Is WFH here to stay in pensions admin?

Pardon the Interruption

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Pensions administrators have successfully performed key pension functions remotely during the pandemic. But as project work ramps up and a reopening of the country on 21 June has not been ruled out, will a return to the office become inevitable – or will the fight for talent make remote working a fixture of the admin world? 
 
As the UK went into lockdown in March, the Pensions Regulator followed up with guidance for pension schemes that required them to continue to perform only the most crucial functions, acknowledging that the pandemic could take its toll on workers and systems.  
 
Government guidance on whether or not office workers should work from home is currently somewhat ambiguous, stating that “offices and contact centres can open under all steps, if they’re COVID-secure", while at the same time “office workers should continue to work from home where they can”.  
 

‘Admin is very team-based' 

 
Many employers are not contemplating a return to the office before the government guidance moves to full ‘unlocking’, a measure planned for 21 June but which could now be derailed by the spread of the so-called Indian variant of the virus. 
 
If and when it happens, would the total reopening mean that pension administrators return to the office? Some feel this is inevitable, saying teamwork is in the nature of the work. 
 
“I would question the long-term future of working remotely in administration,” said Michael Clark, managing director of professional trustee firm CBC Pension Services. "Admin is a lot of chat, it’s very team-based,” he believes. 
 
Especially when running projects, including the equalisation of guaranteed minimum pensions that many schemes are currently grappling with, this can be helpful, finds Clark, as “you do tend to learn a lot from your colleagues”. 
 
Administrators are not currently forcing anyone back into the office, and Clark said that from an employer’s perspective, doing so “would be a very unwise decision because there is competition for staff, they’d vote with their feet”. 
 

Need for in-person training versus fight for talent: What will prevail? 

 
This is recognised by administrators, but the new normal works the other way around as well, with employers finding new recruits further afield thanks to technology. 
 
Daniel Taylor, director at third-party administrator Trafalgar House, said the firm was “embracing remote-working practices because of the opportunities it brings in expanding the scope of our talent pool”.  
 
The company has recently recruited people in Scotland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, he said, “hires we would have never targeted before because of concerns about onboarding, training and staff management in a remote-working environment”. Since the first lockdown, more than 60 staff joined on a remote-working basis. “The signs are the process has worked well, with high levels of staff satisfaction and productivity,” said Taylor. 
 
All of the firm's teams have said that they want to benefit from the flexibility that remote-working brings, but with some element of in-person working to help support training and team development, he added, meaning that “most of our people are looking to spend a couple of days a week in the office, but with the timing and activities they perform in-person being much more focussed on collaboration and training”. 
 
The company is currently looking to bring most of its teams back to in-person working from June, and Taylor argued that “some things naturally work better when people are in the office”, such as training, coaching, mentoring and project-based tasks.  
 
“But, the core of the administration service can work just as well on a remote basis. As long as systems and managers are equipped to work remotely then productivity and quality can be maintained," said. 
 

'Employers that are too rigid may unsettle colleagues'

 
The direction seems to be more clear-cut for Willis Towers Watson. Kevin Howard, head of operations for pension administration business, said that as government guidelines allow, the firm will “ramp up” the return to the office over the summer months. 
 
“Those who have been in the office have commented on how they have enjoyed interacting in a safe environment face to face" with their colleagues, he said, adding: "We believe that human interactions are important in building connections and teamwork and a physical location is an important enabler”. 
 
However, he admitted that different employees will have different preferences about where they work, and “any administrator which is too rigid may unwittingly unsettle their colleagues”. 
 
Employers should take the best of the last 14 months, overlay this with what worked well before the pandemic, and adopt an approach that accommodates the needs of members, employees and business alike, he argued. 
 
Howard agreed that remote working has opened up the possibility of hiring on a country-wide basis, thus increasing the availability of talent, while also offering flexibility for job returners. 
 
However, he stressed the needs of new joiners. “Care needs to be taken though for those new to the industry as there is no substitute for physically present coaching and support especially for those early in their careers,” he said. 
 

No big rush back to the office 

 
There appears to be growing appetite among administrators to have more people back in the office, but there is still also some hesitation. 
“We are seeing a little more talk about people coming back to the office, but not that much yet. We are really not expecting there to be a big rush back to the office in the short term,” said Ian McQuade, a director at governance consultants Muse Advisory. 
 
"There are clearly some people who are very keen to work from home and there is a feeling that if firms don’t offer this flexibility, there is a risk that they will lose the staff. This is mainly because some firms are looking to capitalise on this by recruiting experienced administrators on home-based contracts,” he explained. 
 
McQuade agreed that remote working might work well for experienced administrators but was perhaps less helpful for new recruits to the industry.  
 
“For people who ‘grew up’ in administration, one of the benefits of being office-based was the ability to turn around to someone more experienced and ask a quick question,” he said, believing that this “can never be fully replicated”. For McQuade, “it will be a surprise if all administration ended up being done remotely”. 
 

Will administrators adopt a hybrid model of home and on-site working?