The Great Reflection

Albert Einstein is often credited with saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And in that vein I wanted to reuse a phrase I first shared a year ago which didn't resonate as loudly as I thought it would, but this time I hope it’s different.

In November 2020 I referred to the previous 9 months as ‘the great reflection.’ The idea was to highlight one of the interesting and positive things I'd seen during the global pandemic, this being how people had taken the opportunity to reflect on their lifestyles and make changes. I witnessed numerous friends and industry contacts choosing early retirement, a change in roles, relocation and often a combination of all three. Today the concept of 'the great reflection' hasn't gone away in fact it's more relevant than it was in 2020. Society is now trying to return to some form of normality and companies have a big challenge ahead in deciding what ‘normal’ will look like for their employees and employees will be reflecting on what’s right for them.

This time it could be argued that doing the same thing and expecting the same results could be the definition of insanity, but far greater minds than mine in some of the city’s foremost institutions have determined that a return to the office is the correct approach. Equally there are some fine institutions now stating that no one ever needs to come back to the office, because this time it's different.

Businesses should be reflecting on how to create an environment where employees want to give as much as they can, rather than one where they can get as much out of their employees as possible

Of the people I have spoken to in the last 18 months the resounding majority now want some form of return to the office, with the biggest pull factors relating to culture, fulfilment and camaraderie. It's hard to find fulfilment in your role when you are stuck on Zoom for 8hrs in your spare bedroom, it’s difficult to motivate yourself to work till late on an RFP when the only person you are sharing the late night pizza with is yourself and it’s hard to feel like one of the team when you have never met any of them in person.

An opportunity to be more human

There is evidence that could be used to contradict this. During lockdown it seems most have worked as long, if not longer hours, but scratching below the hours worked it seems that the additional hours have often been motivated by anxiety of assumed absenteeism rather than a determination to excel in the role. I feel this is an important point to reflect on because businesses should be considering on how to create an environment where employees want to give as much as they can, rather than an environment where the business can get as much out of its employees as possible.

It's a subtle difference maybe, but an important one particularly for financial services. There are regularly stories in the press about overworked graduates and burned out employees, and whilst it's true that we all need to take care of ourselves and our colleagues it shouldn't be overlooked that one of the reasons the city has been so phenomenally successful over the last few decades is people's willingness to go the extra mile, and I don't just mean the top tier financiers. I’ve experienced teams working late to complete a large RFP within a short timeframe, operational teams working through the night to fix issues after the markets have closed, and tech teams working 24hrs to roll out a crucial fix or upgrade.

Whilst recognition for these acts can come by way of remuneration, the biggest motivators have been culture, fulfilment and camaraderie. As a result the great reflection should be about how we create a hybrid culture that embraces some of the new flexibility, whilst holding on to the willingness to go the extra mile.

The current thinking seems to be to set the ratio of days in the office vs days at home, but this seems too clumsy as a long term approach, sure it gives employers and employees some predictability to help them manage time outside of work but does little to shape how we can all use time together effectively to embrace culture, build camaraderie and achieve role fulfilment. The most effective way will surely be an extended period of reflection where we try an approach, gather feedback from business units as well as employees, adjust, and try again.

James. A. Garfield stated ‘in the minds of most men, the kingdom of opinion is divided into three territories, the territory of yes, the territory of no, and a broad, unexplored middle ground of doubt’. Let's commit to exploring the middle ground and over time we will remove the doubt because, as Mr Garfield also said, “the truth will set you free.”