Not so long ago, senior back-office managers in Singapore and Hong Kong enjoyed a secure, settled – if boring – existence. Global banks had all-encompassing operations centres in the two cities and ‘travel’ for a team leader in Singapore meant catching a cab between downtown and Changi Business Park, barely a 20-minute journey.
Over the past few years, however, global banks have offshored many of their junior, production-focused jobs away from Singapore and Hong Kong (think: Deutsche Bank to the Philippines and Standard Chartered to Malaysia). While many senior operations staff remain based in the two cities (this keeps them close to the front-office), their jobs and lives have been made more difficult as they must now manage huge offshore teams.
One senior operations manager at a financial institution in Hong Kong told us he now has to work in Manila for two weeks every month. “Time away from home is difficult. My company had initially spoken about renting an apartment to make it easier for my family to come over, but finance policies aren’t set up for this,” he says. “We’ve had a long process of cost justification – measuring permanent apartment costs against temporary hotel costs – but that doesn’t take into account the extra family benefit of having possessions permanently in Manila rather taking a big bag on each flight.”
Senior back-office professionals are increasingly complaining of stress caused by remote management and constant travel, says Tracy Tam at recruiters Ambition in Hong Kong. “Work-life balance can be a problem if the offshore team is not running efficiently. Many now feel like offshoring has made them almost a one-man-band onshore, with very heavy workloads and more pressure," she adds.
Most banks aren’t investing enough in retraining senior onshore staff to cope with the new challenges of remote management, says Michael Jones, a former head of offshore Asian hubs at ANZ, who now runs consultancy Connected Analytics. “Ironically, many firms focus training budgets on their remote teams, who are far more experienced at working as part of a distributed workforce than their onshore colleagues,” says Jones.
Not just the jet lag
Managerial challenges extend beyond having to jump on a plane every week or two. “It can be difficult to gauge workload and engagement from staff when you’re not always face-to-face,” says the senior operations manager in Hong Kong. “And in my case, it’s harder to have a more creative discussion via phone. This tends to result in projects moving slower than they should.”
Hong Kong and Singapore-based managers also struggle to build staff morale when not always in the same office as their teams, says Tam from Ambition. And technical complications, which occur more frequently than you might imagine, also hinder communication, adds Jones. “Banks have limited tools, like video conferencing, and these aren’t always available on demand – for when an urgent issue arises – or they suffer from technical problems. It sets the wrong tone to a meeting when it starts with resolving connectivity challenges,” he says.
The Asian region also throws up a unique set of stresses for remote managers, says Lynne Roeder, managing director of recruiters Hays in Singapore. “If a manager in London is tasked with managing a new hub somewhere else in the UK, this is relatively straightforward. But in Asia hubs are in countries with different languages, cultures and laws.”
The Hong Kong manager adds: “While cultural differences are in some ways par for the course as an expat, it becomes more difficult when you’re the link between one market and the next, in which case you need to translate these differences and manage expectations about delivery, while not being in either market all of the time.”
Staff turnover in their offshore teams is also a key concern for back-office managers in Hong Kong and Singapore. In major cities like Manila and Bangalore job seekers often have the choice of several banking sector employers. “Attrition rates tend to be high and poaching of staff from one firm to another is inevitable,” says James Rushworth, managing director of Profile Search & Selection in Singapore.
Managerial mindset change needed
Former ANZ offshoring chief Jones says managers can overcome many of their difficulties by having a change of mindset. “The prevailing view among onshore managers is that the remote team must adapt to their ways of working, not the other way round. Most managers cite poor quality work from remote teams as being the biggest issue, yet they fail to recognise the role they play in this cycle,” he says. “They receive poor work, don’t engage or coach effectively, pass increasingly commoditised work packets to the remote location (who are typically highly educated and motivated), and then seem surprised with high levels of attrition, which feeds the cycle."
Remote management skills should now be a “core competency” of senior back-office jobs in Asia, says Jones. “Most managers have failed to adapt and build the necessary skills and rely too heavily on techniques they use when managing locally.”
Image credit: drogatnev, Getty