Return to Office Trailblazers On What's Working Now in Top Financial Workspaces

Dramatic shifts in labor demographics, automation, IoT and workforce mobility are rapidly transforming life – and work – as we know it. These trends are prompting organizations across all industries to innovate and evolve. To meet the moment and attract top talent, many occupiers are rethinking their current work policies, technology, and office environments – and the financial industry is no exception.

Cresa workplace executives, Tricia Trester and Jenny West, spoke at the WorkTech Financial NYC Conference, joining leaders from the globe’s most trusted financial brands* to share what’s working now. The financial industry was one of the first to announce its return to office (RTO) plans, and conference attendees were eager to hear about the trailblazers’ progress and results. Discussions circled future of work trends that inspire place-based innovation and offer valuable insights to occupiers of all industries.

What Did We Learn from the Financial Industry’s Return to Office Approach?

1. Empathy-Led Strategy & An Inclusive Policy Approach

While some RTO announcements in the financial sector were initially mandated, may financial leaders at the conference agreed: top-down mandates were not successful. In response, many organizations have taken an employee-centric perspective, shifting from a mandate to a “magnet” approach.

The world’s leading sociologists have cited the world to be kinder since the pandemic. Is it possible that real estate and workplace leaders have followed suit in this empathetic trend? We think so.

Financial leaders are engaging employees more than ever, seeking their continued input on return to office policies and hybrid work models as they evolve. While empathy is on the rise, we suspect the globe’s top financial brands are also acutely aware of how their work policies are viewed by employees in the fiercely competitive talent war.

2. Variety is Key

While a one-size policy for all employees was the norm, financial firms know variety is key. Some roles work well remotely, while others require tight interplay with others in a physical, collaborative workstyle.

Smart financial firms are exploring role-based workstyle dependencies and making interesting observations. They discovered actuaries were more productive and happier at home, while traders or insurance brokers were most effective in a physical office where they had access to tech and spontaneous dialogue with colleagues.

And while we heard it loud from financial leaders that their people have grown accustomed to flexibility (and expect it), they still value the opportunities presented by in-person teamwork.

3. Work That’s Flexible, Not a Free-For-All

WorkTech Conference attendees wanted to make one thing clear: flexible work doesn’t equate to a free-for-all. They realize that in office teamwork promotes a sense of belonging, but everyone appreciates flexible work. Many firms are “encouraging” employees to work in office a certain number of days per week but are deferring to managers to determine which days their team will be in office. The importance of synchronicity – arriving to the office together with a “pack mentality” – seems to be a win-win scenario.

“There is a wide spectrum of opportunity between the two extremes: fully remote work vs. a ‘work from work’ mandate,” says Jenny West, national leader of Workplace & Project Management at Cresa. “Financial leaders are finding success with empowering team leaders to establish a synchronous pattern to maximize in-person social capital while allowing individual flexibility their workforce expects.”

4. Data-Driven Decision-Making

The rise of vacant offices prompted many conference attendees to wonder if financial portfolios were shrinking, relocating, or being revised to meet the evolving needs and preferences of employees.

While all agreed flexible work was here to stay, not all financial leaders plan to reduce their portfolio footprint. While offices are not back to pre-pandemic utilization levels, some fear cutting space now to serve current employee utilization patterns is an over-correction, as they speculate a potential recall on mobility freedoms from skeptical executives in the future. Reduction is not the only answer, with one HR professional wondering, “Can we really have twice the experience in half the space?”

Financial leaders are investing in more tech to inform their long-term workplace strategies. Tools such as anonymized utilization sensors, Digital Twins, noise and oxygen monitors, smart wayfinding, employee experience apps, space reservation systems and real-time IoT connected dashboards are now common data sources to inform the future of smart workplaces.

These tools provide data that enables real estate leaders make data-driven decisions as they optimize their portfolio. Yet, “data overwhelm" was a common experience among those at the conference.

“With data coming from fractured sources, it's challenging to make sense of it all,” said a senior portfolio manager.

Learn how Cresa helps reduce data overwhelm and empowers occupiers with actionable intelligence.

5. Space: It’s About Quality, Not Quantity

While the square footage required for each organization will vary, many occupiers are focused on the quality of their space to promote a positive in-office experience worthy of the commute.

We heard many financial organizations share the targeted changes to their physical environment in response to the new hybrid pressure and expectations for a more social office experience. This is a subtle yet important observation illuminating how organizations are spending money. Will we see many smaller intervention-based projects deluge the real estate and design sector? We think so.

Tech-enabled meeting rooms were cited as the space most in need of immediate investment. The frequency of remote participants with cameras-on norms have disrupted the status quo room design. We see how common problems with participant’s visibility and acoustic quality can negatively impact the functionality and experience of collaboration.

So how are financial workplaces keeping up with the always-on hybrid meeting expectations? Meeting rooms are being upgraded with 360-degree cameras, hybrid whiteboards, monitors and microphones and more to redefine the hybrid collaborative experience.

Many employees are returning to the office in pursuit of social restoration and collaborative needs. This places more emphasis on the office’s ability to foster connection, collaboration and support ideation. Third places could be considered both inspiration and competition – as many workers seek social settings found in coffee shops, hotel lobbies and neighborhood amenities (rather than their own offices for these activities). Taking cues from these settings, financial organizations are spending more money than before the pandemic on food, experience, and amenities.

Taking a page out of the hospitality-rich, third-spaces playbook, the financial workplace is trending more casual, equitable and social to embolden culture and belongingness.

Formal spaces such as reception zones are being replaced with buzzy, café style hubs that set a collaborative, choice-based tone from the first impression. There is a desire for less hierarchy of assigned spaces. Fewer private offices and more shared assets encourage users to reserve spaces which best suit their work tasks in a variety of spaces.


While the great return to office experiment continues to evolve, macro trends are emerging and influencing occupiers’ approach to the future of work. Cresa’s Workplace Solutions team specializes in the development of custom workplace strategies that balance employee needs and preferences with the needs of your business.

* SVB, BNY Mellon, Northern Trust, VISA, Zurich, HSBC, Blackstone, Bank of America, Barclays, BNP PARIBAS, PNC, Goldman Sachs, Scotiabank, Macquarie, Morgan Stanley, American Express, UBS, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Charles Schwab, Wells Fargo, US Bank