I would like to thank the Investment Association for hosting this event and for bringing together such a broad range of people to support the launch of the pioneering Future World of Work project. The launch – as well as the initiative itself – provides an opportunity for us to share our collective knowledge and experience into the future world of work.
Challenge and uncertainty have become constant. Who could have foreseen at the end of 2019 that we were about to embark on a homeworking revolution? And particularly with these changes happening without a period of careful planning and a long lead time – in fact for many of us the changes happened, if not overnight, certainly within the space of a few weeks.
Like you, the majority of Bank of England staff have worked from home since March 2020. This is in great contrast to how things were before the pandemic, with the ONS estimating that – in 2019 – around 5% of people worked from home as their main location.footnote  At the Bank, this number flipped around, with only 5% of Bank staff – those workers who could not carry out their roles from home – still coming into our buildings.
As we look to the future, and (I hope) leave the many lockdown restrictions behind us, we have an exciting and unique opportunity. The challenge – though daunting – is to learn from the many successes we have collected over the past year and use them as a springboard to build more effective, collaborative and flexible organisations. Our staff deserve as well as demand this. For example, a recent survey of Bank staff showed that the majority hope to work from home at least two days per week. In this spirit, the Governors and I have established a set of trial guidelines – and which we are positioning as a pilot - which encourage more flexible working and only ask that our colleagues return to the office at least once per week for ‘team days’ which I will come onto in more detail shortly.
But increased demand for enhanced flexibility has not occurred purely because of the pandemic. This had been starting before, helped by the development of the internet and software-based tools that our organisations are now built upon which had already alleviated the absolute requirement for us all to work together in the same place at the same time. But the pandemic acted as the accelerator for this change, forcing us to take make the transition before we otherwise would have done. This truly terrible backdrop as well as the speed by which the change has occurred has been daunting and unsettling for many. It is not yet clear what will be the ‘new normal’ but I do believe that organisations that fail to embrace the profound changes that have occurred will quickly be left behind.
A recent global study of 100 Executives by McKinsey & Company earlier this year showed that nine out of ten said that their organisations will be combining remote and onsite working.footnote  Quite understandably, there is a lack of consensus as to the details of how such working patterns will be enacted across the different organisations, with 68% of organisations having no detailed plan communicated and only 11% having communicated a vision and started a pilot. It is therefore essential that projects such as this support organisations to help them adapt quickly and efficiently.
The future of work at the Bank (a pilot)
Back in 2017 we began investing in our video conferencing capability, and have since prioritised understanding what the ongoing technological and behavioural changes could mean for our working practices in the long term. This includes our work last summer to establish a set of guidelines, or ‘new norms’ which we communicated to staff in May, and are running as a pilot seeking feedback from staff over the coming months. This work included:
- Seeking feedback from staff via a series of interviews, focus groups, staff surveys and consultation with our staff diversity networks, to gather views and experiences on the changes to working practices.
- Commissioning our team of researchers to conduct a literature review of the benefits and drawbacks of home working covering topics such as remote working and productivity.
- Engaging with 48 external organisations, including our regulated firms, fellow central banks and regulators, consultancies and technology firms in order to learn the lessons of others.
In compiling the guidelines, it was important for us as an organisation to strike an optimal balance between individual preferences and what could work best for teams and the broader institution.
We also know that the return to the office environment will be a gradual process and that the pandemic impacted people in very different ways. And the guidelines have been designed to help support this transition.
Time and physical presence with teams remains important. In addition to asking everyone to work for at least one day per week in the office from September, the guidelines encourage teams to have regular ‘team days’, where staff are encouraged to engage in collaborative work and on building social capital. We anticipate that the number of staff in our buildings will increase over time and that – in accordance with a recent study of the personal preferences of Bank staff – staff will average about 3-4 days in the office and around 1-2 days from home. My own personal view is that the pull of the office might be a bit bigger than we anticipate.
Our aim is that this flexibility will better allow us to deliver our Mission, creating time for onsite collaboration but also allowing colleagues the flexibility which can improve our employment offering (flexibility is consistently listed as a strength of the Bank by our new joiners), as well as saving significant commuting time. In fact pre pandemic, Bank staff in total spent approximately 10,000 hours a day commuting…
We have communicated this messaging to colleagues via an ‘infographic’ comprising four main guidelines: Team first (leaders should encourage everyone to work flexibly, and in a way that maximises the overall effectiveness of their teams and the Bank), Include everyone (colleagues should be able to contribute equally, regardless of where they are working), Be flexible (everyone who is happy and able to work from home should do so regularly, with a central expectation that everyone should work from the office at least once per week), and finally, Get together (to encourage teams to have regular team days where everyone is in the office). All of the elements have been designed to support the Bank’s ability to deliver our mission through new ways of working – and this ethos is at the core of a graphic produced to capture this.
The Bank’s piloted guidelines ‘infographic’
Similar to many organisations we are also embarking on a series of adaptations to our buildings and further investment in technology in order to facilitate successful ‘hybrid working’, with a mixture of staff working from home and from the office. This includes adapting our buildings to ensure that both our meeting spaces and collaboration zones support effective hybrid meetings. We have enlisted our network of 250 Digital Ninjas – staff who have helped colleagues adapt and benefit from new tools and technologies – to provide additional support to staff in their new working environments.
For the Bank, the new ways of working have provided an opportunity for many of our senior leaders to find new ways of engaging directly with staff. We blog more, record more video messages, and - using our internal ‘intranet’ system - have found we all share more of our personal stories of how we are coping with the pandemic. In my own case, this includes unexpectedly having my three children back living at home.
That experience is perhaps for a separate speech….
More widely, we are supporting our managers to continue to manage effectively in a remote working environment. We need to recognise it is different. And we also recognise that many of our colleagues have never actually met each other in person. Analysis by McKinsey suggests that we can boost productivity when working remotely by supporting small connections between colleagues — for example, by managers and their staff creating time to discuss projects, share ideas, network, and mentor and coach one another. And we have supported our managers with top tips of how to manage remotely.
There are also opportunities for us to utilise technology to build more inclusive working environments for all our staff. For most of us, it is now easier than ever to contribute – for example via online chat functions - and for those with hearing impairments, virtual meetings enable us to use subtitling which I know has been a real positive for some of my colleagues. The fact that space isn’t limited by the number of chairs, and we are all afforded the same size box on the screen takes away some of the perceived hierarchy in a meeting.
But it is important for us to remain mindful that the changes are not universally positive. And it’s important that we all remain aware of how the pandemic may be disproportionately affecting some of our colleagues. For some of my colleagues with dyslexia or limited vision, the chat functions can present real challenges. And, as we know, less separation between work and home can lead to an ‘always on’ culture and like most organisations we have definitely had reports of ‘Zoom fatigue’.
As leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure we reach out to those virtual corners and mitigate the risk of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. And so as we planned our internal response, we remained in close contact with all our employee networks – of which there are 12, soon to be 13 networks - in order to understand the various impacts on different groups and to tailor our response accordingly. This is something that is continuing throughout the pilot of our new guidelines.
For the Bank, changes to working patterns have provided a unique opportunity to view our property estate in a new light. For example, we are considering how we can expand our UK presence by building out our existing serviced office space (currently used by our Agents) so that it can be used by more of Bank staff - not to mention our intention to locate a new hub in Leeds – with both aspects forming our review of the Bank’s geographical footprint, and which I am leading.
The Bank of England is a unique organisation, positioned at the confluence of the public sector and the financial services industry and we can gain insights from both. As the supervisor, we recognise that many of our regulated firms have also undergone a rapid change in how they work, and with similar opportunities and risks. Operational resilience was already a focus for the PRA, with firms outsourcing functions and adopting more of a remote working model. As such, we have been working to raise operational resilience in a remote environment.
Our current ways of working have heightened the importance of doing this and, as with the Bank itself, has provided a unique opportunity to understand how well firms adapt to working remotely in a crisis environment. It means that processes and controls have had to be rapidly adapted, and as the regulator, we need to be aware of these changes and ensure that there remains adequate oversight within firms’ management and control functions.
So in summary, our approach to developing our new ways of working had three important elements:
- A lot of research, including many discussions with our own staff, and our employee networks;
- A decision to distance the start date from the proposed ‘opening up’ date, recognising that June (or now July) would still mean a number of people may still be nervous of travelling, having not been vaccinated, and would be very close to summer holidays; and
- Perhaps most importantly, positioning it as a trial. This means that we are working collectively as an organisation to see if we can (all) make more flexible working work. Hybrid meetings may be more challenging than ‘all off site’ or ‘all on site’. And whilst technology and property adaptations will help, it is the behaviours of all of us that will truly turn an opportunity into reality.
The Bank of England, like all employers, is on a journey and will all learn a lot over the next year or so. It’s not just what we can enable by adaptations to technology and buildings, but what is the optimal model for our businesses, given our most important asset is our people, and of course the interactions between them.
We believe that in addition to improving our flexible working offer, changes to working practices will bring many other benefits – many of which we didn’t have time to touch upon here today - such as improving digital literacy and reducing our carbon footprint. But they need to be done in a way that can, at the same time, accelerate our progress in building diverse, inclusive working environments. We as leaders need to remain alert to the risks, prioritise staff welfare, gather regular feedback and be prepared to change course if needed.
With thanks to Alistair Baker, Joanne Muir and Chris Forster
Full data set and more information here: Coronavirus and homeworking in the UK labour market: 2019 | ONS
For details of the survey see: What executives are saying about the future of hybrid work | McKinsey.