‘Slow and steady here wins the race’: Canadian banks aim to balance flexible working with renaissance of office culture

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Big Canadian banks are embracing flexible working arrangements as they plan a widespread return to offices this fall, pointing out to staff that hybrid work is here to stay, but so are busy offices.

The banks, which are among the country’s largest employers, aim to reopen many of their offices and start bringing back a majority of staff as early as September, and until October and November in some cases. For many employees, this will mean going back to the office two to four days a week, although others may need to go more or less often.

Staff who have become accustomed to working remotely will need to adapt to a mix of masks, physical distancing, self-screening and booking desks via apps, holding in-person meetings with virtual participants, and decide where to work based on the tasks they perform. .

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Although some US banks are taking a more rigid stance, set fixed dates to call back office staff, Canadian banks try to avoid being too prescriptive. Most have written general principles to set the tone bank-wide and push decisions to executives and mid-level managers about the flexibility that staff in different divisions and roles should have. When there are disputes, there will be protocols and senior management to resolve them.

Major bankers avoid a one-size-fits-all approach because it is too rigid for organizations each with tens of thousands of employees and a wide range of job categories, although hybrid working arrangements will be more complex to manage. Most bank workers in Canada will have much more leeway to work remotely and adjust their schedules than before COVID-19 empties many offices. But banks also recall that meeting in offices with a certain regularity will remain a pillar of banking culture.

None of the plans for the banks’ return to power are set in stone. “It won’t be perfect,” and institutions will have to adapt on the fly, Helena Gottschling, HR Director at Royal Bank of Canada, said in an interview.

But hybrid labor could play a role in shaping a new war for talent as economies reopen. Poll after poll, many employees say they expect more flexibility and will look favorably on employers who offer it.

“If you want to be an employer of choice, you have to recognize that your coworkers want a different kind of working relationship with the bank,” Kenn Lalonde, director of human resources for the Toronto-Dominion Bank, said in an interview. . “We must meet this expectation. ”

He added: “At the same time, make no mistake, we have a bank to run. ”

RBC, with nearly 87,000 full-time employees, has concluded that “hybrid work is here to stay,” Ms. Gottschling said. The bank is developing an approach that provides “flexibility in guardrails,” she said, and has started distributing a 16-page hybrid workbook to help guide managers.

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This manual recognizes that some tasks, such as focused work and routine meetings, can easily be performed remotely. But it also says hybrid work “will be supported where possible and optimal” and encourages employees to live at a switchable distance, while allowing them to decide how far it can be. “We believe proximity always matters,” Ms. Gottschling said. “It’s a bit of an art, it’s not just a science.”

How hybrid work

Banks in Canada have avoided setting a minimum or maximum number of office days at all levels. For branch staff and other key operational roles who have remained on the front lines throughout the pandemic, little will change. But on average, RBC expects most employees to come two to four days a week.

National Bank employees can be in the office from one to five days for different roles. “Our hybrid work will be fully flexible,” and agreed between the leaders and their teams, said Danny Déry, vice president of the employee experience advisory center at National Bank. But he added: “It’s a hybrid work model, it’s not full-time work from home.”

In statements, the Bank of Montreal and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce have each said they expect to start a widespread move towards hybrid labor as early as September, and how much the time employees spend in the office depends on the type of work they do.

Some bankers should expect to return to their desks more often than others. Traders are being called back to trading rooms after bringing the terminals home during much of the pandemic. And commercial bankers who have client relationships “will come back more easily, sooner,” said TD’s Lalonde. ” sure

Last week, he told TD staff in an internal memo that some employees could come one or two days a week, and others three to four days, depending on their job. They will have more flexibility, but “we think there are absolutely a lot of benefits to being in person and coming to the office,” he said.

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To establish guidelines, TD created templates to categorize jobs and decide how staff can return to the office in stages. The Bank of Nova Scotia is developing a toolkit to assist managers that will describe four archetypes based on the proportion of work in each category who benefits from in-person interaction. And the National Bank has started to organize workshops on hybrid work.

The National Bank of Montreal has a three-step plan to return to its offices. The first phase already underway, known as ‘summer camp’, has reopened reservations for some meeting rooms and allows up to 25% of employees in Montreal and Toronto to be in offices in Montreal. at a time, with about 10 to 15% of them. far.

The next step, dubbed “Back to School,” begins September 7 and will raise the cap to 40%, with food trucks and activities planned to accommodate returning staff. The final step in “returning to the new normal” will allow full occupancy – ideally in late fall or early 2022, but “this one is more uncertain,” Déry said.

The configuration of many bank offices may also change to focus on meeting rooms and open spaces for collaborating, rather than cubicles and assigned desks with doors. In the long run, this can help banks get rid of some real estate and cut costs, but it will be a multi-year process as leases expire and new habits take shape. For now, banks expect to need space to meet physical distancing guidelines.

Vaccination encouraged, but optional

Banks urge employees to get vaccinated and have organized clinics to help them in some cases. But so far, no major bank has plans to require employees to be vaccinated or disclose their immunization status to work in an office. “It’s really not in our plans,” TD Lalonde said.

As a result, masks could be a feature of office life in the near future. RBC, TD and National Bank require employees in Canada to wear them when traveling or unable to maintain physical distance from co-workers, in accordance with public health guidelines.

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Several banks have conducted pilot projects to try rapid tests for COVID-19, and although it has proven difficult to deploy it to all employees, some banks will maintain targeted testing programs. National Bank will use rapid tests in specific locations, offices and branches that may be at greater risk for an outbreak. TD offers home testing in four provinces to employees who request them. Scotiabank conducts tests twice a week for certain staff at head offices, branches in sensitive areas and operating centers.

“It’s not like we have to test the entire population because the majority will be vaccinated,” Barbara Mason, director of human resources at Scotiabank, said in an interview. “Rapid tests are complementary for the minority. ”

Slow and steady

Canadian banks have been fortunate enough to try new strategies in offices abroad, as U.S. states and parts of Europe and Asia lifted public health restrictions earlier than Canada. Some BMO US staff started returning in June, and RBC brought back UK staff on a voluntary basis, most of whom spend two or three days a week in the office.

In the United States, there is competitive pressure from banking giants such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, whose CEOs have called remote work “an aberration” and say if the employees can dine at the restaurant, they should be able to go to the offices. Even at home, Canadian banks have been criticized for their cautious approach: Allied Properties REIT CEO Michael Emory, a prominent office owner, berated bank CEOs for a perceived “lack of leadership”, urging them to “Find a backbone” and bring back teleworkers.

But Canadian bankers have resisted the urge to catch up. They say the pandemic has lasted long enough that employee expectations and habits have changed dramatically. “Just saying that on a magical date everyone has to come back is not essentially respectful of the change that has fundamentally taken place over the past 16 months,” said Mr. Lalonde of TD.

So many factors that banks consider are constantly evolving – including public health guidelines, customer preferences, and employee concerns – that they have concluded that a hasty return to old ways of working was not there. Not practical.

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“Slow and steady here is winning the race because there are too many macro variables that we still don’t feel 100% confident in,” said Ms. Mason of Scotiabank. “That’s why we’re focused on the data and not the dates. ”

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