The coronavirus outbreak forced us all to re-evaluate how we did our work. Some industries have flourished, others have stumbled, some have fallen flat on their face. Lots of businesses call themselves agile, but what about digitally native? Next Money Features Editor Sophie Camp evaluates how digitally native fintech companies need to be, and what the future holds for offices.
What is fintech’s new normal?
Fintech is facing the same situation as everyone else – suddenly work from home is the day to day reality. Office-based employees are learning lessons that their previously WFH cohorts have known for years: just as a conference call connects a child will need a snack now, cats are going to walk across laptops and send nonsensical messages to colleagues on Slack, your home WiFi is never as good as you thought it was, and your former commute has been unfairly maligned all these years.
The mass evacuation of the traditional office started in Asia as COVID-19 peaked in the region. Workers were sent home with their laptops and office spaces and coworking giants emptied out. For fintech and the wider technology industry, which is strongly entrenched in Asia and is a thoroughly global network, this change in the region at least gave an idea of what might be about to happen. Soon, as the coronavirus began to spread with a similar fervor throughout the rest of the world, the same pattern was repeated. Just like other industries, fintech firms found themselves packing up and heading home.
Surviving or thriving?
Whilst many might be surviving today, are any thriving?
The biggest indicator of a utopian world of work-from-home doesn’t mean simply transferring everyone onto laptops and in their homes. Gitlab is a web-based DevOps company that has no offices and a 100% remote work force. They have become a guiding voice in the shift to work from home, and they had a clear warning: “an organization should not attempt to merely replicate the in-office/colocated experience, remotely.”
Gitlab is right. Simply transferring what we do already to an online environment is merely surviving, not thriving. Professor Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, recently did a webinar on Working Virtually and told the audience – 88% of whom were watching from home – that leaders needed to be aware of ‘…three central elements to remote working: the technology, the social aspects and the work itself.’
To that end, I’ve looked at some of the common problems within those three central elements, and some potential solutions picked up from looking at anecdotal evidence, and my own experience of being a freelance, remote worker for a number of years.
Technology problem #1:
- Not everyone has access to a quiet, comfortable home office set up with all the right gear. There has to be allowances and patience for poor microphone quality, children interrupting calls, call backgrounds that aren’t clean and clear, and home computer set-ups that may not be ideal. Understanding how to access a local drive safely and securely from a home computer can be difficult for many, even the technologically literate.
- Create flexible and simple policies around what ‘should’ be done but also concentrate on tips and tricks to help make working from home more bearable. Provide practical advice on how to set up a safe set up that can help back and neck pain, just as you would in an office environment. Consider putting money into repaying employees for buying better equipment with which they can do their jobs. Make sure that any IT guidelines on safety and security are written in plain, clear language, and maybe offer video step by step guides or clinic hours where employees can ask questions on how to get XYZ working in a remote set up.
Technology problem #2:
- Fast, efficient WiFi is a privilege and, most of the time, luck of the draw. If an employee’s neighbours are also trying to hold a global conference call over Zoom, upload and download speeds are going to struggle.
- Unfortunately, there isn’t really one for this except for patience and understanding, and perhaps reducing the amount of calls. In office environments, management experts might tell us to think “could this email be a call, to save the recipient from inbox hell?”. Now we must think “could this call be an email/IM, to save everyone from ‘sorry I didn’t quite catch that’ hell?”
A social aspect problem:
- Loneliness and disassociation. Humans are social creatures, no matter how introverted we may be. Work from home can be heaven some days and hell others – and for each employee that ratio of good to bad will be different.
- There’s a reason online pub quizzes and group calls with friends and family are so popular these days: staying connected is important. Take those positive interactions we’ve now created in our personal lives and apply them to work. All over the global companies are kicking off virtual happy hours on a Friday and creating ‘water cooler chat’ threads on Slack. A fun tip: a collaborative work from home playlist and let individuals or the whole team play DJ – there’s nothing like judging your colleague’s musical tastes to bring people together.
A work problem:
- Time in quarantine and lockdown has been compared to time in an airport. Sometimes hours stretch to days, other times it’s 3pm before you’ve even really got dressed. Some workers may have had to leave the area or country, or already be remote but struggling under their particular region’s lockdown restrictions. In many places, walks and time outside is strictly timetabled. The times that people login are not the same as they would be in an office, or a traditional work from home situation. Deadlines can become fuzzy, and productivity bunched up into awkward hours can make project timelines weep.
- Make sure that working hours are clear but flexible. If colleagues find themselves locked down with children, be aware that early morning and late night working might be their new normal. If you are in regular contact with a certain team or person, try to gauge when the best hours will be to get in touch with them. Yes, Slack and other such tools are great for getting quick answers and sharing updates instantly. But they are not a tool to be used to prod for a response at 9.30pm on a Friday. Policies on respect for people’s time and time zones should be drawn up, which will allow for productivity to perhaps not be as unified but certainly remain at normal levels, or even higher.
What is the future of this new normal?
Now we’re weeks into this mass global experiment, the same question keeps coming up: is this going to continue after the crisis is over? Whilst initially this will depend on individual companies who delve into their productivity during the pandemic, it could become a trend. And when trends start, masses begin to follow. Fintech is a flexible, global industry as it is, and working remotely or from home is the norm at many companies. But the scale of this is where the future looks uncertain. Will companies still need office spaces, or is that a way to cut overheads? Will coworking spaces, with cheaper rents and hot desk options, become more common as businesses offer their employees the option to mix up working from home and in an office environment? Many times investors and executive boards see opening an office in a new location as a sign of growth – what metric can and should replace that if there is no longer a desire to open physical offices in new territories?
The big difference between our current situation and the future is that we won’t be in a global pandemic anymore. Working from home can be difficult at the best of times, but when employees are struggling en masse with social isolation, constant anxiety, and a lingering feeling of grief, this is not the best indication of how the industry could flourish in a more flexible work environment. Committing to extending this work experiment to a time when this pandemic is yesterday’s news is the only way to get a real sense of how we can make the transition.
In asking a lot of these questions we have come to the clearest conclusion: no-one really knows. But fintech is primed to be flexible and keep an open mind on the future of working from home, with its toes already firmly dipped in the idea and its set up conducive to such a big shift.
In the meantime, we will all continue to do our best given the current circumstances and look forward to a future when this option isn’t thrust upon us out of a global health necessity.