It’s now over a month since the UK went into lockdown and businesses and employees alike, are eagerly awaiting news of a timeframe for the relaxation of social distancing rules, that will allow the financial services sector to open its doors again.

Business continuity plans have been pushed to their limits and one of the biggest challenges for financial services firms has been the transition from office to home working.  Typically many firms were setup for short spells of home working or to accommodate a small number of staff being out of office, however the scale of the virus and the UK wide lockdown has thrust organizations into entirely new and unfamiliar territory.

For many businesses, it has been a case of learning as the situation unfolds, with ad-hoc planning and measures being put in place to help minimize damage and ultimately to allow firms to continue to trade.

Although every business working across UK financial services will be dealing with the situation in their own ways, there are clear commonalities emerging with respect to the challenges of an entire workforce working from home:

Mental health matters

Individual preferences and attitudes to home working can vary significantly. Some may find they are more efficient working away from the office, whilst for others, the opposite is the case. A survey from researcher Opinium has found that over a third of employees currently working from home are finding it is having a negative impact on their mental health. One of its researchers Sophie Holland, says employers need to understand the strain some are under and the fact that lines between home and work life balance are becoming blurred.

She advised on the need for clear boundaries, with balanced working hours and a separate workspace if possible.

“It is also important to try and stay connected, virtual calls with colleagues, friends, mentors and line managers can be a vital source of support and advice during this period.”

There’s no doubt those prone to anxiety and depression may find home working exacerbates this, whether through isolation or perhaps worrying about becoming ill or knowing someone who is unwell. Many may also have concerns about their finances and job security.

It is clear that staff health and well being must be at the very top of the priority list for all businesses at this time, considering the unprecedented nature of the circumstances.  Putting in place clear and regular communications with employees and encouraging open discussion around mental health is critical.  Offering extra support to those who need it will go a long way in helping to prevent issues arising in the longer term, such as loss of key staff.

Equipment challenges

Some companies have been hit with additional financial costs through having to supply all staff with the right equipment to work from home. This is an unavoidable but still unwelcome cost that has also led to varying degrees of disruption to get to a point where every employee is set up remotely.

Many financial services firms traditionally use desktop PCs with servers located onsite. In such cases the transition has not been straightforward, with IT called upon to setup remote access for staff to shared drives, leaving periods where employees may have been unable to work.

Remote working is nothing new for many firms, the difference is that it is now practiced by so many. It’s therefore essential that firms do their best to keep on top of IT security issues. This includes ensuring that if an employee is using their own computer, that this is secure.

Some employers will also have a policy stating they have the right to retrieve and/or delete stored documents should an employee leave the firm. Employees should also be warned against downloading unverified apps and secure VPNs should be used when not connected to the employer’s network.

It goes without saying that with fraudsters latching onto COVID-19, all should be alert to scams. Working from home may seem less secure, but many firms manage it successfully and for those companies that do not have policies, then now is the time to formulate them.

Management pressures

Home working can also bring additional challenges for those in management positions who are responsible for communicating regularly with their teams. Whilst apps such as Zoom have become an increasingly popular substitute to face-to-face meetings, they are not universally popular with everyone and can in some circumstances lead to disengagement amongst staff.

But this is not the best time for managers to be too confrontational. Instead, making sure there is recognition of those who are doing well and sharing examples of best practice will help keep morale up. If there is a problem, then a phone call from a manager showing empathy may be the best way forward.

Once the lockdown is over,  it is inevitable that working practices will be reviewed and employees may well see some changes.  It may be that some working practices established during lockdown are deemed to be more effective than previous practice, and therefore integrated into the new business as usual.   For other pre-Covid practices,  especially those relying on face to face communication, it will be a relief to have these back up and running.

Post-lockdown, the initial focus for all businesses will be on recovery and evaluation.  Those businesses who take a thorough, methodical approach to recovery, however long this might take, will benefit from improved resilience in the long term .