Aug 18, 2021

Flexibility, whether compressed workweeks or remote work options, introduces a variety of challenges, but those challenges should not prevent your firm from imagining new possibilities. The biggest challenge with implementing a flexible work model will be changing our mindsets and re-envisioning and redefining what work or the workday means.

In the 1930s, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that people would one day work 15-hour weeks (not days, as some of us might still do today), because technology would make us more productive.

In 1956, then-US Vice President Richard Nixon echoed a similar sentiment, only a little more conservatively, when he predicted that we would eventually see a four-day workweek. As it turns out, this has become a reality more recently for some of us, with certain businesses (and countries) successfully piloting a four-day workweek across the globe. Hours were reduced and productivity increased.

But what exactly does productivity mean, how is it measured, and what’s required to be productive? Although it might be possible to leverage technology to transform how we work in investment management, is our industry really equipped, or willing, to embrace what’s possible?

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand firm that manages trusts, wills, and estates, experimented with a four-day workweek in 2018. As you might expect, employees reported that it reduced stress and promoted a better work/life balance, and the company benefited as a result. The firm observed greater employee commitment and engagement, employees described a greater willingness to help each other and collaborate, and productivity jumped 20%. That flexibility was seen as a privilege and not a right, and employees showed more commitment perhaps than ever before. Following the four-day workweek trial, the firm adopted the model, and CEO Andrew Barnes later became the founder of the 4 Day Week Global Foundation (www.4dayweek.com) to fund research into four-day week practices, the future of work, and workplace well-being.

Our industry is better known for its long hours rather than its flexibility and work/life balance. Some investment managers have tried to offer more flexibility in recent years by implementing flextime and sabbaticals for staff members, but these firms are more of the exception. And while other industries may have made a recent push for a four-day workweek, some experts argue that the four-day workweek is unlikely to come to Wall Street anytime soon.

The four-day workweek aside, even remote work has been (and continues to be) controversial in our industry. This is surprising, given what most firms witnessed with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when remote work was the only option (and for many firms it continues to be in 2021).

But some investment firms have begun to communicate plans to return to the office. Some return-to-work plans consist of a hybrid model, where employees are allowed to continue to work from home at least for part of the week, while other firms remain adamant that their staff must be physically present in the office full time.

But why is this the case?

Despite the disruptions created by the pandemic and the distractions associated with remote work, we’d argue that the job still got done, and some say that productivity actually increased.

However, some valid concerns are driving these firms to push for a return to the office – including cyber and information security, employee engagement and retention, training and mentorship, and even collaboration. Collaboration is especially difficult with a mixed workforce or hybrid work model (with employees both in the office and remote).

And then of course there is the issue of culture, a primary concern of many firms and their CEOs. How do you preserve your firm’s culture with no real-world, face-to-face interaction?

We believe that the quarantine brought about a number of benefits that went beyond more flexibility for non-work activities or having the option to mix collared shirts with sweatpants. Firms quickly implemented new tools like Zoom and Teams to help them communicate or used DocuSign because signatures could no longer be given in person. Our work habits changed, too. We spent less time in meetings because we could now connect ad hoc over a video call to problem-solve, and driven by necessity, we found new ways to automate manual tasks.

At Cutter, we’d argue that our culture improved. We eventually stopped keeping our kids (and pets) out of the view of the webcam, and learned more about the interests and lives of our colleagues. We developed new ways to communicate company updates, voicing our opinions and concerns, organized working groups to collaborate across business lines and exchange new ideas, and came together outside of work hours for virtual coffee breaks and cocktail hours.

Flexibility, whether compressed workweeks or remote work options, introduces a variety of challenges, but those challenges should not prevent your firm from imagining new possibilities. The biggest challenge with implementing a flexible work model will be changing our mindsets and re-envisioning and redefining what work or the workday means. Is the objective really to be seen for 40 hours (if not longer) in the office or is it something more?

Flexibility requires creativity and innovative thinking, and the right technology and tools to support it. But cultivating flexibility can be worth it ─ not just for the employees, but for the overall firm. Flexibility drives innovation and innovation leads to growth.

We Want to Hear From You!

Tell us how remote work has impacted your firm, and how flexibility will play a role in your firm’s future work model. Share your feedback below. Members can share their insights by participating in our brief online survey or drop us a note at connect@cutterassociates.com. Also, look for our upcoming research, The Future of Work and Collaboration, which will discuss some of these themes and related challenges.