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At Long Last, Wall Street Sees Path to Return to the Office

From Zoom fatigue to the exhaustion of jobs colliding with home life, many bankers say the strains of long-term remote work are growing.

(Bloomberg)—New York City is reopening, vaccinations are accelerating and spring brings with it an air of optimism. For Wall Street’s banks, that means a return to offices may finally be in sight.

At JPMorgan Chase & Co., hundreds of interns are set to work in the lender’s New York and London offices in the coming months. Citigroup Inc. is providing workers with rapid Covid tests as it sketches out its plans to safely return people to its buildings. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has said it hopes to have more employees back by summer.

One year after Wall Street sent employees home in droves to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the prospects of a broad return are starting to get clearer -- and not a moment too soon for some companies in the industry. From Zoom fatigue to the exhaustion of jobs colliding with home life, many bankers say the strains of long-term remote work are growing for bosses and underlings alike.

There are exceptions, and signs of growing flexibility as companies such as Apollo Global Management Inc. consider hybrid models. But as other industries look at dramatically reshaping work in a post-Covid world, the stance of New York’s financial giants is clear: Employees should be at offices. It’s just a matter of how quickly -- and safely -- their leaders can get them there.

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“It is very much our goal to be back in the office together,” Evercore Inc. Co-Chief Executive Officer Ralph Schlosstein said in a Bloomberg Television interview Tuesday. “We’re encouraging everybody to get vaccinated as soon as they’re permitted to do so.”

A return for banks would come after many fits and starts, and is dependent on a virus that has proven difficult to control. Indeed, HSBC Holdings Plc’s main Hong Kong office was closed until further notice this week after three people working in the building tested positive for Covid-19.

Wall Street tried to cajole bankers and traders back last fall, when cases were dropping and shops and restaurants began to reopen, only to see those plans falter as Covid-19 roared back in the winter. As of March 3, only 14.5% of New York-area office workers were back, according to data from security company Kastle Systems.

But this time is likely different. Vaccines have arrived and President Joe Biden has asked states to ensure that all adults are eligible for shots by May 1. New York is finally set to reopen its public high schools for in-person learning. Last week, ridership on the subway reached its highest level since the start of the pandemic.

Workers are increasingly eager to get out of the house and back on the road to see colleagues and clients, said Brian Chin, who leads Credit Suisse Group AG’s trading and investment-banking arm.

“There’s only so many Zoom calls you can do,” said Chin, who has said he hopes to get employees back in the office soon. “I do worry about our people.”

Banks remain wary of setting firm dates of when they’ll reopen offices, and the process could stretch for many months. Still, the prospect of companies having to welcome a second class of virtual interns and analysts brings added urgency. Newcomers often used to learn by pulling up a chair behind a senior trader or tagging along during client meetings. That’s a model that’s harder to replicate in the world of video conferencing.

JPMorgan CEO Dimon has made the case for a broader return, saying his firm has seen "alienation" among younger workers and that an extended stretch of working from home could bring long-term economic and social damage.

“It’s important to be together for collaboration and communication,” said John Buchanan, chief operating officer and head of strategy for Mizuho Americas. “And one of the big things is training our younger folks. This is an apprenticeship business. People learn from their mentors.”

Wells Fargo & Co. CEO Charlie Scharf said Wednesday that roughly 200,000 of the San Francisco-based bank’s employees are continuing to work remotely, and that life is unlikely to return to normal until around the end of summer, when more people are vaccinated.

“We’re going to bring people back when it’s safe, and we’re going to give people notice,” Scharf said in a Bloomberg Television interview, adding that he’s “not interested in rushing people back” to offices.

“We’re going to play it by ear, and it’s going to be city by city, state by state, and we’ll make those decisions when we think it’s safe.”

In some ways, banks might not have a choice but to bring back some workers. Historically, traders and certain support staff were required to be in the office so that companies could more easily monitor their activity for regulatory compliance.

As the pandemic swelled in the U.S. last year, Wall Street received special dispensation from regulators, including the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, to allow its traders to work from home. Now, the agency is weighing whether it will allow remote work on a permanent basis.

Industry Divides

The finance industry’s determination to bring workers back is a contrast with Silicon Valley’s large employers, many of whom now plan to keep more of their workers at home on a permanent basis, said Rob Dicks, Accenture Plc’s talent and organization lead for capital markets.

Facebook Inc., for instance, has said that as many as 50% of its employees may eventually be remote, while Twitter Inc. staff can work from home forever if they’d like. Inc., San Francisco’s largest private employer, is adopting widespread flexible work after the pandemic ends.

“Here’s where you see the split between the banks saying, ‘Yes, but we want to see you here,’ and the tech firms saying, ‘Hey, you’re probably right, you have proven, across teams and across individuals, you have the ability to work from home,’” Dicks said, adding that finance companies may have to adapt to recruit in-demand engineers and other technology workers.

Elsewhere, Ford Motor Co. told employees Wednesday they can continue to work from home, allowing more than 30,000 to use the office only when they need to, even after the pandemic is over.

Some financial firms have already said they plan for more flexibility. Apollo will test giving employees the option of working remotely two days a week for the rest of the year. The brokerage BTIG LLC has said that it expects that as many as half of employees will choose to incorporate remote work into their regular schedules even after its offices reopen.

“I think that most people will try hybrid schedules, especially initially, to see if that approach to work is more rewarding,” said BTIG Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Mermel. “For us, the biggest change in thinking throughout the pandemic is the idea that everybody doesn’t have to report to the office in order to be connected.”

Even some of the staunchest supporters of office life have seemed to soften their stance. JPMorgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon said this month that some of his employees might split their time between remote work and coming into the office.

“There will be a large portion who permanently work in the office -- think of our branches, cash management, probably most of the trading floor,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

Mizuho’s Buchanan said there’s only one thing he knows for sure.

“I’m 100% confident that we will not be 100% work from home nor will we be 100% in the office,” he said. “That’s a wide range.”

--With assistance from Hannah Levitt.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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