NatWest gives RBS the full makeover including carpets, couches and cafes

Revamped interiors and flexible working plan at City HQ look to usher in new dawn for thousands of returning staff

It was a lingering reminder of Royal Bank of Scotland’s former boss Fred Goodwin: the blue and yellow carpets that were allegedly handpicked by the disgraced banker, who was blamed for the bank’s near-collapse more than a decade ago and was subsequently stripped of his knighthood.

But NatWest – which scrapped the toxic RBS Group name last year in the hope of moving on from past scandals – has done away with the old, by ripping out carpets, ditching office phones and installing Zoom-enabled meeting rooms, as it ushers in a new era of hybrid working turbocharged by the Covid crisis.

In London, desks that once dominated its 10 floors at 250 Bishopsgate in the City, are now flanked by pastel couches, quirky lamps, and hundreds of electrified lockers full of charging Chromebook laptops for visiting staff. Cafe-style meeting rooms are separated with stylish soundproof curtains, and anyone looking for a break from noisy colleagues can retreat to single-person pods for privacy.

The all-new interiors of NatWest’s post-pandemic, hybrid-working offices at 250 Bishopsgate in the City of London.
The all-new interiors of NatWest’s post-pandemic, hybrid-working offices at 250 Bishopsgate in the City of London. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

NatWest’s office transformation is part of its efforts to cater to the new hybrid worker who will split their time between home and office from next week. The trend has forced firms across the City to think about their office as more than a place for a computer and chair, and to get creative about what will lure staff away from their home comforts, even as the pandemic rages on.

The bank has spent millions of pounds on the office overhaul under its current chief executive, Alison Rose, but the cost admittedly pales in comparison to Goodwin’s excesses, which were criticised for crippling RBS and leading to its £45bn government bailout during the banking crisis in 2008. And this time it is about adapting to a crisis, rather than inadvertently triggering one.

Most of NatWest’s 64,000 employees will return to their offices on Monday for the first time since March 2020. But only 13% will be required to be at their desks five days a week, while one in three will be able to live and work anywhere in the UK and go into the office just two days per month.

“This is the chance to define a new way of working,” Rose said, explaining that the pandemic had “busted a few myths,” about the need to be in the office five days a week in order to be productive.

Fred Goodwin, former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, was stripped of his knighthood.
Fred Goodwin, former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, was stripped of his knighthood. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

And Rose is not alone: 2021 has been punctuated by announcements from City firms offering flexible working, including HSBC which is planning to slash global office space by 40% as its capitalises on new hybrid working arrangements. Meanwhile, Deloitte has said its 20,000 UK staff could decide “when, where and how they work”, while PwC said it only expects staff to spend at least 40% of their time with colleagues – either in the office or out on client visits.

Rose said it was all part of staying relevant, as well as retaining staff, who may yearn for better digs and could be poached by any of the bank’s rivals. “We’re in competition, [but] not with just banks. We’re in competition with private equity and fintechs and Google,” she said.

Sign up to the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk

“If you want to keep that talent, you want to give them the flexibility to work in a different way. And really talented people have lots of choices of where they can work and how they can work.”

But other major banks, particularly on Wall Street, are less concerned by a potential preference among workers to work from home. In the US, Morgan Stanley’s chief executive, James Gorman, told his New York employees that anyone who feels safe going out to a restaurant should return to the office this month, while Goldman Sachs boss, David Solomon, called remote working an “aberration” that did not fit with the bank’s “innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture”.

Unlike NatWest, all of Goldman’s 6,000 London bankers are expected to return to their Plumtree Court office from Monday as it ramps up office capacity and ditches social distancing between desks. Its short-lived perks such as free food and gelato – widely seen as a lure for hesitant Goldman bankers throughout the summer – are being scrapped as the bank tries to return to the old normal.

The new interior at NatWest’s offices in the City.
The new interior at NatWest’s offices in the City. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

NatWest’s more relaxed approach may be down to the lender’s own journey since the financial crisis. It has severely scaled back its riskier investment bank, which accounted for roughly 40% of its operating profits in 2006 prior to the financial crash, but has been loss-making for years. RBS has gone from being one of the world’s largest banks, with operations in 43 countries, to a less risky British high street bank still 55% owned by the UK state and operating in 25 countries. It is hardly in competition with its former Wall Street rivals.

Rose has accelerated that shift away from RBS’ riskier past, even changing the bank’s name last year in one of her most sweeping changes to date. While she has been more cautious than most of the bank’s previous chief executives, Rose is clearly leaving her mark ahead of the bank’s likely return to full private ownership, with the government hoping to sell its remaining stake by 2025/26.

Even Coutts, which sits under the NatWest umbrella and is known for its opulent offices at 440 Strand in London’s West End, is moving towards a hybrid arrangement for its wealthiest clients, with plans to hold three of their four quarterly check-ins online after the pandemic is over.

But Rose insists office culture will persist, and played down wider fears about how remote working would decimate city centres and the ecosystem of shops, cafes and restaurants that rely on them.

“We’re going to have all our buildings pretty much occupied,” she said, “but it might not be by the same people all the time. So if someone’s coming in for three days a week, it doesn’t mean that for two days a week the office will be empty”.

“Equally I think the ways of working have changed and so it’s really important that we continue to evolve.”


Kalyeena Makortoff Banking correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lloyds to move 700 staff into full-time homeworking roles
Banking group makes decision despite Covid vaccines putting end of restrictions in sight

Kalyeena Makortoff Banking correspondent

04, Dec, 2020 @1:40 PM

Article image
Goldman Sachs prepares for staff to return to London office this week
Investment bank could see 200 of its 6,000 London workers back in the office after Easter break

Jasper Jolly

05, Apr, 2021 @4:47 PM

Article image
European banks storing €20bn a year in tax havens
Barclays and HSBC among banks booking money equivalent to 14% of annual profits in offshore entities

Daniel Boffey

06, Sep, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Royal Bank of Scotland changes name to NatWest
Banking group to remain headquartered in Edinburgh, but drops Scotland from title

Joanna Partridge

21, Jul, 2020 @11:01 PM

Article image
Treasury to sell £1.1bn in NatWest shares, cutting taxpayer stake to 54.8%
The government has been gradually reducing its holdings in the bank since the 2008 financial crisis

Richard Partington Economics correspondent

10, May, 2021 @6:48 PM

Article image
NatWest pushed to £1.3bn loss by coronavirus crisis
Banking group puts aside £2.1bn to cover bad debts and may be forced to take a writedown

Kalyeena Makortoff Banking correspondent

31, Jul, 2020 @7:19 AM

Article image
RBS tells its staff to carry on working from home until next year
Banking group says it takes safety seriously days after Boris Johnson calls for a return

Hilary Osborne

20, Jul, 2020 @3:54 PM

Article image
NatWest preparing for just 13% of staff to work in office full-time
Post-pandemic rules mean a third of bank’s staff have to attend in person only two days a month

Kalyeena Makortoff Banking correspondent

01, Jun, 2021 @5:11 PM

Article image
NatWest customers say accounts were closed after they applied for coronavirus loans
Small business say funds were blocked after applying for government-backed scheme

Rupert Jones

26, Jul, 2020 @2:51 PM

Article image
Return to work: a sector-by-sector look at the plans of England's major employers
Companies can return to work from 1 August, but many employers are making their own plans

Joanna Partridge, Kalyeena Makortoff, Jillian Ambrose, Mark Sweney and Julia Kollewe

31, Jul, 2020 @5:01 AM