Is Covid-19 a Game Changer for Diversity in Asia’s Financial Sector?

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By Mark Austen, CEO, ASIFMA

As anyone who works in financial services in Asia today knows, there is very little bandwidth to focus on anything that is not Covid-19 related.  Investors are doing their best to hedge their risks and blunt their downside; regulators are trying to keep the markets open and resilient; central banks are trying to stimulate credit; and governments are working to spur on the economy or at least keep capacity going as much as possible for as long as possible so that when this virus passes – and one day it will – there is enough productivity left in the system to enact a recovery.  And, throughout it all, banks are trying to intermediate the chaos while staying afloat.  The post-2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) measures to make the system safer and sounder are certainly being put to the test -- and will be for some time longer.

Through all of this, a massive unparalleled -- and unplanned -- social experiment is being undertaken.  Lots has been written on social distancing, the challenges of doing it and the likelihood of being able to sustain it.  To mask or not to mask.  The constant refrain to wash one’s hands.  And above all, to stay home.  That last one is launching what can only be seen as a cultural revolution of the financial services sector globally, but particularly in Asia which has traditionally lagged behind other regions on working from home (WFH).  Faced with the greatest challenge posed to financial markets perhaps since the Great Depression, the majority of the people responsible for making the momentous decisions, providing the necessary input to those decisions, and even those scheduling the calls to make these decisions, are doing it all from the comfort (or not so comfort) of their own home.  

This was pretty much unheard of before now – and almost unthinkable for Asia.  When one thinks of crisis decision making, one thinks of people being sequestered in dark meeting rooms for hours on end with little or no contact with the outside world until a decision can be made and announced to the world.  Now we have people connected via telephone or video conferencing systems, sometimes with babies crying or dogs barking in the background -- or unfortunately even worse as people carry on with daily life and forget to mute themselves and/or turn off their cameras.  But despite this all, it’s actually working.  Things are getting done and, in many cases, as efficiently -- if not more efficiently -- than before.  There is a seismic cultural shift going on as a result, proving to us that much of what we do can really be done via the joys of technology from home or remotely.

At ASIFMA, we have been spending a great deal of time making sure that regulations around the region are relaxed in order to make this possible.  Regulators are generally accommodating as they understand  that to keep markets open and operating resiliently, they need to allow people to do things remotely that they would have never dreamed of in normal circumstances.  Certainly, there are challenges such as recording your conversations or record keeping, but alternatives are being found or technology is filling the gaps.  But all of this is being done to fight a global crisis - and as if it will only be temporary.

This then begs the question: When normal returns, does normal still need to be working five days a week from the office?  And do we really need to spend every day in hour-long commutes – at least in cities like Tokyo and Sydney - which is invariably lost productivity? Do we really need to be travelling all over the globe to meet clients when Facetime or Skype can do the job just as well?  Does it really matter whether someone pops out for a run for 30 minutes at 11am if they are getting all their tasks done which are now being tracked in a project management tool anyway?

While some may argue these flexibilities are just nice-to-haves and think things will go back to the “old ways” when a vaccine is found, there is a compelling case to be made that once the dust settles, these temporary relaxations made in crisis should be made permanent.  Not only will less travel be good for the environment, more flexible work and travel arrangements will encourage greater participation in the workforce for parents with childcare responsibilities, those caring for family members, and those with disabilities who have difficulty travelling into the office.  Lack of diversity in the financial sector in Asia has long been an issue the industry has been grappling with and having permanent, industry-wide flexible working arrangements could drastically increase the appeal of working in finance for those with families and other requirements, thereby broadening the available talent pool.

Whether sitting in the office or at home, actual trading and client interaction via platforms or telephone calls – and the supervision thereof – looks almost identical due to the use of technology. However, finance – especially in Asia - is an exception across industries with its traditional inflexibility on WFH. This means attracting diverse talent is more challenging and it is not like pre-GFC days where you could simply outbid everyone.  Firms want to have the cream of the crop working for and running our financial institutions in Asia. This crisis has shown us that working from home and other remote locations can be as effective as physically being at the core site while dealing with record volumes, huge volatility and unprecedented disruption.

If we saved the world from home, why can’t we work from there at least some of the time after we have proven it can be done?  It doesn’t have to be the default, but it should definitely become a standard option to all those working in the industry and those who regulate it.  Through this, we should become a much more diverse group.  And that diverse group will ultimately be reflected in the boardrooms and senior management, improving decision making and the bottom line.  This is something Asian financial services could certainly use, especially after this crisis.  WFH has been a revelation for many people, especially those with families.  Let’s keep it that way.

ASIFMA is an independent, regional trade association with over 130 member firms comprising a diverse range of leading financial institutions from both the buy and sell side.  Its mission is to promote the development of liquid, deep and broad capital markets in Asia, which is fundamental to the region’s economic growth.