More than a century ago, financial institutions popularized a piece of furniture that has become synonymous with office life: the working desk. It became a symbol of power, and the larger it was and the more elaborate the design or superior the wood, the more important its occupant. Desks became a way for those in charge to create physical distance between themselves and the workers, and in the world of banking, it served as a reminder to the customer exactly who had the upper hand. In brokerages, we even see remnants of this thinking when they refer to their “trading desks”.

When the first big financial institutions built their elaborate offices and desks at the end of the 19th century, these symbols of power were a workplace innovation intended to better establish the social order of an office and drive greater organizational efficiency. 

Expectations of bank clerks being seated at rows of identical work stations decorated with names and titles were quickly adopted by other industries as sound corporate policy. Increasingly, workers were expected to remain at their desks and “to breathe the air of four pent walls” (as 19th century office clerk Charles Lamb described it) from 9am to 6pm.  The promise of efficiency and order from the Second Industrial Revolution had finally been applied to human capital in the professional workplace.

The rise of the cubicle farm and organizational hierarchy being reflected in physical office structure is surely a familiar concept for nearly all of us, even in modern times. But the office as we know it is now facing a new identity crisis, struggling to cope with Millennial employees who were born into a digital world, and fighting to remain relevant as new companies enter markets with more agile business models and less burden from legacy assets and processes. Banks again have the opportunity to disrupt and innovate. Soon the physical desk will be obsolete, but is the finance industry bold and visionary enough to lead this change?

The rise of mobility and digital transformation

The office is certainly no longer as ubiquitous as it used to be, and a quarter of the EU workforce is now classed as ‘e-nomads’. A recent report by global property services company, CBRE, found that desk utilization within London banks was at 65%. By implementing a ‘shared desk’ culture, the study suggested it could reach 85%, which could make a significant difference to overheads.

Deutsche Bank, for example, is aiming to have six people to every five desks as part of a plan to consolidate a number of offices into its London headquarters. Even the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, was so determined to lead by example that when he took on the role, he brought along his laptop and perched himself at various department desks.

Today, the ultimate symbol of power is, arguably, to have no desk at all. Modern corporate culture is all about flexibility and control over where and when we work, and the office environment needs to evolve technologically and socially. Not too far in the future, the door of the last high street bank or financial institution will close for the final time, and before that happens, banks should be deciding whether they can popularize a completely new and mobile working model.

Nowadays, if a customer wants to get in touch with their bank they send a tweet, an SMS, or an email … the days of visiting a local branch in person, to sit in front of a desk for a scheduled appointment, are increasingly rare. Customers expect payments and fund transfers to be digital, authorizing transactions through their mobile phone or tablet.

Fintech (the term for financial technology), sensing this disconnect between what traditional banking provides and what modern consumers desire, is booming, and it has been quick to establish an advantage over the traditional ways of doing business. Across the globe, fintech startups offering tech-enabled payments, currency exchange, crowd funding, online lending and wealth management services are mushrooming and competing with traditional retail banking and financial services firms. This is all serving to create new kinds of relationships between money, banks and their customers.

In particular, fintechs have been able to create business models that minimize the structural formalities of being a bank, while providing a more efficient means of serving the customer.  Strangely, though, and despite these innovations…the desk and office still remain.

The technology has arrived

The technology exists to make virtual working the new norm for banks, insurance, and investment companies. According to the results of a recent IDG Research Services survey, IT leaders in the financial services sector understand the importance of mobility, with 54% regarding it as a high or critical priority. And when compared with other industries included in the research, they are more likely to be piloting mobility initiatives within departments or across the enterprise.

For Deutsche Bank, virtual computing solutions support the bank’s sustainability strategy and have enabled new flexible ways of working for its employees across the globe, from branch staff through to colleagues on the trading floor. In particular, its trading floor in Hong Kong has been completely virtualized, so that in case of an emergency or natural disaster, workers can be up and running in another location within minutes. Furthermore, its drive to create a truly virtual environment has already resulted in a 55% reduction in power consumption and an 89% decrease in its carbon footprint at its headquarters in Frankfurt.

Mike Dituro, head of productivity and collaboration technologies at Deutsche Bank, explains:

If an IT organization tries to hold on [to] the legacy ways of doing things and doesn’t look at this as a way to enable users in ways that we haven’t been able to enable them before, you’re making a tremendous mistake and this opportunity is going to pass you by.

Even within such a heavily regulated industry as finance, and with the necessary security requirements implied by the very nature of the banking business, mobility works. It’s rapidly becoming a prerequisite for success, and CIOs understand they must find ways to use mobility to meet the business’ demands for improved productivity, agility, customer intimacy, and IT flexibility. TD Bank, for example, provides an anytime, anywhere working environment that supports work-life balance, environmental sustainability and a performance-based culture, through secure desktop and application virtualization.

The future

Recent turmoil, such as Britain’s looming exit from the EU, is surely enough of a reason for banks to be shifting functions away from a fixed location. Following the Brexit result, there has been much talk of international banks quitting the UK when their right to “passport” is lost. Furthermore, cost pressures and falling revenues are spurring more banks to reduce their office space, sell off their real estate portfolios and close branches.

The local high street bank will soon be a thing of the past, as will the desk. Before long, a mobile and largely digital workplace will be the only viable way forward.  Banks and other financial institutions must recognize this reality quickly in order to lead this transformation and remain competitive in the battle for the employees, the customers, and the business of tomorrow.

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