Back- and mid-office roles in Singapore and Hong Kong are at risk as banks continue to offshore them away from expensive financial centres into lower-cost locales like India and the Philippines.
However, as we explained in February, not all support jobs are in jeopardy in the two cities – senior, specialist ones remain comparatively safe. “If it’s a skilled position with a high degree of interaction with the business, we will keep it onshore,” explained an HR head from a European bank who attended an eFinancialCareers roundtable discussion in Singapore earlier this month.
If you’re a back- or mid-office professional in Singapore or Hong Kong, you should therefore ensure that your role involves daily communication with your front-office colleagues – being popular and performing well within your own team is no longer enough to keep your job secure.
Here are some of the main ways in which you can endear yourself to folk in the front office.
“Nothing frustrates the front office more than someone from the mid or back office who can’t think commercially,” says Michael Jones, a former head of risk hubs at ANZ in Asia who now runs Melbourne consultancy Connected Analytics. “We all need to understand as much about the business as possible, regardless of our role or the process we work in.”
Defaulting to email every time you contact colleagues in the front office may help you complete the task at hand, but it won’t help you build relationships, advises Jones. “Pick up the phone and make time for face-to-face dialogue, while respecting their time and priorities. Showing interest in what they’re doing will help you build your commercial knowledge and also foster better relationships – that can work wonders.”
“A team I was once managing was trying to develop a corporate risk-grading model, but we didn’t get sufficient engagement from the front office because we approached it like any other model-build,” recalls Jones. “Finally, we put our model-builder into the front-office team to ‘walk in their shoes’ for a few weeks. That increased our commercial insight, improved relationships and acted as the circuit breaker to get the engagement to build and implement the model.”
You may not get to boss the trading team about, but you will need “strong stakeholder management skills” to ensure that crucial ideas and plans are communicated between your department and the front office, says Howe Yuin Teo, senior consulting manager at recruiters Huxley Associates in Singapore. “This means the ability to actively listen and understand requirements and articulate depth and detail in concise manner, because front-office people are fast-paced.”
Your front-office stakeholder will, as a rule, expect you to prioritise their own transactions. “For example, a product controller who is a lone crusader for that desk locally might get overwhelmed by traders frequently checking on their deals, because he’s easier to access than someone offshore,” says Farida Charania, Asia Pacific CEO of search firm Nastrac Group in Singapore. “So agree clear lines with them in terms of response times – people tend to do urgent stuff and forget the important stuff.”
“Sometimes a credit analyst could be a shared resource onshore for a group of relationship managers – that’s a pressure situation to be in, especially when a very aggressive sales person comes for approvals,” says Charania. “Try to match their energy, not their emotions. If a sales person is speaking in a high-pitched voice, match the voice, not the tone. Remember: you are just doing your job and they are just doing theirs,” she adds.
“It's not enough to simply highlight a potential problem to the front office – they are looking for a solution, and fast,” says Craig Brewer, a director at recruiters Five Ten Group in Singapore. “Whether you are producing client valuations, approving new products or working in compliance, the best way to approach your role is to think of yourself as a problem solver for the front office.”
“Front-office people have a low tolerance for mistakes and a propensity for getting angry when things go wrong,” says Brewer. “When someone from the back office walks into the trading room and drops a bomb about a failed trade and an angry client, they can be met by an aggressive and cheesed-off sales person. Great support staff must function under a good deal of pressure, manage expectations and be very well informed, all at the same time. Maybe it's time to change their title to front-office business partner.”