How finance firms are pioneering break-out workspace

 —  Article by Natasha Stokes
Businessmen having discussion over digital tablet in office
Image credit: Shutterstock

Progressive financial firms are rethinking how they use office space to attract a new generation of employees – and ideas.

The Société Générale Bank operates one of its biggest offices not in the central business district of Paris, but in the city’s more laidback east. Instead of glass towers like the financial clusters of La Defense, the offices, dubbed The Dunes, are set in a horizontal campus bisected by a walking street of eateries, shops and games. Employees may work at hot desks, booths, cafes or quiet pods, with few closed offices and half the total space dedicated to collaborative working.

“What Société Générale has done is really emblematic of what’s happening in the banking industry,” says Flore Pradère, Director in the Global Corporate Solutions Research team. “There is a trend towards breaking down the hierarchical organization and adapting to a more agile, flexible work environment with spaces beyond the desk.”

The secondary workspace might be an in-office sports bar, a themed meeting room, or swings, as in accountancy firm PKF Cooper Parry’s Birmingham headquarters. Along with a shift towards a more flexible way to work, 40 percent of financial services employees also work in companies with access to coworking or incubator areas for startups in a related field. The Dunes dedicates 1000 square meters for coworking, while banks in Australia and Asia are embracing coworking spaces in their offices and at external providers such as WeWork.

“The idea is to introduce more of an entrepreneurial spirit and develop a community where employees can collaborate with new people,” Pradère says.

The human-centric office

A well-designed workplace that offers employees areas for different types of work – creative thinking, solo focus, collaboration – helps employees stay engaged, and can drive specific outcomes like productivity or innovation.

At Deloitte’s vast Amsterdam headquarters in The Edge, employees are not only encouraged to move among the sitting and standing desks, booths, balcony seats and “concentration rooms”, but at each workstation, a dedicated app automatically tunes the local temperature and lighting to their preferred level.

JLL research found that 58 percent of financial services employees say they’re ‘completely satisfied’ with their work environment, well ahead of the 51 percent observed across all industries. And while the ‘less satisfied’ employees wanted better spaces for concentrating on work, the ‘satisfied’ ones were in favor of concentration spaces and also new areas for regeneration, inspiration and physical activity.

“When employees’ most basic needs are met, they start to express more complex expectations; they want to be inspired. This brings a higher level of quality to their work, including an ability to suggest new ideas,” Pradère says.

Drawing in top talent

Better workplace design is key to recruiting and retaining the skilled employees that financial firms need to flourish – especially when they’re often competing with fintech firms for the same pool of talent.

“The banking industry has been confronted with a challenge from the technology sector, particularly fintech startups with a far more agile way of working,” Pradère says. “Traditional finance firms are realizing they must evolve to continue attracting young talent, who may choose the organization with a more innovative structure.”

While the finance sector has borrowed design ideas commonly associated with the tech giants, the challenge is avoiding gimmicky features and focusing on those which can genuinely add value and create a collaborative and vibrant workplace environment.

At the new offices of PwC in Chicago, for example, flexible furniture and breakout areas of various sizes encourage collaboration, while dry-erase paint on all walls emphasises the firm’s focus on creative visualization.

The future of the finance desk

Conventional attitudes in the banking industry may be slower to adapt. JLL research found that at finance companies with a variety of workspace to choose from, including home-working, employees still spend the same amount of time at their desks as in other industries.

“Though employees are equipped with laptops and are given access to a large scale of different workspaces so they are strongly encouraged to mobility, it isn’t so easy to shift the culture from managing by number of hours spent on site, to being managed by trust and objectives,” Pradère says.

As the nature of work across every sector keeps evolving, technological advancements will push financial services buildings to incorporate more flexible-use and coworking spaces, Pradère predicts – and lead the curve in doing so.

“Other industries can learn that if the ultra-traditional sector of banking can do it, so can they,” she says. “Many of the traditional, dullest tasks in the finance industry are especially sensitive to automation. This puts a premium on idea generation as an employee skill.”

For the inspired employees of the future, the right office will offer choice in how and where to work – and spark those lightbulb moments.

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