A psychologist’s view: how PMs work from home


Who would believe the pictures we are getting from the City of London and Wall Street?

The manic trading floor; analysts scanning four huge computer screens simultaneously; people communicating on three devices at the same time? The very definition of freneticism.

But now empty offices, like empty supermarkets. Has nuclear war broken out? No, the workers have been sent home and told to become remote workers. You have to become a teleworker, a home-person, and possibly remote in more than one way!

For some this is a novel experience with all the benefit of no commuting, fewer distractions and an opportunity to work at the time of day that most suits you.

More autonomy: when, where and how you work… the most important driver of intrinsic motivation! Surely a wonderful opportunity. But how does this impact on work?

How is the issue different for asset managers? What about the specific challenges for portfolio managers now that so many are working from home?

How do the different working environment change their actions and style? More importantly what checks or safeguards firms might need to put in place to deal with these?

Some of the issues found with other employers, like ‘are they really working’ may apply less. They will get found out quickly enough. On the other hand, they will all have to sign the necessary insurance and assessment forms?

Asset management teams are in the business of complex data analysis and decision making with very serious financial consequences. So what do they need to be sensitive about so that they keep up quality output and morale

Some have sent all their staff home. Some have gone home of their own accord. Some have split their staff into different multi-functional teams: A B, C etc that do not meet or rotate into the office.

The idea is that if one person is ‘infected’ and spreads the virus to others, it will only affect certain groups. In short it is containable.

Soon it will not be a company or manager choice. You will become a home worker. So what of the consequences?

Personal preferences

The happiness and success of remote working can and does depend on a manager’s personality, style and approach.

It also depends on the corporate culture ‘in the office’. Some communicate online to a person two desks away; others phone a person in the next office.

Some corporate cultures are emotionally remote. Clearly the more open and frequent the face-to-face communication in the office, the more teleworking will be strange.

The more introverted may relish being distanced from the baying crowd, the distracting hubbub and stimulus overload. Many analysts will be clever, quiet quants who are never at their best in a stimulus over-load environment. For them this may be a God-Send.

The stereotypic extravert (do you recall the red braces?) likes to be in the thick of it. They derive their energy from the others around them. They like the buzz and think they are good at piggy-backing and synchronising ideas to come up with better decisions. It will take them some time to adapt to working from the spare bed-room.

Asset management is a contact sport: to do the job well most need lots of formal and informal debate about research, ideas and challenge.

The impact of working remotely means this may decline dramatically and research groups need to make the extra effort to ensure communication lines open for frequent conversations and idea exchanges.

Communication

What is the difference between communication on line (Skype/Zoom) and face-to-face. Most of us are pretty used to the online way, but how is it different? The answer lies in primarily how much of the person we are seeing. Normally it what they call a ‘talking head’ or at best ‘a news-reader torso’.

What we know from the psychology of body language is that we are good impression managers with the upper part of the body. The experts look for anxiety-leakage like twitching feat, hand movements, and wriggling.

Even if you are very used to this sort of communication, people are more stilted and less comfortable. It can mean it is harder to detect another’s anxiety, guilt or simply when ‘yes’ means ‘no’. The subtle but all-important messages may be more difficult to decode.

Decision making

As regards teleworking, many of the consequences depends on the investment approach.

Compare the targeted approach vs the scattergun.

In the former the groups will have done detailed work which they can share on line. They need to interrogate people and ideas with very specific and informed questions. This can be done easily online. Indeed it may benefit from this approach and they need fewer meetings, have a clear approach and stronger conviction.

But if the style is more scattergun with a preference and culture for more meetings, more brainstorming and more ‘synergy’ the prospect of working at home is a shock.

Is it possible that being cut off from the noise leads to better decisions?

Manic, uninformed, emotionally fear-and-doom laden data at work could easily lead to errors. Maybe the best way to preserve and enhance capital is in a cool, reflective moment in the spare bedroom!

Synchronising time and meetings and response rates to key market events is more difficult when people are split up in various locations. This is all the more important given the amazing current volatility of the market.

The benefit of informal communication can be lost, and formal communication can become stilted. A failure of grammar and hasty or poor written instruction can lead to misinterpretation and mistakes. Is it efficient and does it require a new kind of management oversight?

OK computer?

Asset managers need multiple, complex systems and websites to do their job. Access to all data remotely should be possible but expensive and maybe slower. 

What if one has a dodgy, glitchy VC preventing seeing some of the smaller details? We all know ‘what the big print giveth, the small print taketh away’.

The question is whether one can easily access to the most important drivers of their decision making: access to management, analyst’s reports or sight on changes in the fundamentals. In short can you get all the data you want and have been used to from home?

Even if some aspects are missing it could threaten the quality of decisions. There is nothing like not having the data to drive fear, panic or misanalysis.

And then there is access to IT help and resources. If you want to understand helplessness and its bedfellows, hopelessness and haplessness – try have a computer shut down at the stage of crucial number crunching.

So what?

Some people will really take to remote working; it may suit their preferences though it might conflict company culture, where ‘presenteeism’ is both the expectation and preferred method of organisation and control.

For others it will take some time and serious adaptation. But one result of this crisis means – for the time being – it has become a necessity for all.

 





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