(Bloomberg)—Pam Hendrickson took work calls while waiting to give birth at a New York hospital three decades ago, helping to sort out a problem at Chemical Bank from her labor room.
Since then, she’s watched colleagues drag themselves to the office when they should be home sick. Now, the vice chair of investment firm Riverside Co. expects Covid-19’s terrifying toll to finally change some of Wall Street’s hard-charging ways.
“The macho-ness definitely will go away,” she said. “If you don’t feel well -- we’ve always said this, but I think some people haven’t taken us seriously -- keep your butt at home.”
The biggest banks see a path to returning to the office in Manhattan, London and financial capitals around the world after a devastating year. In New York City alone, the pandemic has killed more than 30,000 people, wiped away more than a half million jobs and emptied out neighborhoods. Now industry veterans are preparing for what’s ahead. They’re hoping that Covid brings about lasting change, while welcoming the return of some ancient finance traditions.
Dochtor Kennedy looks forward to staring into the eyes of his rivals again. The president of AdvisorLaw LLC represents brokers inside the industry’s secretive arbitration system. Like so much else over the past year, his hearings haven’t been in person.
“It’s a joke doing it that way -- it’s terrible,” he said. “It feels like you’re less immersed in it. You struggle to try to convey the point.” The distance robs him of his favorite in-person move: “I’ll literally go stand next to opposing counsel, right there, make the point with the witness, then stare,” he said. “I’ll look right at him, hand on the table, look right at his eyes, but talk to the panel.”
But, he added, he’s enjoyed sleeping in his own bed instead of traveling.
Alexandra Lebenthal craves power breakfast. About twice a week for 30 years, the senior adviser at investment bank Houlihan Lokey had sat down around 8:15 at the Regency on Park Avenue, where she gets her eggs scrambled soft with no bread or potatoes. Just as often, she’ll have the Cobb salad for lunch at Michael’s in Midtown, with no tomatoes and extra vinaigrette on the side, and, about once a week, the carpaccio at San Pietro one block south.
“Those places are a part of my networking,” said Lebenthal, who works in the financial-sponsors group and leads an effort to focus on businesses owned by women. “It’s not just a meal. It’s an event.”
When her spots reopen for in-person dining, she plans to hug the waiters at breakfast and celebrate with a new pair of suede Manolo Blahnik pumps, maybe in dandelion yellow. “I’m going to have to practice wearing high heels again. I’m kind of worried.”
Rising vaccinations in New York have helped push the industry toward reopening. Hundreds of JPMorgan Chase & Co. interns are set to work in the lender’s New York and London offices, Citigroup Inc. will begin inviting more employees back in July, and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has said it hopes to have more staffers back by the summer. Even so, finance firms are promising to be kinder, especially to younger employees who say they’re overworked and under-supported.
Wall Street isn’t snapping back into business as usual. Americans have to recommit to wearing masks and other Covid-19 mitigation measures to avoid a new surge, according to Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases have begun to rise slightly again, she said this week, and contagious variants continue to spread. In Hong Kong, positive cases recently appeared in the banking industry right as the city was emerging from a round of restrictions.
Things may soon look closer to normal in the U.S., where 90% of adults are set to be eligible for a shot by April 19.
Ruth Breech misses Jamie Dimon. For years, the senior campaigner for the Rainforest Action Network has pressed JPMorgan and other banks to stop funding the fossil-fuel industry, often protesting executives in person with chants and banners.
“Sharing the same physical space with somebody, especially with one of the most powerful men in world, and to let them know that you have access to them, is huge,” she said. This March, she painted a banner again for an upcoming protest against two banks in Cincinnati.
Rachel Robasciotti, who runs asset manager Adasina Social Capital, hopes that Wall Street keeps some of its recent cultural shifts.
“What’s gone that I won’t miss are the conferences where people drink a little too much and come into your personal space in ways that aren’t necessarily appropriate,” she said. She learned how to lift hands from her shoulder and waist at hotel bars, “but it’s pretty nice not having to constantly reinforce it.”
She wants to make her own permanent changes, too.
“I’m not flying across the country for lunch anymore,” she said. “Unless there’s a clear, demonstrable reason, I’m not getting on a plane for a meeting for a couple of hours.”
Bill Daley, vice chairman of public affairs at Wells Fargo & Co., pines for old workday rituals. “I like being in a conference room with a bunch of people talking about whatever the issue is, as opposed to looking at little squares of peoples’ faces, trying to see if they’re smiling, laughing or ignoring you,” he said. “I’ve been participating in Zoom happy hours, Zoom cheese and wine, and it’s a pathetic replacement.”
He also wants to reestablish the line between life and work. “At least when you left the office in the evening, even though you still had your emails come in, you went home. The day was over.” Daley, who was chief of staff to President Barack Obama, never used to walk around with his phone at home. “Now I find myself carrying it with me, and I regret that. It’s ridiculous.”
Ioannis Ioannou, who teaches strategy at London Business School, wants the pandemic to force the finance industry to rethink other crises.
“Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, social inequality and poverty, all of these are challenges that we are already facing, and evidently we are not sufficiently prepared for them,” said Ioannou, who advises asset manager DWS Group on sustainability. “It’s about the broader role that finance and banking can play in terms of allocating the world’s limited financial capital towards projects, companies and initiatives that will give us a fighting chance.”
Lauren Simmons, who became the youngest full-time female trader at the New York Stock Exchange in 2017 and has since left to become an entrepreneur, isn’t expecting Wall Street’s shifts to last.
“I think it’s more of a pause,” she said. “Unless leadership changes and the mentality of your leadership in your organization changes, then it pretty much goes back to status quo as soon as they get the OK.
--With assistance from Lananh Nguyen and David Scheer.
© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.