Making the case for the return

A few months ago, remote working in the asset management world was a relative scarcity.

Today, senior leaders at fund firms are considering how they make the case for the return to the office. Many teams have adapted well to new methods of working and see the benefits of continuing as they are now.

Whilst those working for investment businesses may yearn for social interaction and seeing their colleagues in person again, many are nervous about returning to the office. Some are concerned about the health implications, others that the benefits they perceive as having gained from remote working in the pandemic may be lost.

It’s a complex and controversial issue, and puts staff well-being, company culture and resilience at the heart of many board-level conversations.

The decisions that boards make now will have long-lasting implications on their businesses. The impact on culture, talent retention and corporate performance will change companies forever. Overstep the mark when trying to persuade people of the merits of returning to the office and you run the risk of damaging morale and any sense of loyalty amongst your teams.

Too laissez-faire an approach, and the damage could be as strong, as culture dissipates, staff become disconnected from each other and the business become less cohesive.

This, therefore, points to the likelihood of a hybrid approach being adopted by many where colleagues are encouraged to work in the office when they need to and have greater flexibility (relative to before coronavirus) to work from home and video call into meetings.

Whilst this may seem a viable compromise it is also fraught with its own risk. Particularly in asset management, some roles are simply thought of as easier to run and oversee when everyone connected is in the office together, and to do so keeps these key functions in the realm of the ‘known knowns’. Given the importance of cybersecurity, for those working in particularly sensitive areas, keeping everyone in the offices where systems have been proven over time and people are used to functioning in close contact, this seems logical.

But for those roles where there can naturally be greater freedom – particularly those which fall under the broader marketing role – business development/distribution and marketing communications, then can you have the same rules apply to them? Or do you have different approaches for different levels of functionality?

The challenge facing the asset management C-suite today is that what may feel like the best and simplest solution is to get everyone back to the office and treat everyone largely the same. Changing working practices across the whole business or just large parts of it will doubtless have cultural and commercial consequences that are difficult to second guess. But that does not mean that it’s the best solution.

First, companies need to flex to their clients’ changing demands and needs. The evidence thus far is that retail, wholesale and institutional investors all see the benefit of more digital communication. It has an immediacy which is hard to replace when large groups of people on both sides must match their schedules to make a face to face visit practical. It would be a mistake to simply assume that all clients will happily revert to the prior way of operating.

Second, and to paraphrase Rahm Emanuel, never let a good crisis go to waste. This pandemic has advanced the digitisation of the asset management industry in a way that had previously seemed unlikely. This is a great opportunity.

By utilising greater flexible working and increased digitisation, asset management not only has the opportunity to enhance how it delivers to clients, but also the ramifications on the workforce – in particular the industry’s attractiveness to a more diverse, tech-savvy employee base – will set it up better in the long-term.

That must be a key factor in decisions made today.


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