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Identity Crisis

When banks adopt environments more akin to technology companies, is this a culture shift? Image © Chad Ziemendorf

We’re seeing an interesting trend among our banking and financial services clients: many think of themselves as tech companies and are increasingly requesting creative and innovate office space reflecting this sense of identity. They are swapping more traditional offices for open-plan workspaces that are more commonly associated with Silicon Valley in order to foster more interaction and collaboration among staff members. Although some banks do have aspects of their businesses that are actually “tech” companies, the desire of banks to do just this raises interesting questions about workspaces and the need to align a company’s workspace and culture.

So what’s behind the push? For starters, competition for talent. The financial industry not only competes within the sector for the most talented young workers, but increasingly against the tech and media worlds as well. The promise of a high paying job and a chance to earn a corner office is no longer enough to lure top college graduates. Millennials don’t necessarily value traditional status symbols like private offices as much as previous generations did, and prefer more informal work environments with flexible hours and even unassigned seats—all hallmarks of the tech world.

Another appeal of open office environments is that they allow the free flow of information. This fosters new ideas that make tech companies flourish. But unlike tech companies, finance is a heavily regulated industry. Compliance requirements, for example, may at times be at odds with an open plan environment. Banks separate certain individuals and departments out of necessity, and that may require partitioning and private offices. Introducing open, collaborative environments to an industry built upon tradition and the need for privacy and safeguards is a tricky proposition.

Banks also need to project stability, longevity and a solid foundation. After all, a bank attracts clients by conveying a sense of security and constancy. This isn’t necessarily a hallmark of the sometimes unpredictable tech world, where start-ups, acquisitions and mergers are defining traits of the landscape. And unlike many tech companies, banks must have places within their offices where they can bring corporate clients.

There is a difference between the desire to retool their workspaces and the traditions of their industry that has brought banks to something of a crossroads. They want to profoundly shift their workplaces to be like the tech sector, but must consider how such changes will affect everyday functionality.

At the same time, there is a reverse trend budding amongst technology companies. As these companies evolve from start-ups to emerging and maturing business, they are looking for their workspaces to evoke that. Although their essential culture isn’t changing, there is a desire to have a work environment that speaks to the more grown up nature of the company. What we are seeing amongst clients like Yahoo and Etsy, is a desire to better organize components of their workspace as well as a more sophisticated aesthetic. These ambitions are completely aligned with their culture and business objectives.

Back to what I mentioned earlier, some banks actually do have lines of businesses that are more categorically technology companies. These groups tend to be systems, operations and innovation groups – you can imagine the teams working on new consumer banking applications or transaction platforms. We are seeing new opportunities with traditional banking institutions like Capital One, Citi and Chase, and the user groups are driving all of the decisions. More often than not, they want teams that have experience with technology companies rather than banking as they seek to “change the world.”

As we help clients understand how to overhaul their workspaces, an understanding of the needs of different industries and how they can learn from one another will help us find the best solutions. How the workspace supports everyday work is just as important as how it looks and feels. It requires a precise approach that is fine-tuned to each institution’s current and future needs. In our experience, the best workspaces function as physical embodiments of overall company culture.

Rocco Giannetti is a Principal in Gensler’s New York office and a Fimwide Leader of Gensler’s Work Sector practice areas. In addition to the clients mentioned, Rocco’s projects have included workplace interiors for The New York Times and the Bank of America Tower as well as Condé Nast’s relocation to 1 World Trade Center. Contact him at rocco_giannetti@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (2)

Banking in search of their future workplace. It is not one size fits all!
01.27.2015 | Unregistered CommenterRick Steinmann
This is wrong on so many levels. I work in advertising, usually a competitive hiring market to say the least. I've had open positions that I could not fill because we work in an open office space now. I offered someone a $30K bump and higher title, and she point blank said "at the end of the day, I cannot work in that environment." The talent pool is considerably diminished because my company decided to save money and cram as many workers into a smaller footprint.

Open offices do not foster collaboration or a free flow of information. They do the exact opposite. Any discussion that needs to last longer than 1 minute requires the participants to find somewhere to discuss. Usually a hallway, and then you are whispering and looking around pensively. You know what that does? Creates chaos, paranoia, and envy.

Laughter, once a a key component to the creative process, is immediately shushed because no one can concentrate. Everyone is miserable and looking over one another's shoulders. Bosses are viewed with contempt because they are constantly "checking up" on the workers. Study after study has been done that proves the concept of open office space actually decreases productivity. See here: http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/the-open-office-trap

Then there's this statement: "Millennials don’t necessarily value traditional status symbols like private offices as much as previous generations did..." ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Do you have a source for this ridiculous comment?

Everyone aspires to a corner office.

It is why even in "open office" plans, most EVPs still get one. Flattening the hierarchy breeds contempt, resentment, and poor management. Why do I report to a guy who sits across from me and works less than me? Why should I listen to someone else's ideas when I like mine better? In a flat org, the chaos reigns and it becomes extremely political. Senior level people, who ned distance from their reports, are shunned and excluded.

Bravo to you for publishing this article, which no doubt will be used by a bean counter to justify major redos of more offices. Then in 10 years, when we go back to a move civilized workspace, you can get paid to do it all again!
01.30.2015 | Unregistered CommenterChuck D

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