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US and Europe split on bringing bankers back to the office

A transatlantic rift has opened up in banking over the merits of bringing employees back to the office quickly, with some US executives calling for a swift return to pre-pandemic normality while many of their European counterparts take a more cautious approach. 

JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs have summoned all US staff back to their offices as soon as next month. By contrast, European banks from London-based HSBC to France’s Société Générale are returning to the office more cautiously and with a more relaxed attitude to flexible working.

“Some banks are very traditional in their viewpoint on the workplace, and really want people back in offices,” said Darin Buelow, global location strategy leader at Deloitte. “Then you have the other end of the spectrum where you have financial services companies . . . taking a very thoughtful and careful approach to where and how people can work.”

Last week, Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan chief executive, launched an impassioned defence of returning to the office, declaring that he was cancelling all future Zoom meetings because he was “done with it”.

“We want people back to work, and my view is that sometime in September, October it will look just like it did before,” Dimon added.

Dimon said clients told him that in cases where JPMorgan lost business to peers, it was because “bankers from the other guys visited, and ours didn’t. — well, that’s a lesson”.

The chief executive of French lender Société Générale, Frédéric Oudéa, takes a different view. Last week he said “the idea that winning is just about spending 22 hours during the day at the office” was outdated. He dismissed Dimon’s concern that bankers could lose deals by not meeting clients face to face.

SocGen also announced an agreement with unions to allow all French staff to work from home three days a week after the crisis subsides. Oudéa plans to roll out this policy globally and said it would give it a recruitment advantage with “young talents” who “don’t see the world in the same way they did just two years ago”.

Similarly, HSBC CEO Noel Quinn abolished the entire executive floor of its London skyscraper. Officeless C-suite managers now hot desk on an open plan floor. It is part of a radical plan to cut 40 per cent from its global head-office costs. Quinn says he will lead by example by frequently working remotely himself and by slashing his business travel by half.

There are even splits with the same bank, with some European-based investment bankers resisting diktats to return to their desks full time. At Credit Suisse’s Canary Wharf office, around 30 per cent of staff are in on any given day, with a full return not likely until September versus July for colleagues in New York.

“There is an entrenched office culture in most investment banks, [but] there is a bit of resistance from staff,” said one Credit Suisse banker. “There is a value in having face-to-face, but does it need to be five days a week any more? No.”

Advocates for a return to the pre-pandemic norm say remote work dampens company culture, makes younger employees harder to train, and hurts competitiveness when it comes to winning business from clients. 

However, supporters of the hybrid approach argue Covid has proven that remote work does not have an impact on productivity, with investment banks reporting record revenues in 2020.

Meanwhile, flexible policies could help attract young talent who may be put off by a return to rigid working patterns. Google has said a fifth of staff can work from home permanently, while the remainder have the option to come in three days a week and spend two days “wherever they work best”.

“There’s data supporting both ends of the spectrum,” said Buelow from Deloitte, noting that weak company culture might increase turnover, but giving employees more freedom could boost both worker satisfaction and productivity.

Banks are also paying closer attention to employee morale after the pandemic revived criticism on the relentless, work-until-you-drop culture that is endemic in the industry.

Last month, a regulatory programme manager at HSBC in London went viral on LinkedIn when he described his decision to prioritise work over his health while having a heart attack. 

And in February, a group of first-year investment banking analysts at Goldman Sachs presented management with a slide deck describing arduous working conditions, shining a rare spotlight on the stresses faced by young people working in investment banking. Based on a survey of 13 analysts, the slide deck reported an average work week of 95 hours, with five hours of sleep a night starting at 3am.

One UK bank chief executive said that the transition to flexible working would be harder than the shift to universal homeworking a year ago. They said early experiments with part-video, part in-person meetings had left participants confused and less engaged.

“We know how to run a business with people in the office, we know how to run it with people at home,” the person said. “But this hybrid model with significant numbers in and significant numbers at home . . . is going to prove to be harder than all-in or all-out.”

 Additional reporting by Michael O’Dwyer and Nicholas Megaw


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