The World at a Crossroads
Ralph Hamers is chief executive of UBS
Stefan Wermuth—Bloomberg/Getty Images
By Ralph Hamers, CEO, UBS
August 11, 2021 9:41 PM EDT

Hybrid or flexible working has been happening for years across many sectors. That said, prior to 2020, a large financial institution going majority hybrid seemed as unlikely as having to show a vaccination card to fly within Europe. Sometimes though, change comes quickly and all at once.

In addition to being highly regulated, financial institutions have historically had a reputation for being slow or even resistant to change. But that simply wasn’t an option in the last year. Overnight, restrictions forced every financial firm to transition to a drastically different way of working, which they probably would never have done voluntarily. And this was a necessary wake-up call for the industry.

At UBS, our employees experienced new ways of working during the pandemic. For more than a year, many largely worked from home. This was possible thanks to the historic investment we’ve made in technology as well as years of developing remote leadership skills and a supportive company culture. We stayed very close to our clients and supported them in navigating this difficult environment, with virtual client meetings increasing from 30% to 80%. We welcomed new colleagues and clients, and drove innovation across the business. We arranged virtual trainings for early-stage founders, launched an app that provides a seamless interaction for our wealth management clients and built strategic partnerships globally. We progressed key strategic initiatives, including a 154% increase in impact investing and sustainability-focused invested assets. In short, the business adapted rapidly and grew in tandem with change.

A few unexpected things also happened: i) internal surveys revealed that many employees were just as, if not more, productive while working from home (also in line with the findings of other financial institutions—annualized growth in output per hour has risen since the crisis began); ii) employees liked the flexibility that a hybrid model offered, and iii) mindsets about digital were transformed as normal life was disrupted. Clients were demanding more seamless digital service and, because employees were facing similar needs in their own working environments, they started to think even more about how to improve client experience.

For financial institutions like UBS, with a large global footprint operating in a highly regulated environment, there will never be a one-size-fits-all approach. There also won’t be a static one.

To succeed, we need to operate with agility and care. Our firm-wide analysis, taking into consideration factors like regulation, risk, and productivity, found that two thirds of employees can work from home highly effectively. We believe a hybrid approach will allow our people to have a better work/life balance, with the approach also making us a more attractive employer, appealing to a more diverse pool of applicants, such as working parents and those in continuing education. We also believe it will increase employee productivity and, as a result, improve the quality of our service to clients. Flexible working, by nature of its emphasis on technology and virtual collaboration, encourages an innovative mindset across our firm – which is a big part of our strategy.

The impact of in-person interactions, however, should not be underestimated and will remain an important component of our relationships, both internally and with our clients. They help build long-term client relationships and trust. They support employee connectivity, positive team dynamics and agile working. But digital interactions offer different benefits—encouraging more innovative thinking, giving clients and employees more flexibility. We can give our clients a choice on how they interact with us while offering first-class, top-quality advice no matter whether our advisors are sitting at home or in the office. Hybrid working is the best of both worlds.

Some view the “new normal” as a trade-off—something that has been forced upon us and requires sacrifice. But we must acknowledge that not every element is truly new or a trade-off. Flexible working, expectations of digital services, awareness of environmental and social impact—all of these had been growing for a long time before the pandemic. And they’re unlikely to regress, nor should we hope them to.

It’s clear that a new opportunity exists. Organizations that proved their ability to adapt quickly and positively now have space to set the tone for their industries going forward. And I for one am ready for the financial world to be just as innovative as the clients we represent.

Ralph Hamers is chief executive of UBS

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