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How Technology Has Changed Workplace Design in the Financial Services Sector, Part 1

Every iteration of technology changes how people work. Image © Gensler

Recently, while discussing some tweaks to the layout of his own office, I was asked by an investment industry leader, “What’s changed in office designs?”

As a leader of workplace design for Financial Service Firms at Gensler, it’s something I think about every day. It’s also a multi-layered issue that can be difficult to distill into boilerplate ready responses. Ironically, this straightforward, off-the-cuff question brought a sudden rush of focus to the complex and always evolving factors currently inciting changes in workplace design practices.

And boy has the workplace changed. If I’d been asked that question three years ago, the response would have been “not much.” Between 2012 and 2013, design firms conducted a lot of analysis and poured over potential modifications to the status quo. But few of the resulting ideas were implemented at financial services firms. While other industries were embracing workplace openness and transparency, untethering employees from their desks and using new and robust technologies to enable mobility, the financial services industry stayed pat. The industry worried that their specific practices would not translate to newer work modes. There was too much confidentiality at stake to risk openness and transparency. Concerns about data security, restricted mobility, and technology revolved around hardware concerns, the space such hardware required, and energy required to cool and power it.

Now it’s a whole other world. So what changed? And what allowed that change to happen? The answer: It’s all about tech. I know that’s something we’ve all heard before; received wisdom now holds that “nirvana is just an app away.” Interestingly the hardware concerns that inhibited the introduction of new technologies into finance services as recently as three years ago have faded into the background. The rise of cloud computing and thin desktops have replaced the bulky machinery of the past and provided an opening for new technology to make an impact.

Current conversations tend to focus on how developments in technology are affecting the industry in three profound and fundamental ways: how the industry records transactions with the rise of blockchains; how normal banking activities have changed now that the fundamentals (deposits, withdrawals, and payments) are being conducted online; and how the industry can enable mobile work without compromising confidentiality.

The financial services tech department is no longer just the help desk and the IT guy. Financial services firms have begun hiring software developers in large numbers and tasking these developers with creating proprietary software that can help firms conduct business. Today, software development is the driving force in the financial services industry, and financial services firms are competing with Google and every other tech driven startup for programming talent.

The financial services industry is in a great position to learn from the many other industries that successfully adopted technology driven work modes in the late 2000s. These adoptions continue to be reflected in the changing mores of workplace design. Tech driven workplaces use openness to foster communication. They rely on transparency to engender confidence. Better hardware protects confidentiality. Amenity spaces convey a sense of caring and well-being. Mobility increases worker satisfaction, which in turn increases productivity. Data security is all about closing the backdoors as opposed to tethering people to individual desks. These are some of the significant ways workplace design has changed in the past three years. And these changes are coming to the financial services industry.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be conducting interviews with chief technology officers of several financial services firms, asking them how the design of their workplaces has changed to augment the industry’s increased focus on software development. Those interviews will appear here, so stay tuned!

Belinda moved to New York after graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Curtin University in Perth, Australia and went on to receive a Master of Architecture degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She is regional leader for Gensler’s NE Region financial services practice area, with a focus on the private investment sector. She continues to work with many long-term clients including The Carlyle Group, JC Flowers & Company, Fiduciary Trust, and Franklin Templeton. Her leadership within the Financial Services sector is reinforced by a broad experience across many industries and project types ranging from building adaptive re-use to high-end retail. She brings to each project a deep understanding of workplace modes and an extensive knowledge of the project process. Contact her at belinda_watts@gensler.com.

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