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Fidelity’s on a hiring boom. Abby Johnson talks about why.

The CEO spoke Tuesday night to Chamber of Commerce about hiring surge, return-to-office, and crypto.

Abby Johnson, chairman and chief executive officer of Fidelity Investments, during a discussion with Harvard Business School dean Srikant Datar in Boston Tuesday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index is down nearly 20 percent from the start of the year. But that hasn’t stopped Fidelity Investments’ unprecedented hiring spree.

After all, investors need support in good times and in bad.

Abby Johnson, Fidelity’s chairman and chief executive officer, recalled one of those bad times during a keynote address to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday night. On stage, Harvard Business School dean Srikant Datar asked her what the company has done to help customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson brought up the hectic days of March 2020, when stocks plunged amid the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

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“The calls were coming in fast and furious, the market was going crazy,” Johnson said. “We were a little light in terms of our resources, [primarily] people answering the phone.”

Ever since, the Boston-based financial services giant has been racing to make sure it doesn’t end up short-staffed again, by embarking on a recruiting and hiring effort that is unprecedented in its 76-year history.

Late last month, Fidelity disclosed that its fast-paced hiring would continue for a third year in a row, with a goal of employing 68,000 people around the world by the end of 2022. That would be up from 57,000 at the end of 2021 and 49,000 in December 2020. Fidelity expects to hire about 12,000 people in the US through the end of September to fill new and existing jobs, including roughly 600 in Boston, 1,200 in New Hampshire, and 1,000 in Rhode Island.

Fidelity’s breakneck growth was evident in its latest financial results, released on Wednesday: The company’s assets under management ($4.3 trillion) and assets under administration ($11.3 trillion) were both up 9 percent in the first quarter compared with a year ago, while the number of retail brokerage accounts under its umbrella rose 14 percent, to 33.5 million.

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In an interview before the chamber speech, Johnson said most of the new hires fall into one of two camps: employees who provide direct customer service, and technology workers, including those who can build “new products” for the company.

“Job number one was to hire more recruiters,” Johnson said. “We had to make the pipeline bigger.”

The market’s volatility early in the pandemic was one driver of activity. Another was the subsequent boom in retail trading amid the emergence of so-called “meme stocks” — GameStop, AMC, and the like — in which social-media chatter often drove waves of investor interest.

And to some extent, the extra hiring addressed attrition that Fidelity and many other mid-sized and large employers experienced during the pandemic. Fidelity also offered a round of voluntary buyouts to eligible US employees in mid-2021.

“A lot of people did take the opportunity to reevaluate and reconsider what they were doing with their lives, and chose to do something else,” said Johnson, who noted that she still considered Fidelity’s retention levels to be strong compared to peer companies. “There was a decent amount of hiring to bring in people to replace that.”

The pandemic also spurred new business practices that helped with hiring, including the more widespread acceptance of remote work. Fidelity, like many employers, now regularly brings people on board without any in-person contact first. Johnson told Datar she found it “kind of surreal” at first to hire someone before actually shaking that person’s hand.

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Another beneficial development: Fidelity could hire many workers who don’t live near the company’s operation hubs, but rather could be largely remote or only near one of Fidelity’s retail branches.

“I’m not sure if we would have had the nerve to do that, pre-pandemic,” Johnson said. “But our confidence level had really changed. That was an example of something that really helped us widen the pipeline.”

Johnson said she’s personally in the office “most of the time,” or traveling for work. But Fidelity is still experimenting with the best ways to blend at-home and in-office work. A spokeswoman said about a quarter of Fidelity employees participate in voluntary “re-entry programs” today but the company is about to embark on a new phase in which more people will be in the office. One new approach: bringing specific teams into the office for a weeklong stretch, to encourage collaboration among employees’ closest colleagues.

During the Globe interview and on stage at the chamber event, Johnson also discussed Fidelity’s forays into cryptocurrency and efforts to attract younger investors through social media sites such as Reddit and Instagram. Fidelity got into the blockchain business in 2018, offering custody and trading services for institutional investors. The most recent move is a controversial one: Fidelity announced last month it will enable employers to offer workers access to bitcoin as an investment option in their 401(k) plans, even though the US Department of Labor has raised concerns about including crypto in employer-sponsored retirement plans, in part because of the currency’s volatility.

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“We have a bunch of different things cooking that we’re working on [in crypto],” Johnson said. “It depends on how the market and how the regulatory environment evolves. …There’s a lot of change in the whole industry that starts to become possible with the timing and ease of movement that blockchain technology might bring about.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.