June 13, 2013

Earlier this year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made waves by announcing that her employees could no longer telecommute. The Telework Research Network estimates that over 3.15 million people consider home to be their primary place of work.

Working remotely is extremely popular in financial services. According to Gartner, banking and financial services is the second largest sector, after business services, for telecommuting (financial services is tied with retailing/wholesaling in the No. 2 spot). Many banks have had longstanding telecommuting programs. Bank of America started its flexible work program in 2005. State Street has allowed some of its workers to telecommute for a number of years.

Not only are there benefits for employees, but the institutions see benefits as well. Banks and their workers agree that institutions that allow remote work have higher productivity and employee satisfaction. Also a financial firm can save on real estate, power, cooling and heating for each employee who works at home. Granted, banks must provide the technology and systems connectivity for remote workers, but most firms already have that infrastructure in place. Employees benefit from lower commuting costs, more time to actually do work (no time spent commuting), increased productivity and better work-life balance.

But that's not to say that all financial institutions whole-heartedly embrace employees working remotely full time. In fact, many Wall Street firms still place a lot of emphasis on having staff members put in a full day's work at the office. As part of a growing emphasis on flexible arrangements, however, they're increasingly allowing employees to work from home a couple of days a month so that they can attend their children's soccer games, let the plumber in or attend to other personal tasks.

For Steve Rubinow, CIO of FXall, who echoes the sentiments of many technology leaders in the financial services industry, nothing is ever likely to take the place of person-to-person interaction in the same location.

"That means all the richness of communication that goes along with it: facial expression, body language, tone and voice that doesn't come across in an email and serendipitous interaction that comes when you meet in a hallway, overhear a conversation and might join in," he says. "Those are the kinds of things that are hard to orchestrate in telecommuting."

The benefits of having a physical presence in the workplace, however, need to be balanced with employee needs. Rubinow confirms that it's important to offer employees flexible working arrangements when needed because there are some people who simply can't be in the workplace every day. "In that case, we don't say, 'Gee, you're really talented, but if you can't be in the office every day we don't want you.' We value our employees and want to retain the best talent."

Likewise, TradeMonster CTO Sanjib Sahoo says he's not a strong supporter of remote working, as he, too, believes that sharing a physical space with co-workers is essential for collaborative work. "If you're working from home, you feel a bit cut off from what's happening in the office," he says. This situation is particularly true in the dynamic financial services industry where speed is often necessary, Sahoo says.

Still, he agrees that it is important to be able to offer employees some flexibility. "If you have a need or an issue, I would rather have you work remotely than take [the day] off," he says.