As the UK cautiously emerges from its lockdown, I wanted to reflect on how, since the emergence of COVID-19, the asset management industry has begun to dispel five long-held workplace myths.
During my 20+ years in the asset management industry, there have been some interesting responses to my working-from-home requests. They range from shock and horror – -“But how will you manage a team?!” – to pseudo-flexibility – “We’re a very flexible employer… but please be here for key meetings throughout the week”.
Brunel was set up from the outset to be agile and not reliant on staff being in the physical office every day. It has proved a very effective strategy. Working from home for this prolonged lockdown period, and continuing to deliver a professional service throughout, has put to bed the myth that people cannot be productive or manage a team effectively while working from home.
One size does not fit all and we should not judge productivity by time in the office, nor should we impose rigid systems on people who may have very different focuses or may be at different stages of their career.
For some employees, parental leave and childcare is a focus, for others managing their work-life balance or mental health is key. Some people are ambitious and so like to work long hours, while others like the buzz of an office. Some work better in the morning, some in the evening. For many, travelling into the office is stressful and getting that commuting time back each day can provide a more enhanced work-life balance and better mental health.
Across the industry, we now see much more clearly how a flexible system, focused on outcomes, can better honour the contribution each individual makes to the team. We don’t have to do a 9-5 job to manage portfolios effectively.
This pandemic is like no previous crisis, and one of the most encouraging aspects of this difficult period has been to see how our younger generation of workers at Brunel have supported and often inspired the Senior Management Team. Looking forward, we know that doing what we’ve done before will not always be enough for us to succeed into the office of the 2020s (if indeed there is an office!)
The next generation of leaders will think differently about working. The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020 found that, despite new lockdown pressures, millennials and Gen-Zs remain focused on driving positive change locally and globally – and want governments and companies to share those priorities. In the words of the report, that means “putting people ahead of profits and prioritizing environmental sustainability”. The best emerging leaders will not only share these priorities – they will also look for companies that embody them. Companies should still value experience, of course, but they should also create the opportunity and space for a new generation to bring their own ideas and solutions to the business. Our own focus on Responsible Investing makes this a still greater priority for Brunel.
Just as Brunel has a responsibility to care for the environment and society, so we have a responsibility to care for our employees. At the beginning of lockdown, we took the decision as a firm to focus a significant amount of time and resources on the mental health and wellbeing of our staff and we talked about our experiences openly. We took a leap of faith that involved trusting in outcomes and empowering people, and not being solely focused on keeping productivity high.
Over the past three months, this has meant adapting management styles to accommodate different people’s needs, which has inevitably demanded more time from the Senior Management Team. What we have discovered, however, is that, if we put the time in to take care of our people and get to know them as individuals, then they inspire and challenge us to greater things. That leads to still more outstanding work for our Partnership, and so the productivity almost takes care of itself.
Kindness is not a value we hear much about in the asset management world but, on reflection, our firm has been quietly and consistently holding ourselves to this value throughout the COVID crisis. We have been respectful of our own, our clients’ and each other’s needs, flexible to respond when required and, most of all, we have looked out for each other and checked in when difficult times have come to one of us. That’s why we have, to take one example, reduced meeting times, which enabled people to focus more of their energies on the largest priorities – while also cutting screen and video time. Kindness, then, is one of our core values, and makes us proud to work for Brunel.
Kindness is also an important part of the diversity debate. We should strive across our industry to create a culture and environment which allows kindness to flourish and which offers choices over working patterns and styles. This will always be a good starting-place, rather than merely performing box-ticking exercises on diversity hot topics. Our focus must be on creating opportunities that allow people to do what they are good at. If you can do this in such a way that it supports their needs, you’ll have a happier, more diverse, committed workforce.