Glum bank staff will need more than a pep-talk

Nomura enjoyed a bumper quarter but profits were helped by big staff cuts in Europe

At Nomura’s London office, a town hall aiming to put a “bigger spring in people’s steps” and take happiness to “another level” took place immediately after it posted a strong set of results in its wholesale division on October 27 (six months after it cut hundreds of equities staff in Europe), a person close to the bank told FN on the day.

Internal culture was also the order of the day at a Deutsche Bank town hall hosted by its investment banking boss Jeff Urwin around the same time (and not long after its shares hit their lowest level in decades), a second person said.

Nobody can blame bank bosses for trying to exploit such opportunities. Any good chief executive will look for reasons to celebrate success or improve the mood of his or her business, particularly in the current climate.

But on its own a perky pep-talk will do little to lift the gloom that has pervaded the industry in recent years. Disenchanted staff, tired of seeing colleagues laid off, or their once-sizable bonus shrivel, are unlikely to leave a town hall with a spring in their step just because of a speech about one good quarter.

Likewise, while a collective pat on the back is always appreciated, a bowl of free nachos and a talk on teamwork by a rugby player, as seen at JP Morgan during its recent employee appreciation week, or a two-minute rhyme on why it’s great to be a banker, as spotted on HSBC’s YouTube page recently, is unlikely to cheer people up.

The same goes for many attempts to woo bored millennials, with analysts telling FN back in June that recent initiatives – such as Credit Suisse’s “Friday nights off rule” or UBS’s “take-two” scheme in which staff can take a couple of hours off during their week – did little to address the real issues that made banking a toxic environment for them. One person compared such schemes to being starving on a flight and only being given a bag of peanuts – the airline can tell itself its looked after everyone, but the passengers are still hungry.

If bank bosses really care about boosting morale, they could do worse than beginning to look beyond their own institutions.

Perhaps what is needed is some imagination, and looking to other industries for inspiration might help. Many advertising agencies, for example, give staff a chunk of money to spend on a creative course outside of work. In-house lawyers or those on secondment to clients’ companies are often expected to get their hands dirty and work on the shop floor for a bit.

One law firm offers its lawyers the chance to work from anywhere they like for a fortnight a year, be it an isolated beach cafe or a hostel in the mountains, while various technology companies have facilities to play games and sport in the office or completely change job descriptions when staff get bored.

Critics will point out that these things do little to help a bank’s profitability at a time when profits are already thin.

But they could have a noticeable difference on retention rates. And while they might be harder to pull off than an animated town hall or a weekend off rule, they could have a much better effect on morale over the long term.

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