Category: Business

2020 has given rise to an enforced polarised swing in both our personal and professional lives.

By John Henderson, Enterprise Account Director, ActiveOps and author of Retail and Digital Banking published by Kogan Page.

Our civil liberties and our ability to work have changed immeasurably. Global society has been forced to adapt to the external conditions that have been placed upon us. Suddenly our familiar workplace became our kitchen tables, children were being schooled by parents – not teachers and we had to find new ways of keeping in touch with extended family and friends. With relatively little warning, we experienced a quantum shift in our work and home lifestyles which has meant, like rudderless boats, we had to find our way through unchartered waters. Inputs to help people make sense of the situation and to make astute decisions have been limited. All we knew for sure, was what we were no longer allowed to do – how we made that work in practice was left up to us. At the beginning of the pandemic, some of the initial adjustments people had to make were significant, subsequently followed by further minor tweaks as they navigated closer towards the horizon of a new way of life. Yet in light of the circumstances and with the absence of a map or instruction manual, many people have managed to make the transition and to establish some form of balance in their lives but many have struggled to get there and in the worst cases some have not made it at all. For those that have made the transition successfully, this has been largely achieved through personal adaptation to the presenting circumstances rather than through central leadership, direction and support. So, what best practices can be identified from the way people have made this journey successfully and what lessons can be taken into the world of global banking and finance.

  • Avoid isolation and being disconnected from society. When and how to communicate effectively with family and friends. Creation of an effective communications plan to stay connected.
  • Co-ordination and balance of the activities that take place at home e.g. When and how to shop, when to home school and when to fit work in and around everything else. Creation of a new home-centric operating rhythm.
  • Maintaining momentum, sustain interest and avoiding lethargy – Under activity and over activity can equally have an adverse impact on wellbeing. Humans need be kept occupied – to feel the sense of achievement and fulfilment within their lives. This is accomplished through the setting of tasks and goals. (Either self-imposed or set externally but during the pandemic, most goals and projects have been self-imposed) e.g. clearing out the spare room, home decorating, tidying the gardening. Participating in new pastimes e.g. Baking, painting, watching a box set on Netflix – Create a framework that stimulates personal motivation and keeps people occupied through the delivery of stretching but realistic outcomes.

Prior to COVID-19, homeworking was the preserve and privilege of the few. What has ensued over recent months has largely been a mass, unplanned pilot scheme for homeworking with many employees now keen not to revert to the traditional office-based environment permanently. The myth that back-office operations and call centre work could not be done from home has been resoundingly dispelled. In our professional lives only one thing is for sure – the old normal way of working is not going to return. So how can we learn from the personal experiences we have all encountered and adjusted to, to bring those lessons in to the workplace?


Establish and embed a recognisable routine and pattern of communication is essential to ensure a sense of place and harmony. Scheduled team meetings, 1-2-1 and performance reviews are all essential components of day-to-day life that provide the key components to effective communication. Managers still need to be sensitive around the scheduling of events and to ensure they best fit with individual and team working patterns. Yet this alone is no longer enough – variation in the style of communication is important, so that people do not become ‘Zoomed out’ – even fun and social meeting have become compartmentalised into regular half-hour calendar slots. Impromptu phone calls, informal use of WhatsApp groups and unscheduled MS Team video calls can help to replace the serendipitous ‘water cooler conversations’, bring further value to employees and the employer, so long as they are contained with the bounds of reasonableness and don’t become overtly obtrusive.

Operating Rhythm

Managers are going to be pulling their hair out with an enormous new burden of awareness required. Not to mention still get the work done. From a managers’ perspective, too much information is useless, equally too little information is also useless, so where to find the balance of the operational data that can help you guide the ship or fleet of ships through turbulent waters becomes the need. In order to achieve this, managers need to know where they are going and how to guide the crew along the way. Meaning managers really need to have a vision and to know what good looks like in several categories regularly and how to dial in adjustments. The challenge is to identify the right data and to use it to better understand our people, to know how they spend their time and to assess individual and team productivity transparently and fairly. It is insufficient to use isolated, one-dimension, traditional pieces of data combined with the reliance of chance for performance to be achieved. Simply assessing output as the sole performance metric when people are no longer visible is insufficient to manage and motivate your people. Blunt, single point data metrics are not a proxy for determining how people are performing.

Whilst workdays may appear longer for some people, managers have a duty of care to understand and get under the skin of Utilisation i.e. the number of work hours and non-work hours that comprise the working-day. E.g. Scenario 1: Home worker logged on for a 10-hour workday – 6 hours in work-based applications and 4 hours in non-work-based applications. Utilisation = 60%. Scenario 2: Office worker logged on for an 8 hour workday – 6 hours in work-based applications and 2 hours in non-work based applications Utilisation = 75%  And here is the rub; in both scenarios the employees give the same amount of time to their work – it is okay to have extended non-work hours within the working day, in fact it should be actively encouraged but managers should not be misled to believe that longer days [logged on time] equates directly to spending longer hours at work. The key is having access to data that provides managers with insight as to how employees spend their time. The key point here is understanding and determining what the acceptable parameters of utilisation should be and that the insight gained is valued and appreciated by managers as they will have a better understand of the unique needs of their people. From an employees’ perspective, managers who truly understand them as individuals [rather than as a machine that delivers output] will be more responsive and feel valued for who they are not just what they produce. Fundamentally having a better grasp of utilisation will inform managers of where people are excessively under or over working – both of which will have consequences for both employees and the employer.

Keeping Occupied

Accepting that the new working day may well indeed be longer and with employers recognising that their employees need time to do a variety of other non-work activities throughout their day to achieve a harmonious work/life balance the focus should then be to ensure employees are optimising their output during their work-based hours.

When it comes to actual work, it is not enough and it is arguably full-hardy to say nonchalantly, ‘we want to trust our employees to achieve their numbers – that’s all that matters. How they do it is entirely up to them.’ How naïve, arguably complacent and at worst is corporate neglect – this was not the case prior to the pandemic. Many managers managed by presenteeism in the office as a proxy for knowing that people working and now that the environment has changed, managers have had no choice but rely [and hope under the guise of trust] on employees choosing to work efficiently. But it should be the employer, not the employees’ responsibility to find a way through – It is at time like this where leadership counts most – at a time of crisis business leaders should set the tone, the direction and provide guidance rather than abdicate their responsibility and handover the responsibility of achieving successful business outcomes to the employees of the organisation under the illusion of trust. The captain needs to chart the course, set the expectations of the crew and then set sail. If ownership of ‘where are we going and how do we get there’ is delegated to individual employees, some will get there, some won’t. By taking this approach, what is certain is that there will be inconsistency and wild variation in the delivery of business objectives, and this will lead to lack of operational control and performance management which in turn will affect planning and ultimately customer service. Whilst ethically placing trust in employees is a desirable and noble aspiration to have, the reality is that it is a sign of apathetic management. When you hear that approach, consider again how people felt in the immediate days after lockdown and how they reacted. People lacked leadership and proactive guidance. They were not given a map or a framework to work within and consequently they made it up as they went along. Sure, some found their way eventually, but managers have the responsibility to lead, to provide guidance and a framework to operate within, but without relevant data and meaningful insight, how can managers reasonably achieve this?

Banks not only have a responsibility to employees but to customers and shareholders. Managers have an obligation to ensure optimum productivity is maintained at individual, team and divisional level. Hiding behind the facade of wanting to be trustworthy is the fundamental reality that many employers are bereft of the ability to truly know how their employees are spending their time and how they use their time effectively. Prima face, business leaders are publicly stating that COVID productivity has not been adversely affected within their organisations, yet generally speaking, volumes of work have fallen during the crisis whilst staffing levels have broadly stayed the same – indeed may employees say that they work substantially longer hours now than when they were in the office. If organisations are spending more hours doing less/or the same volume of work, they might be getting through the work [at reduced volumes] but that does not mean that productivity is the same or better – the fact is productivity is worse.

Productivity should be based on the output delivered compared to the time worked – not how long the working day may appear to be. Truly understanding productivity serves several purposes. Firstly, to understand how individuals and teams perform against the anticipated standard time for work to be completed. Of course, there will be variation in the time individuals take to complete work – this is entirely understandable and should be entirely acceptable. This leads to two further considerations;

  1. a) For star performers who constantly achieve their numbers in quick order, managers can identify best practices that can be shared with other members of the team. Equally yet seldom appreciated is that star performers need to remain motivated too. Delivering to target might not be enough to keep them energized – this is where the spectre of lethargy can creep in. If not addressed proactively this can lead to a downward spiral of star performers wellbeing. Performance targets can act as ceilings which in turn can affect employee enthusiasm for their work. Curtailing performance altitude by setting arbitrary targets will adversely affect star performers attitude.
  2. b) For high volume, simple processes that have consistent levels of productivity across teams help managers to identify and prioritise process that could be considered for automation and/or RPA.

In the world of business that simply does not cut the mustard with stakeholders that value return upon investment.

To summarise, I am not advocating micro-task management and setting unrealistic goals that brings undue pressure to bear upon individuals. What I am advocating is setting stretching but realistic rates of utilisation and productivity that fully take account of the change in home working practices that enables individuals to maintain a harmonious work/life balance. The responsibility and leadership to achieve this lies squarely with employers. It is their gift to give but to do so proactive action needs to be taken and should not be ignored, delegated or left to chance.