Changing suits and ties for shorts and sneakers at the office and getting unlimited leave days are many an office worker’s dream. 

For Investec employees, this will soon be a reality as the banking and asset management group moves to a more informal working environment from September. But there is one proviso, deadlines have to be met and you have to bring innovative ideas to the table.  

The group will become the first SA company to follow the lead of international brands including Virgin, Netflix and General Electric, which have a flexible leave policy for their workers.

Surprisingly, there are clients we see who don’t want us in suits. Equally with suppliers, who are often in shorts and T-shirts.
Lesley-Anne Gatter, head of human resources at Investec SA

Investec will reward all employees in SA who choose to migrate to the unlimited leave system according to their output and not how many days they show up at work. Also, staff, except for receptionists whose days are more structured and receive a clothing allowance to keep up the formal look, will now be able to show up in shorts and T-shirts, depending on who they are meeting during the day.

It’s an organisational culture shift that has contributed to Google and Amazon being at the top of the list of companies that young, talented people want to work for. But generally this has been associated with Silicon Valley and the tech industry, certainly not banks and investment firms.

“Surprisingly, there are clients we see who don’t want us in suits. Equally with suppliers, our suppliers are often in shorts and T-shirts and engaging with them like that is important,” says Lesley-Anne Gatter, head of human resources at Investec SA.

She says there will be no rules on what people can and cannot wear. The only rule is that employees must dress for their day. If they are a banker and going to see a client who prefers informal engagement, they can dress for the occasion. But if they are seeing a more conservative client, they should adjust accordingly.

The dress-for-your-day policy is something that is already in place in many local companies including Nestle, which has been crowned top employer numerous times. But in the financial services industry, those who have adopted flexibility are only willing to go as far as “smart casual” or “business casual”, which means no baggy clothes, cargo pants or sneakers.

Investec says it only asks that employees remember what the brand stands for: sophistication. Its policy on this is almost identical to US car manufacturer General Motors, whose workplace dress code is two words: “Dress appropriately.”

But the most progressive change is the flexible leave policy which companies like Virgin have spearheaded and reaped benefits from since its implementation years ago. In April, Richard Branson wrote a blog post about a group legal director who worked diligently and achieved more from working wherever they were, instead of just the office. 

Gatter says in Investec’s case, the core principle is that people will be paid according to their output and not how many days they clocked at work. The number of leave days they take will not affect their salaries. The idea is to push even harder for high performance as people will have an incentive to finish their tasks quicker. But, above that, high bonuses will be paid for innovation and initiating things, as opposed to just completing tasks.

Investec says paying people for output should prevent abuse of the system as the conversation with any offenders will be about their performance rather than “why you didn’t come to work on Monday”. Part of the reason the group is moving to the new system, says Gatter, is that high performers often run out of paid leave days because they need to replenish their energy more often, which then becomes a disincentive for putting in more effort.

Investec says unlike Virgin and other big companies with flexible working arrangements that connect people with their colleagues on conference calls while travelling the world, it will still encourage people to come to the office but not when they need to be elsewhere.

“Part of this new leave philosophy is not just about leave days but also flexibility. Instead of people taking half-day leave to attend their kids’ sport event, we are saying, take the day to be fully present where you are. Work from there if you want but you don’t have to be on top of your e-mails if that doesn’t work for you at that moment.”