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What Does the Buy-Side Return to Office Look Like?

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As buy-side firms the world over contemplate when the return to office will happen and what it will look like after over a year of Covid-19 induced lockdowns, one thing is clear: the office they left last spring will not be the same office they likely go back to this autumn. A lively panel at the June 23 FIX EMEA Trading Conference discussed this and other issues, including what firms have learnt from dealing with the various challenges of having staff work from home.

Emma Quinn, AllianceBernstein

For one thing, the past year has put paid to the notion that traders can only do their  jobs at the office. “I didn’t think traders could work from home, and while I don’t think we’ll keep on working from home five days a week, I do think there can be some flexibility around trying to offer people some sort of ability to work from home on certain days or around certain events that are important to them,” said Emma Quinn, Global Co-Head of Trading at AllianceBernstein.

Quinn pointed out that compliance concerns related to people working from home are overblown. “Compliance people should bear in mind that the biggest scandals ever in financial markets didn’t happen when people were sitting at home,” she observed. “The LIBOR Scandal involved people sitting in an office. So, actually sitting next to people doesn’t solve the issue; you have to fix the culture and oversight.”

To be sure, there are drawbacks to not being in the same physical space. Training a new hire virtually “takes significantly more time than if you’ve got someone sitting next to you,” said Quinn. “We found the culture bit probably easier than we’d expected. Culture is what companies talk people through when onboarding, but we found our culture is actually embedded in our processes, so we didn’t really have to explain to people that we put the client first and we put teamwork first.”

Joe Collery, Head of Trading at Dublin-based Comgest, said his firm was “hyper-vigilant” about employee training in a work-from-home environment, and this was where technology really stood out.

“With our execution management systems, it is kind of like when you’re learning to drive and the instructor has his own brake and accelerator: you can always step in on an order and see how it’s performing,” Collery said. “That gave us a level of comfort to onboard someone new at home.”

Andreas Wollheim, SEB Investment Management

Sweden’s SEB Investment Management had to onboard an entire trading system during lockdown. As Andreas Wollheim, the firms’s Head of Trading and Treasury recounted: “We would usually have a team from the vendor come to the office and work there for a couple of weeks to get everything set up. Instead, we did it all on Zoom and Teams and conference calls, so it took longer than expected. But I think it worked out pretty well. Those types of things will be challenging, obviously.”

Hybrid Work Arrangements

Going forward, panelists said their firms would probably continue giving their staff the option of working from home on certain days, and would look at paring down their office capacity. Collery said Comgest is “looking at a hybrid model, with optionality to maximise the positives we have garnered from remote working.”

Kirstie MacGillivray, Aegon Asset Management

Working from home could have drawbacks, however, including impeding career progression, particularly for junior staff. “I have a big concern for juniors and their career progression, because in the office they overhear and pick up things. They could be invited to sit in on meetings or shown how to do things at senior colleagues’ desks,” noted Kirstie MacGillivray, Head of Multi-Asset Dealing at Aegon Asset Management. “They’ve missed out on all that over the past year, and I think it is going to take a certain personality type as a junior to really thrive now in this industry because you’ve got to be quite forward and take ownership and almost demand to join conversations or meetings.”

Networking will also take a hit. “We talk about electronic trading, but ultimately, this is still very much a relationship business,” said MacGillivray. “We do have the luxury, as a company, of being in the industry for a long time and we have that network built up, but we need to keep building that.”

Still, MacGillivray believes there will be diversity and inclusion benefits arising from the more flexible working arrangements that emerge from the past year’s work from home experience. “To give people the option of not having to commute five days a week, or perhaps more flexibility during their day to be able to drop children off or pick them up from school. That will surely help this industry get to where it wants to be in the diversity and inclusion space.”