Transitioning to a new workplace model for financial services

From purely face to face, to hybrid, to entirely remote, an entire spectrum of workforce possibilities has opened up for the financial services industry (FSI). But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a tightly regulated vertical with customer data and company data at the heart of their services, financial institutions are being challenged with workforce communication in never-before ways.

In a virtual roundtable organised by Jicara Media and hosted by Logitech, senior IT executives from FSIs in ASEAN discussed the changes taking place within the workplace. Among the topics examined were the challenges, opportunities, and necessary improvisations in workforce transformation that have emerged since the beginning of the pandemic – particularly from the angle of communication and collaboration.

New approaches towards remote workplaces

When the pandemic began and lockdowns were implemented, there was a sudden need for employees to work from home. Along with this came a scramble to find and use the right tools for communication and collaboration, amidst the multitude of different apps, software, and platforms available. How did organisations then decide on the best tools to use?

Amongst the ASEAN FSIs represented in the roundtable, most took a top-down approach, which centralised and standardised communication tools. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet were revealed to be the most favoured platforms across all organisations.

For the purposes of collaboration, project management tools such as Jira have been employed. But in order for these collaboration tools to be effective, they have had to be seamlessly integrated with communication tools, databases on-site or in the cloud, and other platforms within the organisation. For many, the struggle to unify the various systems have added to the difficulties of remote work.

Although most of these issues have already been dealt with over the past year, mostly by establishing new protocols, this has largely been limited to internal communication. With clients and other external parties, however, freely available apps such as WhatsApp and Viber have tended to be more popular.

For a CISO from the Philippines, the use of freeware messengers has posed a challenge. “Security problems may come in, because data that is exchanged, for example, when they submit documents, they take a photo and attach it to a Viber or WhatsApp software,” she cited.

One reason for this, said an executive from a bank in Singapore, is that informal channels such as WhatsApp are more responsive, and thus more effective, compared to traditional methods. 

“There are informal channels, because these prove to be a lot more responsive than the traditional email. At the end of the day, it comes down to effective communication and how we can best foster an environment that is most effective…I think that the world is slowly converging to more of a platform-based approach that leverages some of these more responsive tools,” the bank executive said.

Bryan Lee, Head of Video Collaboration & Category Manager of Southeast Asia at Logitech, noted that in Southeast Asia, customers like banks and governments were not open to the cloud in the beginning. “But when the pandemic started, the government was especially quick to deploy solutions,” he observed. “We also see a number of banks doing that, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia. This is what I see slowly happening.” 

Security in the new workplace

Security was a major theme in the discussion, given the suddenness of the remote working situation. For FSIs especially, which are heavily regulated and face numerous compliance requirements, the workplace transformation underway has come with unprecedented security challenges. Chief of these is data sensitivity, and the risks of data leaks in a remote working situation.

For most ASEAN FSIs, the first step to ensuring security was to require employees to use company-issued laptops, and to prohibit the use of all USBs or external devices. On top of that, most are now using a secure virtual private network (VPN). However, using a VPN might not be possible in many parts of Southeast Asia, where internet connections can be weak and unstable, and bandwidth, limited. 

For a Malaysian FSI executive, security comes at a high price. In order to be ready for remote work and digital banking, the organisation has had to install costly infrastructure, particularly because of Central Bank regulations. This has been coupled with the pressing need to do business digitally, spurred on by the pandemic.

Said an officer, “When we’re talking about microservices, we’re talking about north-south-east-west protection. But how do you regulate it and make sure the security is there? It will have a higher cost, it will need to be ready. If you want to do it cowboy-style, and go to market very quickly, it’ll pose a reputational risk or security risk.”

The participants agreed that security risks cannot be eliminated altogether, but they can be mitigated through monitoring and risk-assessment. Some ideas on how to do this included assigning administrators to monitor channels of communication between employees, issuing guidelines to employees, and analysing requests for remote access and other privileges.

For example, programmers need to have access to development systems, where another tool may be required, not just a Webex or VPN access. It may be another piece of software that is required to make sure programmers can monitor what they are doing and secure the system in the corporate network.

As in many discussions on security, participants raised two tensions within the IT environment: security vs practicality, and convenience vs control.

One way to maintain a balance, said an executive from Malaysia, is to trust the employees.

He said, “If you put people in prison, they will be very innovative. They will try to find a way, a loophole, just to get out. You’d be surprised how creative people can be when they’re desperate. People need to deliver their KPIs, people need customers. As soon as you block all access, they’ll find some way to just outsmart you. But rather than doing that, shouldn’t we be open and instead, monitor?”

Does working from home raise productivity?

In a recent survey conducted by Jicara Media, respondents were asked if they felt they were more, less, or equally productive working from home. The results were fairly evenly distributed, with roughly 36% saying they’re equally productive in office and remote work, 29% saying they’re more productive when working remotely, and 33% saying they’re more productive in the office. This echoed the findings of the roundtable participants, who said they have seen similar responses within their organisations.

On a personal level, most participants from the virtual roundtable said they are more productive at home, especially since they no longer waste time on activities like travelling to work. In spite of this, they have noticed burnout amongst employees. Part of the reason is the blurring of personal life and work, coupled with other challenges of working from home.

Bryan from Logitech shared that he is more productive when working at home. “This saves me from the travel time and chit-chat,” he said. “However, we can burn out as well, so I think that is something that is a concern for many organisations. We will need to be careful about that, and we have to be more aware about self-care and time management.”

Mischa Sturzenegger, Head of Global Accounts EMEA at Logitech, echoed Bryan’s preference for working from home. “I feel more productive in the home office because then I save almost one and a half hours driving per day going to the office. If it’s not a pandemic, I’m out there visiting customers in different countries. Now, I’m productive in a sense of being more available and replying more quickly.”

Mischa also believes that companies need to offer some form of hybrid work environment as soon as possible. “I think with the Logitech survey split, I see that in EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) as well.”

A participant from Singapore remarked that most offices are divided into two groups – introverts and extroverts, with the latter having to struggle with prolonged work-from-home situations.

He said, “The biggest challenge I see is keeping our people engaged, motivated, and productive. There are obviously two very different cohorts of people, even within my teams – there are introverts and extroverts. Introverts love working from home and they can operate like this for the rest of their lives. Extroverts are struggling big time, and I think it’s especially important, in this day and age, to give people some time back. The lines between work and play are blurred, and I think this strain is having a big effect on everybody. We don’t have holidays and things like that, and ultimately, there really is no substitute for human contact.”

An Indonesian executive noted that this increased productivity suggests that people are working harder, but that this does not necessarily mean they are more efficient in terms of deliverables.

He said, “With remote working, I feel we spend more time doing work. But if you’re talking about deliverables, are you delivering 20% more, 30% more? That’s debatable. Because with remote working, there are other factors such as the internet connection, kids at home, the endless meetings – people assume that since you’re working from home you can jump from one meeting to another meeting without a break. That takes up a lot of time. We spend a lot more time working, but for my side, we’re trying to deliver similar output.”

Physical interaction is still irreplaceable

All the participants agreed that although working from home has its benefits, face-to-face interactions are still crucial to certain activities such as brainstorming, which require creativity and spontaneity.

A participant from a bank in Singapore asserted that the best ideas often come from physical interactions in informal settings.

He said, “You need to get into a room and conceptualise things, and some of the best ideas are found over lunch, in just a tangent discussion. We’ve tried to use some of the tools online and there are some things available, but they fall far short of a real-world interaction. So we’ve started bringing some people back.”

Aside from productivity and idea generation, it was suggested that physical interactions can also contribute to employees’ mental health and well-being. For this reason, a Malaysian bank executive has proposed bringing employees to the office one day a week for the sole purpose of relaxing and relationship-building.

He said, “Everybody is more stressed. Especially during the MCO (i.e. Malaysia’s movement control order or lockdown), and when the schools are closed, people need to cater to their children, complete their work, etc. So we give them flexibility, but we’ve proposed to our management to have a combination of hybrid work, e.g. four days of working from home and one day in the office where everybody can chill out, shoot some pool, and have some face-to-face contact. At least it lessens their burdens.”

The discussion concluded with participants surmising that the future of work will be hybrid, with employees going to the office a few times a week for meetings and other activities best conducted in-person.