Remote work must find a place in financial services

It’s almost 2 p.m. and I’m still in the running clothes I threw on first thing this morning. I haven’t run, nor have I showered and “gotten ready for the day.” Being in a different time zone means that colleagues and clients on the west coast of the United States were responding to pending project requests while I slept. By 6 a.m. local time, new opportunities awaited me and I was ready to jump in. Eight hours later, I hadn’t gotten around to my usual morning routine, but had accomplished a lot.

I never dabbled in the world of “location independence” with a few days of working from home to see how it would go. I made summer plans before finalizing my new business partnership, and it happened that I launched a U.S.-based consulting firm while living in Spain. By the end of the second week, I had secured about a dozen clients, published two articles, and been interviewed by two industry media outlets. I had also taught my 8-year-old how to find his way around Europe’s oldest city, adjusted him to an entirely new daily schedule, and learned a few Spanish words and traditions. 

It was a balancing act that did not match the glamour I had imagined of wifi-enabled, seaside cafes with endless cups of coffee. It was not even the work-from-home scenario that I anticipated would allow me to do loads of laundry between conference calls.

Familiarity with the term, “location independence,” and the style of work have both grown significantly since Lea Woodward founded a remote work consulting firm and coined the term in 2007. Just over a decade later, this lifestyle is trending, with Instagram accounts filled with pics of poolside laptops and hashtags about #digitalnomads and #workfromanywhere. It hasn’t swept financial services, though. After all, how can transactions be completed when the tellers are all in Fiji? The traditional (and current) delivery of mainstream, retail financial services does not support an environment flexible enough to allow for location independence. In most cases outside of senior positions, it is even difficult to offer customized hours that allow scheduling flexibility for team members who care for aging parents or dependent children.

As the world considers a response to the threat of a pandemic spread of the Coronavirus, though, the discussion around remote work has risen to heightened relevance across many industries, including credit unions. When forced to consider it for the sustainability of the organization in a time of crisis, it seems that financial institutions can find ways to make remote work a possibility, after all. The reality is this, though: Financial institutions have been in a talent crisis for far longer than COVID-19 has threatened us and this crisis also merits an urgent response. 

Last summer, a PWC study “Preparing for Tomorrow’s Workforce, Today,” showed that financial services has fallen behind most other industries in responding to the demands of a changing workforce. This is especially prominent in the industry’s (lack of) priorities involving the people experience desired by today’s top performers. The financial services industry is not known for cultivating an intentional focus on work-life balance, for providing employees the opportunity to feel the positive impact of their work, or for actively working to develop and foster diverse and inclusive teams. 

As financial institutions strive to stay relevant, highly skilled workers will bring the innovative ideas, creativity, and strategies that move the organization to a place of heightened relevance in a crowded marketplace. In order to compete in the war for this level of talent, tremendous effort must be put forward for credit unions to become desirable places of employment. For many, this will mean significant philosophical and strategic shifts in talent acquisition, performance management, and even structure of the work day. 

Institutions that do not meet the new workforce’s expectations must be prepared to lose talent. Today’s workforce will handle their dissatisfaction with the action of walking away. They have seen- or experienced- a lack of loyalty from companies or the effects of burnout. In an always-on world, people use their scarce (and highly demanded) time differently. They hack their days to enable them to be at the most important events; responding to emails from soccer games, taking conference calls in the parking lot before walking into the meeting to discuss in-home care for aging parents, hitting Orange Theory in the middle of the day and wrapping up details for a new project launch from home after. Technology has enabled the extension of the work day, as well as the ability to flex it further, and people are happy to use this to their advantage. Is your credit union willing to give them that opportunity?

As a relatively new remote worker and manager of a remote workforce, and a recruiter who has placed candidates in remote workforces, I have learned a great deal over the past nine months. Members of my team and my clients span the United States. This past year, I have worked from nine different countries and in every U.S. time zone. My experience has enlightened me. I see the value of remote work in talent attraction, and how critical it is to build deep trust with a remote workforce; how I can use it to be more present in all areas of my life, and how intentional I must be to separate work and home; how much obligation sits with employees to communicate effectively, and how much an employer must work to cultivate culture in this environment. 

There are many paradoxes in the world of remote work that require a high degree of intentionality and effort to navigate, but the need for remote and flexible work options is clear. What are you willing to do to introduce these options in your organization as a talent attraction tool and not just a business continuity plan? If you are unwilling or unable to build a workplace that meets the demands of today’s changing workforce, the threat to your relevance may be greater than you imagine.

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki started her career with credit unions in 2001. She has taken on leadership roles at credit unions and state and national trade associations. Now, she uses her experience ... Web: Details