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Front Office & Back Office: What is the difference?
Traditionally, front office staff are the folks in contact with the consumers or clients, whilst the back office staff are the people behind-the-scenes working in administrative or support roles.
Of course, in modern businesses it’s a whole lot more complicated than that, and there is often some crossover and confusion over what constitutes a front office and back office role.
Nowadays, ‘front office’ and ‘back office’ are terms most bandied around in investment banking, which is what this article focuses on. In investment banks, the relationship between the front and back office is a slightly different kettle of fish.
Once we've helped you figure out the difference, why not check out the front and back office roles on our jobs board?
Put simply, front office staff are the people who directly generate revenue for the company. The front office largely consists of client-facing roles. So in a finance company or investment bank, front office departments might consist of sales and trading, investment banking, wealth management, and private equity. The exception to the rule is equity research, which is often considered front office, even though it doesn’t directly bring in revenue.
Therefore, if you want to want to work directly in an investment role (e.g. as a commodity broker, financial trader or as a corporate investment banker) then the front office will be your stomping ground.
This is a bit of an investment banking unicorn: you either believe in it or you don’t. For some, the middle office is simply the back office; others think a distinction needs to be made. They would argue that a middle office role links the front and back office, providing the front office with a support function that plays a more direct role in revenue generation.
The middle office is a netherworld; a grey area with constantly changing boundaries. For example, someone might cite operations, corporate treasury, risk management and strategic management as middle office departments. Others would just limit it to risk, credit and strategic management. You could argue that an operational investment banker is middle office, although many would simply lump them in with the back office crew.
Speak to someone in the front office and they might have you believe that the back office is a no-go zone and EVERYONE in the back office really wants to be in the front office, but this isn’t necessarily always the case.
The back office is comprised of the areas that don’t directly generate revenue for the business, but provide vital support and administration. The back office in an investment bank might encompass departments like I.T., operations, HR, accounting and compliance. They perform functions that mostly focus on processing or support.
Despite sniffy remarks from the front office, without these guys the business wouldn’t be able to run. Back office staff design the computer systems, maintain the databases, handle the company finances and seek out new talent. The front office depends on the support of the back office to function effectively.
Some roles which were traditionally dismissed as back office are rising in prominence. Technical roles have developed beyond I.T. support, especially as investment banks now heavily rely on developing the latest technology.
As a result, technical roles in areas such as development and infrastructure engineering are steadily increasing in importance and status. Whilst banks might be flooded with applications for front office roles, it’s for these technical roles that they are desperate to recruit top talent.
What is the salary difference between the front office & back office?
Another distinction between the front and back office (and middle, if you like) is the pay. It’s hardly like the front office staff light their cigars with 50 pound notes whilst the back office huddle, like characters in a Dickens novel, around the single coal they can afford with their wages. But salary levels do vary from front to middle to back office, with the former earning the most.
Alternatively, there might be a relatively flat level of pay, but those in the front office will reap the rewards when it comes to bonuses. As they’re in revenue generating roles, their bonuses tend to be much larger. So if you’re in it for the really big bucks, the front office is where you want to be; if you want to earn a really decent steady wage then the back office is your domain.
Of course, those who rise up the ranks in the back office can command very handsome salaries indeed. For example, experienced professionals in corporate treasury can earn £150,000 a year or more. However, this pales in comparison to the salaries and bonuses that experienced investment bankers working for the top investment banks can earn.
Is one better than the other?
Front office is always better than the back office, right?
Really, it depends on your career aspirations and what you want from a working environment. If you really want to work directly on the investment side of things for an investment bank, then a back office role might not be the place to start. It might be less competitive to enter, but it doesn’t guarantee you access to front office roles. A few do work their way to the front office, but they are in the minority.
You might find that you’re better suited to a back office role, where the slightly more relaxed environment will allow you to thrive. Others will only have their sights set on the cut and thrust of front office roles, particularly those who want client-facing jobs. It might be worth getting work experience in both areas to see where you fit in.