4 July 2022

Can Australia’s banking and finance industry take the lead on the future of work?

Finance can set the gold standard for Australia’s workplace of the future, but talk needs to be followed by action.

Making small talk with parents at weekend sport the conversation inevitably centred on returning to the office. During the course of the conversation what struck me was how an organisation’s approach to flexible work was now a reflection of its wider values. This is an important point because the reasons people choose their workplace are changing.

For many of us in an office environment no longer are the primary concerns just about pay and benefits. Instead, people are increasingly saying they want to work for a company they’re proud of. In fact, a LinkedIn survey found that 71% of professionals were willing to take a pay cut if it meant working at a place whose values they believed in1.

This notion of pride-building as a point of differentiation can be an important opportunity for Australia’s banking and financial services industry.

After suffering and continuing to suffer well-documented talent shortages for several years and reeling from the recent royal commission, Australia’s banking and financial services industry was already installing flexible and inclusive workplaces to help attract, retain and grow the careers of its people in a meaningful way. Now in the post-pandemic era, it can set the gold standard by further evolving, adapting and embedding these policies – but this time within a hybrid work paradigm.

If the industry gets this right, the impact will be felt across Australia because not only is banking and finance one of the nation’s largest employers, but the banks’ large (and Australia-wide) supplier base will inevitably influence broader workplace standards.

But the industry has much work to do.

First, it must remain genuinely committed to offering flexible work because the way companies communicate and engage on the return to office debate is now entwined with how people view what their employer stands for.

Hybrid working is about trust and empowering people to decide the best way and place in which to deliver on their job. It is recognising the need for human connection and collaboration and identifying ways to maximise both. For companies with a global workforce operating under these principles has been the norm, and the shift to remote working was not a wholesale change in day to day operations. For others the move to hybrid working and the core principles of trust and empowerment were seen as temporary, as a result we are now seeing the mandating of a permanent return to the office.

To distinguish itself, banking and finance must not only maintain the policies and spirit of flexible work, but also acknowledge flexible work is more than just about the location you work from, particularly as we will always have some employees whose roles require them to be office-bound. It is about driving flexible solutions that encompass the how and when we work, whether that is seeing our customers in branch or via digital channels.

Second, the sector must proactively tackle the challenge of building fair, diverse and inclusive cultures that offer clear career pathways, within a hybrid setting.

One way is to drive better outcomes for female employees. A 2021 ABS survey2 found that women - often the primary child carers – are opting to work from home at a higher rate than men. The risk is that preferential treatment, in terms of pay and promotion, will inadvertently grow for those who spend more time in the workplace. This will require stronger countermeasures to avoid undermining workplace equality initiatives and further marginalising women.

Another concern is new joiners. With annual industry attrition of 10-15%, most organisations will have had a quarter of their entire workforce join since the pandemic started. To a large extent, most have to learn, adapt and build networks remotely. This is especially pronounced as banks go through periods of transformation. So we have had to work harder and deliver vital on-the-job and future-skills training for new joiners- within a more virtual setting - whilst ensuring they build connective tissue with the rest of the bank.

Underpinning all of these points is the need to invest in developing strong leadership that trusts people to deliver in a way and a place that works for them. This includes raising manager awareness of unconscious and proximity bias, helping develop ‘ways of working’ habits to reduce hard and soft virtual barriers, and to prioritise career progression for their people. We need to acknowledge one size does not fit all and that employees have choice and options.

By definition, the workplace of the future is unchartered ground and none of us – including HSBC – have all the answers as to what the ideal will look like, so we will continue to take a ‘test and learn’ approach.

The cost of failing to get it right is significant. Recent research suggests that it takes six to nine months of an employee’s salary to locate, train and on-board a replacement3.

What is clear is that employees will prioritise working for companies that align to their values and career priorities and can provide flexibility to suit their individual needs.

In this talent-starved environment, and in this increasingly hybrid workplace, the Australian banking and financial services industry has an opportunity to once again lead the way on a workplace issue faced by many.

To achieve this, the industry needs to challenge itself and its suppliers to raise our standards for delivering diverse, inclusive and career-focused working environments irrespective of whether the work is done in the office or at home or when.

If we get it right, we can cement ourselves as a genuine employer of choice.

This article has been written by Jessica Power, Head of Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC Australia