On the first Friday of this month, Mark Mullen woke up in a hotel in Lisbon where he was attending a conference. He started the day by sending a number of emails. Checking his inbox a few hours later, he was surprised to see that not a single email had been replied to. “Dead silence. I thought, ‘God, I’ve left the country for a day and they’ve decided to ignore me!’” It took Mullen a moment to realise that this wasn’t a problem, but a sign that his new policy was working: from this month, none of Atom’s 438 employees is required to work on a Friday.
Mullen’s own hours vary. If the bank is raising new capital from investors, “it can be very intense”, but in general he starts at about 8am and finishes at around 6.30pm. Even before he shortened Atom’s working week, with no reduction in pay (all employees now work 34 hours over four days, and are only expected to be “available to the business” from 9.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Thursday), this was a departure from the culture of long hours that is encouraged across the banking industry. A self-survey of 13 junior Goldman Sachs analysts earlier this year found that they had worked an average of 105 hours each during the previous week.
“The culture of banking” has, Mullen said, been “dominated by men for most of the few hundred years that it’s been in existence. There’s a kind of type A character; I’ve met a lot of them along the way, and there is a boss-in-the-office syndrome, and an expectation that you follow your boss’s lead.”
Mullen has been a banker for 32 years, but he has for much of that time been heading away from City norms. He commuted into London from Kent for seven years, until in 2007 he moved to Leeds to run First Direct, which had been launched in 1989 as a branchless, telephone-only bank. Abruptly, he realised that he was saving ten hours a week by not commuting so far: “Immediately, I determined I wasn’t going back.”
In Leeds, Mullen realised that “there was really no magic about basing a bank in London”, and that working at a distance from “the mothership” (by which he means HSBC, the owner of First Direct), was “really quite helpful” in that it gave him more scope to shape its culture – which he sees not as simply an HR issue, but as the real differentiator of a service business. “The character of the service experience is shaped by the people who make it.”
In the early 2010s, two trends – the public’s perception of banks after the financial crisis, and the widespread adoption of smartphones – gave rise to a new way of branchless, app-only banks. Atom, which was set up by Mullen and his cofounder, Anthony Thomson, in Durham in 2013, was the first of these to receive a full banking licence.
Mullen said that while he does “believe in the importance of banking to society… it underpins the way the world works, whether people want to want to acknowledge it or not.”
He founded Atom to do better than “an industry that isn’t admired and respected and loved, that has a very ambiguous relationship with its customers in regard to trust, that has an even more ambiguous relationship with its stakeholders in regard to taxation, sustainability, bailouts, remediation and fines – and doesn’t have very satisfied customers, and actually doesn’t generate high returns for its investors. You look at it and you think… how can something so mediocre, in so many ways, be the dominant model?”
While the financial crisis may have changed the way people thought about money, Mullen said that “Covid-19 has basically revealed a whole bunch of nonsense about work”. Unlike other challenger banks such as Monzo, Starling and Revolut, Atom doesn’t offer a current account, concentrating instead on savings, mortgages and loans to businesses. The efficiency of remote work, coupled with the pandemic housing boom, has been good for turnover: “We’ve had our first quarter of profitability, four out of the last five months have been profitable, and we would expect to be profitable on an operating level between now and the end of our financial year.”
Atom saved time, money and around 60 per cent of its normal carbon emissions through remote work. Mullen said this made the idea of a four-day week less controversial than it might have been. The key, he said, is to eliminate the “myth” that intense work is hard work. Atom’s employees work on “securitisations, mortgage lending, secured loans to commercial customers, multimillion-pound flow agreements – it’s not casual banking. It’s a very intense atmosphere.” But it is also one with real boundaries: “I don’t expect people to respond to my emails at nine o’clock at night. I don’t expect anyone to respond to my emails on a Friday.”
It took extensive planning, negotiations with suppliers and consultations with staff, investors and regulators before Atom could make the switch to a 34-hour week. For many companies this would be primarily a business decision, and Mullen said he can “make a pretty convincing argument to explain what business measures I’d expect to improve as a consequence… I can talk to you about sickness, loyalty and staff retention, recruitment, productivity, output per hour” – and, indeed, Atom measures all of these factors. However, Mullen said the main reason he has moved Atom’s employees to three-day weekends is because he could, and because it was the right thing to do: “We come this way but once, you know?… Find a person who can tell me that working longer hours is a better thing for a human being. Please explain to me why that would be true.”