When people think of financial institutions the first thought that comes to mind is, likely, to be one about questionable ethics. 2015 research conducted by media outlet The Conversation found that the phrases the general public associates with banks include ‘excess profits’, ‘silly salaries’, ‘tax dodgers’ and ‘too big to fail’.
Likely this is because the 2008 financial crash eroded trust in these organisations whilst multiple HR missteps – like that of Deustche Bank in 2019, where staff were made redundant via an email in the middle of the night and refused entry to their buildings or at Lloyd’s of London where multiple female staff alleged a long history of harassment and sexism - perpetuate the image of a non-people-centric industry.
However, as fast-moving technology has affected every other aspect of modern life, fintech start-ups are working to challenge perceptions of these industries. One such company is Monzo. The challenger bank was founded in 2015 by Tom Blomfield, Jonas Huckestein, Jason Bates, Paul Rippon and Gary Dolman, starting life with the goal of offering care and attention to both customers and its staff.
For Monzo’s customers 'care' meant offering tools to help manage their money, including breakdowns of budgets, savings advice, and reports on spending divided by classifications such as ‘food’ and ‘going out’. For its staff, this care and attention meant embracing individuality, curating a host of perks and benefits, such as free healthy lunches, remote working policies, and support in the form of diversity-celebrating groups for LGBTQ and BAME employees. It meant not merely supplying traditionally bureaucratic and rigid ‘HR’ but consciously creating a function which ensured that worker wellbeing was top priority.
And since 2016, when the company was still very much fledgling, the job of employee care has been in the hands of Tara Mansfield, Head of People at Monzo. Since she joined, Tara had a very clear idea of what kind of people function she wanted to run; this meant making it clear that her and her team were there not just to handle HR administration, but to help people, to be approachable and, most importantly, to make a difference to the lives of her employees.
“I think that HR is a function that has always been seen as a kind of caretaker or cleaning function where you just ‘tidy up the mess’ but I believe that to be extremely short-sighted. More and more, the HR or people functions are starting to be considered a strategic partner. I think that's the way it has to be perceived. Ultimately, it can’t just be a figurehead for minimal cost. You’re defining the happiness of your people throughout the whole lifecycle. Not investing in HR may save you money in the short term, but in the long term, you will really regret it,” she says.
Monzo was one of the first app-based challenger banks to enter the UK market. It was formed by Tom Blomfield, Jonas Huckestein, Jason Bates, Paul Rippon and Gary Dolman in 2015 when the founders met whilst working at Starling, a fellow challenger bank.
In 2016, Monzo set a world record for the ‘quickest crowdfunding campaign in history’, when it managed to raise over £1million in a shocking 96 seconds on the Crowdcube platform.
The same year, in October, Head of People Tara Mansfield joined the business. By May of 2017, the bank announced that it had been used for over £250million in transactions by its 200,000 customers.
One year later in June 2018, the bank’s technology and analyst teams made the news for identifying a data breach in the ticketing giant Ticketmaster before the company had noticed itself.
In October of the same year, the company was named the best start-up to work for by LinkedIn UK.
Monzo now employs over 1,500 people across two continents, after recently opening a new office in Las Vegas, US.
The Monzo that Tara joined was far different to the firm with a massive public presence that most see today. Unlike other people leaders, she was able to work from scratch to build a function that she believed would befit a progressive business. It’s a model that’s scaled over time, but it started extremely small. “When I joined, we were around 43 people working for the company,” she says, whilst discussing the groundwork that she put into the initial strategy, much of which still exists today.
“I kind of had free reign to speak to each employee and see what was important to them. So, the first thing I tackled was mental health. We had the attitude that, whilst our wellbeing wasn’t bad, it could always be better. I wanted people to feel supported, so why not give people the opportunity to talk openly about their mental health? So, I went and trained with a Mental Health First Aid instructor. Since then, I've now trained around 85 people from across the business get the same training,” she says.
With over 1,500 staff, speaking to each member individually is no longer feasible. However, whilst she states that the ‘start-up’ phase was engaging, Tara still believes that, whereas the policies may be scaled and altered, the same spirit and culture still defines Monzo today, with the added benefit of bigger budgets and greater diversity.
She says: “When you're in start-up mode, you've got a very clear and precise focus on what you're trying to get to. Everything else is a ‘nice to have’ because you're in survival mode. When you become a more established company, you can start to look at those things that before you only dreamed of doing. Now, I can take my time to decide what’s right for us, for Monzo. Also, different people join the company who never would have joined when we were tiny. Diversity and new perspectives help us thrive, so getting to welcome those people is a huge benefit to us all.”
“People who don't trust their employees are looking at the wrong horizon. They’re worried about their assets, so they lock them up and immediately they put in restrictions and don't tell people information that they need to do their jobs. But then when you think about the amount of inefficiency that then comes from that, because every single time someone needs to know something, they need to ask someone else, who needs to ask someone else.
“Any time someone needs to do something, they have to go through three or four people to do it. Well, from an efficiency point of view, this is hugely expensive. And from an employee point of view, the idea that I am not trusted to do my job well just starts to disengage people and starts to make people feel like they're actually not a part of the community. We like to show people that we trust them. We ask them what they need from us, we give it to them and we say, well, go and do it!”
Yet with more people comes more responsibility, and there is greater pressure on HR to function flawlessly. Some may consider this to be limiting but whilst Tara feels the weight of responsibility on her shoulders she also still believes in the power to be agile and flexible – and not to veer away from potential failure. “The stakes are definitely higher when you're the size that we are; if you're going to take on a new supplier or do a new initiative, the cost of something when we were 15 people is very, very different to the cost for 1500. But I think that's why starting early with experimentation becomes more important. Growth doesn't become a blocker to innovation. It just means that the way that you innovate is a bit different than you would have done previously,” she explains.
“When the company has 60 people who know you, you can clearly articulate to them: ‘Hey, this is what we're doing and why we doing it and it might actually not go very well. And we apologize in advance’. Whereas if you try to roll something out to 1500 people, their reactions aren't going to be as measured because they're just like, ‘what is going on? You're disrupting my day?’ I think it forces you to be more creative,” Tara says.
Whilst it’s hard for any organisation to truly gauge how their employees feel about its leadership, it seems that Tara’s approach is having a marked effect on Monzo’s people. On Glassdoor, the company has a high score and over 100 glowing reviews, largely noting some of the initiatives that she spearheaded. One anonymous employee said: “I've had the best time of my career at Monzo. A company that genuinely cares about my mental health," whilst another wrote, “The people and benefits really make this job a one of a kind opportunity, and it certainly feels like you're on a progress track from your very first day”.
Whilst Tara is elated about the glowing testimony, she’s not willing to settle. “There are things I’m very happy with, but there are always different areas under review. Just because today people are happy, that doesn’t mean they will be tomorrow. We have to anticipate the needs of our people and ensure that we’re always working to create a company where people really want to work. I’m very excited about the future,” she concludes.
HR Grapevine’s interview with Monzo took place at the end of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world. With the virus heavily impacting UK businesses, Monzo’s CEO, Tom Blomfield, has told staff he won’t take a salary for the next year. In addition, senior management and the Board have volunteered a 25% wage reduction. Furlough has also been offered to staff – in order to protect jobs long term - with two reports suggesting 275 out of 1500 staff have taken it.
Several leading tech, fintech and finance news outlets also report that Monzo has enough capitalisation to take it through this difficult business period. The fintech firm is valued at circa £2billion.