Glimpses of the “New Normal”

“Work from home.” That’s the new directive from schools and businesses.

Before the Coronavirus crisis, working from home was part of a normal day for me. But these days are anything but normal. For the foreseeable future, my kids (one in college and one in high school) will be in the house taking their remaining courses online and my wife will be in her makeshift home office conducting video conference meetings. It’s early in the process, but so far I’ve heard few complaints about the new living, learning and working situation. These changes are of course critical for the most important collective endeavor, which is saving lives.

And while the immediate focus is how we deal with the crisis, it is clear that the Coronavirus has changed the way we socialize, learn, and work. One question this situation has me thinking is: are these changes temporary, or are they a sign of a “new normal”?

At FFI, we haven’t ever had a permanent office. Our team is scattered around the greater New York City area, but we have the good fortune to be able to work remotely and to use co-working spaces for in-person meetings. While these periodic face-to-face interactions are critical, we do not feel it necessary to physically be together five days a week to be productive. As a mission-driven company developing climate-aligned solutions, we find it equally important to conduct business in a way that is productive, efficient, and limits our own carbon footprint. Being a company that collaborates and communicates with clients virtually helps us do that by limiting or avoiding carbon emissions associated with transportation and building usage. Social distancing is simply an unintended consequence of our operating model.

Permanent physical office spaces are the norm for financial firms. Successful companies have used office space and travel as a means to solidify their relationships with clients. These elements have made a generally positive impression on investors for decades. But shouldn’t those same features concern impact and socially responsible investors? And are they a business necessity in a digital world? Feedback on this will be coming soon.

Many large financial services companies have made strides in setting zero-carbon or carbon-neutral goals. Our size and operating model allow us to similarly limit our environmental impact. We’ll continue our virtual operating model for as long as we can. When the market tells us that we have to have a permanent office to accomplish our financial and mission-oriented goals, so be it. We’ll make the adjustment in an environmentally responsible fashion.

The human toll from the Coronavirus is tragic and unfortunately will likely get worse. Millions of workers have jobs in industries that are not conducive to telecommuting, and those are the people for whom we must have immediate concerns and plans. When the time is right, our actions will be examined and there will be lessons learned. Perhaps the temporary forced conversion to virtual learning and working, which even the New York Stock Exchange has now adopted, could become a new normal for financial services. This transition to collaborating in virtual spaces could have the unintended consequence of lessening the effects of climate change. What is most unfortunate is that a global pandemic might be the catalyst.