From May 11, a growing number of workers began returning to workplaces as the government seeks to get the UK’s economy on what will undoubtedly be a bumpy road to recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic. Although financial services has not been as battered as some other sectors – such as retail and travel – the months ahead will be difficult for many as organizations seek to return to some form of normality.

Staying home
Unlike construction site workers or those in manufacturing, many in financial services look set to remain home based. However, this has its shortcomings and there are indications that more companies are making plans, at least for part-time working to commence or to introduce staggered returns to the office. A range of measures will need to be in place before such plans can commence, typically organizations will be looking at:

  • Reconfiguring desks to enable more space for staff and adhere to 2 metre social distancing
  • Banning hotdesking, face to face meetings and the sharing of equipment such as pens, notepads, laptops
  • Not allowing staff to share lifts
  • Closing office canteens or ensuring social distancing can be applied in such spaces
  • Improving and increasing the frequency of cleaning if necessary
  • Allowing different start and end times to permit safer travel to and from the office, increasing the number of parking spaces if possible to stop car sharing

Companies will need to draw up a COVID-19 risk assessment before their employees are allowed to return to work. The document, which needs to be regularly updated, will show how the business intends to keep employees safe from infection and highlight any gaps in its practices.

The practicalities are unlikely to be easy and some may flout social distancing rules. This leads on to employers having to ensure there is clear guidance and such behavior is managed. In terms of PPE, the government has not provided definitive rules, however, where a firm is customer facing, most have now put up plastic screens as protection.

However, even if all the measures are in place, many people still have concerns about returning to a workplace. The virus has not disappeared, even if cases are now declining. There remains uncertainty about the effectiveness of the track and trace strategy and there are fears about commuting where the risk of infection is higher.

Until the pandemic is over, many in financial services will keep working from home or keep staff furloughed, even if companies continue to make preparations for a return. However, future workforces could well find they have more flexibility. Andrew Rogan, UK Finance’s director of operational resilience for the trade body, said:

“Now the technology for working from home has been proven, firms are doing a lot of thinking
and some of the changes we have seen could be adopted in the longer term.”

Many challenges ahead
For some employees, working at least mainly from home could be an attractive prospect. But, the future is cloudy and the coming months will show what damage the financial services sector has endured.

Although after the financial crisis on 2008, many large institutions will have shored up their reserves, their earnings may well have suffered considerable damage. Bad debts and a collapse in the sale of products such as mortgages and investments are just some of the consequences. As such, there may be a slew of redundancies made across financial services as the furlough scheme comes to an end in October.

A further difficult issue could be if employee’s are unwilling to return to work. Lockdown will have undoubtedly had an effect on people’s mental health and wellbeing, therefore it is important businesses are ware that there is likely to be some impact from this when it comes to shifting back to office working.

For businesses coping in the ‘new normal’, there are many risks to be managed. This includes a potentially higher risk of cyber attacks and as Bruce Carnegie-Brown, chairman of the Lloyd’s of London insurance market, said recently:

“As insurance moves to more remote working, there is a greater risk of fraud and hacking. We now need to ensure we have resilience in remote working.”

What is more, regulators are closely monitoring the situation, even if they have taken more of a back seat during the pandemic, extending dates for consultation papers and delayed review work. However the FCA will be ensuring that firms have robust plans in place – operational resilience will likely take a centre stage following the pandemic.

Any spike in fraud will also be raising regulatory alarm bells. In addition, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will be keeping a close eye on data protection matters and whether employees are working from home or not. Employers must ensure that information security remains a priority no matter what the business circumstances are.

Whether it is dealing with the issue of ‘Zoom fatigue’ or having to mark out social distancing space on office floors with tape, these are strange and unwelcome times for many within financial services. Like so many others though, there is no alternative other than to navigate their way to what will hopefully be a less uncertain future.