There is a lot of earnest talk right now over how flexible banks will be in allowing – maybe even requiring – staff to continue working from home in the months ahead.
Speaking after Barclays first-quarter results at the end of April, chief executive Jes Staley said: “The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.”
Anyone who has made the mistake of a booking a lunchtime meeting in any banking tower in Canary Wharf or Manhattan and has any good ideas about how to social distance in the elevators at that time of day will find a lot of senior executives eager to hear them.
Adena Friedman, president and chief executive of Nasdaq, discussed trading floors on the day after the return to work with David Rubenstein, co-founder of Carlyle in May.
“We will ask people if they want to come back voluntarily,” Friedman said, “and if they feel they can do it in a safe way, then we would like to start to reopen offices to give them that flexibility. But we then will put a whole lot of protocols in place inside the offices to make sure they stay safe.”
These could include temperature testing and the wearing of masks in shared spaces, as well as greater distances between seats.
The truth is that banks want their people back in the office.
Barclays chief financial officer Tushar Morzaria, speaking to analysts in May, told them how, for example, ramping up its collections department will add costs.
He added: “Doing these kinds of things in a work-from-home environment is a pretty clunky way of doing it. It’s not the most productive way of doing it. It is inefficient and, therefore, more costly to be doing these activities from home.”
If the people won’t come to the office, maybe the office must come to the people.
Bloomberg reports anecdotal evidence from real estate brokers in New York of Citigroup enquiring about short-term rentals outside Manhattan, for example in Long Island.
While they have had more time to plan for the re-opening than they did for the coronavirus Covid-19 lockdown, banks still have to prepare for different outcomes in the quarters ahead – new spikes in infection if the virus proves uncontrollable and a return to lockdown, maybe even the discovery of that much-hoped for vaccine.
Banks also have to think longer term now.
“One of the things we are discussing,” one senior US banker tells Euromoney, “is a likely general and long-lasting reluctance to use mass-transit public transport. We need to think about locating operations such as trading, where there are still clear benefits from having our people sit together, in suburban locations where they can drive to work... you know kind of like everybody else in this country does.”
Has anyone checked house prices in Greenwich recently?