When will Wall Street bosses order workers back to the office?
New York — Up and down the new virtual Wall Street, the question has started to creep in: when will the bosses order us back to our real offices?
Almost six months after the coronavirus pandemic emptied towers and trading floors in New York and beyond, JPMorgan Chase executives have discussed compelling people to come back into the city and other places where Covid-19 has subsided, according to people familiar with the matter.
The bank has already asked some new analysts to report into offices in New York and London to get up to speed in person after online training. Goldman Sachs advised recruits to station themselves near its offices should they be called in. And Blackstone has encouraged investment professionals to return. Now that the US Labour Day holiday has come and gone, many who were given the option of working from home are itching to learn what comes next. Memos are being parsed for clues to bosses’ preferences. Are references to safety measures at the office or to the fatigue of working from home (WFH) meant as reassurances or as a nudge to repopulate Midtown towers?
Take, for example, a recent missive from top executives at Jefferies Financial Group: “We probably all feel that too much WFH is simply too much, as we all miss each other, and at the end of the day, we all know we are more effective in person than on Zoom,” CEO Richard Handler and president Brian Friedman wrote.
They later caveated that “no person at Jefferies should feel an ounce of pressure to return to our offices”.
In fact, almost every bank says employees are under no pressure to come back. Yet this is Wall Street, where competitive juices flow and paranoia looms large over catching deals, scoring bonuses and winning promotions. Quiet conversations about what is next are ubiquitous, though few people are willing to talk openly about the subject for fear of sounding too reluctant or, worse, ready to volunteer.
Some privately say they are still worried about leaving their homes and that as long as the decision is up to them, they will wait until there is a vaccine before coming back. Many lack options for child care or are reluctant to brave buses, subways and trains, concerned that venturing out could expose them or vulnerable loved ones to a virus that has killed more than 189,000 Americans.
Then there are those who are eager to rush in, whether to catch a break after months of confinement with families or to impress the bosses. That can fuel anxiety in others.
At Goldman Sachs, where in-office staffing at its headquarters has hovered at 10%-20% across divisions, one member of the rank and file wished the firm would just tell everyone if and when they should return. One worry is that brown nosers may go and get face-time with the top brass, making those who stay away look weak or lazy.
A staffer in JPMorgan’s wealth-management business working from an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side said he was relieved when his manager told him their team probably would not have to return until 2021. He thinks he would be comfortable working at the office, it’s getting there that scares him. He dreads the subway.
Colleagues in sales and trading do not have the same excuse: JPMorgan has been reimbursing Uber and taxi rides to the office for traders below the MD level so they do not have to share public transportation. Some of the more senior traders have been walking or driving to work. And in investment banking, the firm has asked that 50% of its dealmakers be in the office on a given workday, up from 25% previously, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Executives have their own reasons for making the commute, including the message it sends to subordinates.
An executive at Citigroup plans to start working from one of the bank’s outposts, but only in the mornings. He sees it as a chance to signal to colleagues that, eventually, life will return to normal. At another financial-services firm, a manager said he plans to take Zoom calls from his Manhattan office to apply subtle pressure on subordinates.
A senior banker at Goldman Sachs worried competitors could get an edge if their dealmakers return first. The president of Tradeweb Markets, Billy Hult, said his chats with peers across the street often touch on those tensions.
“Shakespeare’s written a lot of plays that centre around envy,” Hult said. “That’s going to be a key force behind everyone’s decision.”
He finally returned to his office last week to find notes from March 16 still on his desk.
There is an irony in all of this. Goldman Sachs and rivals have argued for years that they are really tech companies now. But the mounting anxiety among bankers about needing to get back to the office is revealing their traditional ways, valuing face-to-face meetings and training. The denizens of Silicon Valley, meanwhile, are embracing the era of working anywhere they want.
Goldman’s senior leaders have made it clear they believe in an apprentice culture and that the firm can thrive only when people are present. CEO David Solomon has set the tone, coming into the office throughout.
The virus is still a real risk, but some time between April, when television screens showed refrigerated morgue trucks around New York, and late summer, when infection rates there dropped to near zero, the thinking on how to staff offices shifted.
For the rank and file, banks have reconfigured their floors to comply with social distancing guidelines. Still, New York’s density presents more intractable challenges. After the commute, there are the elevators.
And while firms can learn lessons from their offices in countries that have done a better job managing the pandemic, some of their experiences abroad are hardly reassuring. In Sydney, where August means winter, JPMorgan recently had to send home a whole floor of workers after someone tested positive for the virus.
It is no wonder that the industry is so fractured over how to proceed. A few days before Labour Day, Wells Fargo told its workforce — the largest in US banking — that it plans to keep most staff working from home through at least November 1.
JPMorgan executives will be watching closely in the coming weeks to gauge whether infection levels worsen as more people return. If things go well, invitations to return voluntarily may become mandates, said the person who asked not to be identified. Even under that more extreme scenario, the bank does not anticipate its New York buildings will exceed 50% capacity for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps, the post-Labour Day period will turn out to be a chance for employees to demonstrate their commitment without really having to stick with it.
A mid-level worker at JPMorgan plans to cycle in and out of the office to hang out with co-workers for a while, before what she sees as an inevitable rebound in infections by Thanksgiving.
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