women also want workplace cultures that encourage smart working; the ability to have children without being penalised; and to have equal opportunity to promotions, including into full front-office jobs even when they are working flexibly.”

It is also important to note that flexibility will be beneficial to staff of both genders.

Some form of a return to the office also presents banks with an opportunity to reimagine the space as an attractive and collaborative environment to benefit all staff. “People are going to return to the workplace only if the space is safe, comfortable, easy to navigate, invites collaboration, and offers a ‘wow’ factor,” according to a McKinsey report for the real estate sector. “Smart conference spaces, collaboration areas, and lounges (among other models) that inspire the collision of ideas and creativity will come to define the floor plate...”

For example, in its plans to redevelop its London headquarters, Citi is creating several “vertical villages” with shared spaces where colleagues can come together between levels. It is designed to maximise collaborative workspaces, supported by technology, to enable staff to work flexibly.

With increased flexibility and more space for collaboration must also come a change in face-time culture, which values long hours over productivity. “We should be focused more on getting work done than face time – that is the workplace I reimagine,” says Ms Majiyagbe. “The office should be a place where we collaborate and emphasise productivity, we de-emphasise face time because it’s less important, and we find ways to enable our people to live and work better.”

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

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