Vision: Anne Boden backs online solutions in banking and the office
It was not unusual for Anne Boden to work in the office from dawn to dusk – at least until the pandemic struck. In fact, Boden credits her success to toiling away in the workplace. She has always worked long hours, from the start of her career as a junior banker in the 1980s to becoming the first woman to launch her own bank in Britain, Starling, in 2014.
She felt hard graft was a sign of commitment to colleagues and bosses, especially four decades ago when women in finance were scarce. But Covid-19 has turned working life on its head, forcing many to work from home.
Now Boden, previously a staunch advocate of the office, believes the age of ‘presenteeism’ is over. She says: ‘I was somebody who went into the office early in the morning and stayed all day, every day of the week. I thought that was how things should be done. And at Starling I felt I had to be there early in the morning because I was a leader. I was wrong.
‘Things don’t have to be done like that any longer. We can tap into more people in more regions with technology if we have a combination of hybrid working.’ However, some business chiefs are concerned that being absent from the office is affecting teamwork and creativity. Some have expressed fears the trend to working from home has gone too far and they now face a battle encouraging more staff to return to the workplace for even part of the week. Others have said prospective candidates for jobs are asking questions about how many days they will have to work in the office.
Boden, 61, is speaking over Zoom from her home in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, her Welsh accent still intact despite years in the City.
Starling is a digital bank that aims to provide better service than the high street lenders. It is also one of Britain’s most valuable tech start-ups – worth £1.1billion after raising more cash from investors. The Railways Pension Scheme took a stake, giving retirees access to the bank’s growth prospects.
‘I think we’ve gone through this great realisation that many people are far more effective working from home,’ Boden says. ‘So I’m embracing it.’
Her comments come as Ministers prepare to lift the final lockdown restrictions on July 19, which will see more staff return to the office.
Many companies see the return as a chance to reconnect with staff and allow younger employees to learn first hand from older colleagues. But for others, lockdown has irrevocably changed the way staff will operate, with many choosing to work from home part time.
The issue is important to Boden. As the first British female founder of a bank and one of only a handful at the top, alongside Alison Rose at NatWest and Debbie Crosbie at TSB, she is acutely aware of the struggle women face climbing the corporate ladder. She says: ‘I’ve had a long career in financial services and it has been tough being a woman. Getting to the top and staying there in financial services is difficult. People expect you to go above and beyond male colleagues.’
Failing to strike the right balance between working in the office and from home could penalise women, she says, adding: ‘Somehow the glory gets given to those who are visible. We could end up in a situation where some people work in an office and get great opportunities, while others in the regions, older people, women with caring responsibilities shoulder a lot of the workload but get none of the glory.’
Boden says: ‘It is up to people like myself to make sure we consider all people, in all locations. I think we can deliver a better working environment. But we have to be careful we don’t leave out people.’
Critics will note that Boden has built her career being in the office, so it’s easy for her to tell staff not to worry about working from home.
‘Ten years ago we couldn’t work from home as easily. We now have the technology,’ she says, adding: ‘But don’t replace office presenteeism with Zoom presenteeism. One is as bad as the other.’
Starling’s 1,400 staff work across the UK, with more in Cardiff than London. Boden grew up in Swansea, studying chemistry and computer science before fleeing to London. She had stints at some of the biggest lenders, including Lloyds, Standard Chartered, NatWest and Allied Irish Bank.
‘If only I’d had the opportunity,’ she laments on departing Wales back then. ‘I had to come to London. Now, all these years later, we’re taking great jobs back to Wales.’ Boden founded Starling in 2014 with Tom Blomfield, who a year later broke ranks to set up rival Monzo, now in an office across the road. The time was ripe to launch a new bank, after regulations were relaxed to make it easier.
The big four banks dominated the market and Boden felt customer service was shoddy, giving slick digital upstarts such as Starling a chance. She says: ‘I could see there was a big opportunity for a bank that saw all the ways technology could be used to serve the customer, rather than make cost savings.’
The digital bank offers services from personal current accounts to business loans via a mobile app and online. Its primary backer in the early days was the mysterious billionaire investor Harald McPike, whom she flew to meet on his luxury yacht in the Bahamas to convince him to stump up cash. He invested £150million in total.
It has since gained investment from City heavyweights including Jupiter and Fidelity. Boden and employees own nearly a quarter of the business.
Starling’s growth really took off after it received a £100million taxpayer grant in 2019 from a pot of money aimed at giving businesses better banking services.
But its business lending was turbocharged after it was allowed to dish out taxpayer-guaranteed ‘bounce back loans’ in the pandemic. Of the £45.6billion lent by banks, Starling handed out more than £1billion.
Boden is now expecting the bank, which has two million customers, to turn a profit in the financial year ending March 2022, after posting a £53.6million loss for 2019. She also has her sights set on a listing on the London Stock Exchange at the end of next year. Will she flee the nest once Starling is listed? ‘I’m only just starting,’ she chuckles.