Global banks adopt markedly different back-to-work policies

Goldman Sachs bankers were called back to their desks this week, but the return to the office came with a twist. The bank offered free food to staff at its 200 West Street headquarters in New York and staged afternoon concerts to buoy morale.

Despite the bonhomie, there was no disguising the fact that Goldman has led the pack in demanding its staff return to the office, a stance that chimes with its reputation as one of the more hard-nosed operators on Wall Street.

Bankers at other lenders, including Barclays, will also start trickling back to the office this month. But the pace at which employees are expected to return varies significantly depending on the lender and its location, according to a Financial Times analysis of 20 global banks based on internal memos, responses from spokespeople and others briefed on their plans.

Among the laggards is HSBC, which has yet to set a date for its bankers to return, and which plans to substantially reduce its office footprint by adopting a much more flexible approach to office working. JPMorgan Chase aims to bring staff in London and New York back next month. Others, including Bank of America and Morgan Stanley, have opted for a September return.

For many bankers, the return date itself is less important than the degree of flexibility that will be afforded to them after more than a year of homeworking because of the pandemic.

Although Morgan Stanley does not plan to recall workers until September, its chief executive, James Gorman, this week struck a tough tone on the need to embrace the return to the office. He said he would be “very disappointed” if staff were not putting in regular face time by early September.

Like his counterpart at Goldman, David Solomon, Gorman said office life was an essential part of developing junior staff, many of whom have struggled with long hours and isolation during the pandemic.

Stefanie Coleman, a principal in EY’s people advisory service unit focused on banking and capital markets, said: “There is an emphasis with a lot of American banks on . . . working in-person [and] having those in-person interactions with clients.”

Société Générale — which reopened its Paris office on Monday — is among those banks taking a more laissez-faire approach to post-pandemic working arrangements. It plans to let most bankers work from home up to three days a week, after striking a deal with French labour unions that has become a template for all employees regardless of the country they work in.

Citigroup has said most of its bankers will return to work under a “hybrid” model, with at least three days a week in the office and up to two at home. Those classed as “resident” workers, who are unable to perform their roles at home, will have to return to the branch or office, while “remote” employees will not need to turn up.

Standard Chartered, meanwhile, has told staff they can agree with their manager how often they need to come in, and is allowing some employees to work from “near-home” locations so they can avoid the city commute.

Banks including Goldman and Morgan Stanley are delegating some responsibility to individual teams to come up with a precise office schedule. For units such as trading, where in-person interaction with colleagues is seen as crucial, this will invariably mean most if not all days in the office. But for bankers who are out wooing clients, advising on deals or working in back-office support functions, there is likely to be a more flexible approach. 

“Nobody has worked at a hybrid environment at scale,” said Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader of PwC’s people and organisation practice. “There’s going to be series of experiments. Whether it’s Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday [in the office] or teams coming in rotations, they’re going to have to be flexible.”

The push to bring staff back to the office is largely being driven by senior executives rather than rank-and-file bankers who have adjusted to working remotely without long commutes, Sethi said. “Business executives want to move back to the office more aggressively, more quickly than their employees do,” he added. “Our surveys show a 20 per cent difference between leaders and employees.”

For some banks, the decision to adopt a more flexible approach is being driven by factors unrelated to the taming of the pandemic. HSBC, for instance, is cutting its office footprint by 20 per cent this year as it executes a big cost-saving programme. The bank intends to sharply curb business travel too.

Another thorny issue is vaccinations, and whether staff will be forced to tell their employer whether they have received their jabs. On this, too, Goldman is in the vanguard after it said last week that it would make disclosure mandatory.

One Goldman banker said for those who had been vaccinated, office life this week was identical to the time before the pandemic. But bankers who have not yet been inoculated are still required to wear a mask when walking around the office and must sit at work stations with at least one vacant slot next to them.

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