Time has come to allow Bangladesh's banking industry to be redefined to serve the objectives of growth and humanity together. Currently, profit maximisation seems to be the primary goal of most banks. Historically, we Bangalis have never been good at business. However, we quickly learned how to maximise profit in the shortest possible time without understanding how to incorporate humanitarian elements in the work process. When Henry Ford doubled the workers' pay in his car factory, his competitors laughed at him deeming Ford a fool. But Ford outwitted his peers. He guaranteed the future fountain of profits by incurring short term losses. He understood that human beings should not be treated like machines. A little human touch from the employer makes the employees doubly energetic. Marginal productivity goes up and loyalty to the company gets cemented.
The same attitude prevailed among other great entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. They never thought traditionally with the math of profit maximisation. Since Bangladesh is a developing economy that still bears the brunt of poverty among one-fourth of its population, humanitarian elements are needed in designing employment and working hours in the banking industry. This approach is needed from the CEOs not just for being great in society, but also for making this profession enjoyable, respectable, and attractive for future talents. If the profession appears to be overwhelming and tedious, meritorious students of the future will never gravitate to the banking industry. The level of human capital in the banking industry will remain weak, undermining potential economic growth for the nation.
The banking sector regulates 40 percent of our GDP through private credit. Hence, modernising the industry is much warranted to make economic growth accelerate. And that is why the bank managers need to get out of the traditional box and undergo brainstorming to explore banking strategies conforming to humane approaches and enhanced productivity. Unfortunately, the double-century colonial rule and the double-decade Pakistani rule have greatly crippled our mindset. Free thinking and innovative ventures seem unusual to us. Often, we languidly enjoy being followers without questioning where we are heading to rather than redefining our action path.
We never ask whether the present working hours that run from 10 AM to 6 PM are appropriate for productivity and leisure. If an emerging nation begins its financial activity at 10 AM – a time by which half of the day's energy is gone – how can we end up competing with East Asians who start their days much earlier? Moreover, one hour in the morning is twice as productive as an hour in the late afternoon. When we changed the timetable for the government offices to start at 9 AM and all banks to start at 10 AM to reduce traffic jam in megacities, did we ever think of the implications it would have for the financial sector? I think banks should start operating at 8:30 AM as opposed to 10 AM. We Bangalis have always been early risers by dint of our religion and culture.
A Japanese bank once introduced a brief recess for physical exercise to enhance productivity. Some banks in the Philippines allow a daytime short nap, or a siesta. It does not mean that we need to advocate for physical exercise or sleep during the banking hours in Bangladesh. All we need to acknowledge is the strength of cultural habits in defining corporate lifestyle. Cultural and geographic elements promote a human touch to the industry. Time has come to incorporate these ideas to make Bangladesh's banking sector more productive, humane, culture accommodating, and enjoyable. Profits for bank owners and wages for employees should not be the final reward.
In the past, banks were viewed as the custodian of rich people's money. Now, they are gradually turning into the custodian of the national interest. Both the work space and responsibilities have widened. Banks can now play more of a role in empowering women and the poor, and in reducing income inequality. Local branches ought to be given more autonomy so they can arrange programmes reflecting local culture, educate the community and raise environmental awareness. Allocating more funds for training, research, technology, travel, and after-hour education will not only add more human values to the banking profession, but also make our banking sector more productive in the long-run. Thus, redefining the banking industry towards sustainable economic growth and nourishing human values is of paramount importance for a vibrant Bangladesh.
The writer is chief economist of Bangladesh Bank.