How global banks are approaching a return to the office as the pandemic rages

Lenders such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan want people back in the office but other rivals are more flexible

FILE PHOTO: A Wall Street sign is seen outside the New York Stock Exchange, September 30, 2008.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo
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A new divide is emerging in finance as bankers around the world return to their desks after months of lockdowns during the pandemic.

In one corner, companies like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs are making clear their determination for staff to return to the office. Other banks, including Nomura, Citigroup and a variety of European lenders, have sketched out more flexible policies.

This snapshot of what some banks have communicated so far is expected to evolve as the pandemic does. Group-level announcements may also obscure differing approaches in local offices, as well as in the variety of teams at each company that can realistically switch to remote work permanently.

However, a divide is becoming clearer. JP Morgan's chief executive Jamie Dimon repeated his desire for busy offices at a recent conference, saying that remote work does not work “for those who want to hustle”.

The bank has followed through on his comments with plans for the entire US workforce to return to offices, on a rotational basis, starting this month.

But one bank’s aberration is another’s chance to upend long-running practices – and perhaps give it a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining top staff.

Standard Chartered is wasting no time in offering formal hybrid working agreements to its 85,000 staff globally, with 80 per cent of staff now on flexible contracts, according to a representative. It is also slashing about a third of its office space.

Others are less exacting on where and when staff will be back. Citigroup has laid out a philosophy of flexible working, saying it will promote inclusion and retention – yet chief executive Jane Fraser said at an online event last week that almost everyone will be expected to maintain some sort of presence in the workplace.

Choosing a time for these moves is also dividing companies. In the US, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley have written off the summer for major changes, saying that desks should be occupied by September. They are counting on the value of office culture for staff, particularly younger employees looking to build their networks and skills.

Banks have long grappled with imposing corporate culture across time zones, which is now complicated by the gulf between Covid-19 caseloads and restrictions globally.

London-based staff at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are not all following their American colleagues into the offices yet, after the UK’s “freedom day” from restrictions was postponed until at least July 19.

“Every region is experiencing things differently and at a variety of paces,” said Allison English, deputy chief executive of workplace research company Leesman.

Companies with headquarters in Europe are generally further along the spectrum than their US rivals in favour of flexible policies.

UBS, UniCredit and Deutsche Bank have already unveiled hybrid working models, although the latter is letting each team set their balance of home and office time.

Asia, too, offers a variety of models.

In Shanghai, the world’s first major financial centre to deal with and later tame the virus, about all of the city's 360,000 finance professionals have been working from the office for more than a year, even though they continue to face temperature scans and contact tracing.

Similar scenes are playing out across China and there are no flexible work plans at domestic banks, insurers and brokers.

Updated: July 07, 2021, 3:30 AM