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Navigating Regulatory Waters: Friend or Food? How To Stay Ahead in Financial Services

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 Over the past month, three themes have emerged from your feedback about your coronavirus response. We've summarised these as 1) Connection and the “network effect”, 2) Reputation risk ex-C19, and 3) From a work "place" to a space. We see leaders wise to these three themes using them in their own "what's next" planning.

1. Market feedback

Intelligence about the impact of COVID-19 on specific financial services sectors, not published by media.

A. Connection, the network incumbency effect and what suffers: culture & newness

One thing that came up in recent conversations (more with board members and senior folk I've not contact for a while, rather than clients) was the hit to confidence, and an increasing sense of isolation, once Victoria's second wave restrictions came into play. Many folk didn’t expect this sucker punch and are finding it harder to optimistically manage. One contact, a resilient and stoic experienced leader, said “I'm finding this this one really tough.” We've heard that a lot in direct relation to the Victorian situation.

Many of you are now aware of missing the best part of a year of day-to-day connections, episodic conference or event attendance and BAU coffees, lunches, and street corner conversations. These are moments that, as it turns out now bring us a sense of meaning, along with social engagement and market intelligence.

Earlier on in the pandemic, a contact pointed out that people were typically relying on their “inner ring” or close network for input into decisions and problems. But leaning on those closest risks only hearing the same things; missing out on the corridor conversations, the unplanned discussions and other informal interactions.

Having wider professional connections – the “middle and outer rings” – brings us market information, fresh thinking and the ability to join important dots. And it keeps many of us well and feeling good about who we are, how we’re valued and where we sit in the ecosystem of our industry or a much bigger universe.

Events teams at the industry associations have found a way to keep industry conferences running, albeit in a digital format, and that’s working well for the plenaries and breakout sessions. What they haven’t been able to replicate quite as well yet is the "on the floor" discussions, the coffee break random chats or the social media feed.

B. Reputation risk: independent of COVID19

CEOs, directors, and those in the AMP diaspora we speak with are telling us a  few things in response to the unfolding news in recent weeks. Leaving the underlying issues and how they were managed aside (and noting it's not as easy to handle these things as we spectators might think) there are some conclusions to be drawn for reputation risk.  These include: 

  • The G in ESG stands for gender, as well as governance. While that sounds self-evident, it's now indisputable that standards have lifted for boards, leaders and the media who report on them. Castigating women in ways men are not, or downplaying female voices is now more visible and less acceptable to all 
  • Institutional investors can be expected, now, to both drive change in a single situation, and to do so publicly to send a clear message to others in the market - using media as a tool to create change, as regulators have for some time. Like it or not, this is a feature of a new deal with stakeholders. Reputation risk thinking, and investor relationship maps might well be redrawn as a result 
  • Is this the watershed moment for Australia’s A-grade company director club, the pipeline to that club and leadership teams who work with them? Male leaders we've spoken to are, for once, more frustrated than their female peers about this unfolding event. They feel it reflects badly on those of them who've genuinely aimed to reform the businesses they lead, to lead both men and women well and fairly, to ensure better representation of women on boards and in senior roles. They want positive change. 

Time will tell what all this translates to in terms of permanent change in our thinking about ESG, reputation risk and acceptable conduct towards female leaders by their colleagues, the media and the boards' role.

C. Work “space” not “place”

Increasingly you're thinking “workspace, not workplace”. A trend that's perhaps accelerated with C19, employers are thinking about the design of work space as more than "place": where facilities, location, technology and process create a work-by-design-environment.  
A report from Puzzle Partners articulates this and gives guidance based on a recent survey and their own observations of space and workplace trends. 

So what should we expect? For many, workplaces will become “touchdown locations”; hubs for informal and formal collaboration and access to information – meaning there may be less dependence on the physical office, and a more durable work-from-home future. The report found: 

  1. The increase in employees who WFH during COVID has been nearly three-fold, rising from 29 per cent to 84 per cent 
  2. 61 per cent of respondents feel more productive working from home 
  3. 60 per cent of respondents indicated a move toward more flexibility in the workplace in the next three years 
  4. Understanding the WFH experience is a priority for 50 per cent of respondents 
  5. Current workstyle trends and challenges are cues for optimisation of the office for an agile workforce... enter the 'flexibility continuum'

2. Management responses

This section outlines how CEOs and their leadership teams are responding

A. The new normal workspace

The flexibility continuum is a term describing a range of different workplace types, based on what type of work you do and, importantly, what employees want. Asking your people what they want, and redesigning your space based on their feedback makes a lot of sense.

Some of the options available include:

  • Cellular – many offices
  • Open plan – allocated workstations, some offices, meeting rooms, breakout spaces
  • Hot desking – unassigned workstations, bookable meeting rooms, limited settings
  • Activity based working – unassigned, individual & collaborative settings to suit styles, teams are based in hubs or “neighbourhoods”, tech enabled for movement between spaces
  • Agile working – employees work when, where and how they choose in and out of the office, tech is used to connect and collaborate remotely
  • Co-working spaces – shared spaces with other organisations
  • Your space – unprecedented flexibility, emergence of satellite co-working spaces, use of “touchdown facilities”, harness tech for collaboration
B. Focus on whistleblowing,  ESG and activist investor activity

Increased willingness to call out issues, whether in your own work, or that of your counterparties is a trend, and speaks to an overall increase in activist behaviour by NGOs, consumers, employees and investors.

This long term trend has just delivered a most unusual episode in Australian corporate history and sent reverberations through corporate Australia.

This is despite COVID19 providing daily top-of-bulletin news. For those who thought ESG would fade into the backdrop with the rise of the pandemic as an existential threat, the opposite appears true.

When lives literally hang in the balance, the stakes are higher.

Better corporate behaviour, and greater transparency, are now seen by many of you as essential, and here to stay.

You're telling us you see reputation risk and conduct as key, echoing the headline, and parting warning, from the last AGM address by ANZ's outgoing chairman David Gonski.

3. CEO guidance regarding coronavirus responses

This section provides our guidance on management and communication responses

A. Get much more serious about a permanent and more virtual future

Change your internal communication and culture building to prepare for a virtual future. A tweak, pivot or adjustment to your previous workspace is not going to deliver the connection you need when your future is likely to be across multiple spaces. Think about how to create and keep culture, and recreate the work relationships you had pre-COVID but in different forms.

Look for ways to use tools and technology to help your employees productively connect and collaborate, both in person and remotely. In the office, this might mean both different set up and different communication methods and processes. Conversely, for home workspace you should look at how to satisfy the need for both formal and informal face-to-face interaction.

B. Run the ESG and reputation risk lens over your current workforce

This can be as simple as "doing the right thing" (and knowing what that is) or extend to an issues register across topics such as conduct, gender, diversity, your environmental footprint, and your  governance. Or in a more thorough approach, have both systematic and systemic ESG and reputation risk processes and frame works in your organisation. 

C. Rethink your story because your stakeholders' context for communication has shifted

COVID19 may be temporary but what it's delivered in terms of change probably isn't. Chances are your audience and your stakeholders are rethinking a lot of things, including how they see you. Our advice is to rethink your corporate narrative. Maybe it only needs a tweak for FY2021. Or maybe it's a matter of a complete rethink. Either way, don't sleepwalk into a gap between what you're saying and doing, and what your stakeholders expect from you.

4. Resources

  • Work space not place, and the flexibility continuum

Puzzle Partners' 'flexibility continuum' describes the residual impact of our COVID19 remote working experience, and together with the existing trends in workplace evolution, is part of their five under five report. We're sharing it because it answers questions many of your are asking about workplaces.

5. Appendix: How to help us help you

This briefing is collective intelligence gathered, anonymised and shared with you by my firm for the greater good. We’ve taken the view, based on client feedback, that the collective benefit to you all takes precedence over normal competitive pressures at a time like this. 

This is an excerpt from one of our client COVID-19 CEO response briefings. For more COVID-19 response resources and guidance, visit our COVID-19 Response page

If you’d like to discuss adjusting your communication strategy for the current times, please call us or fill out our contact form here.

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