Give Citigroup’s Bankers a Three-Month Break. Why Not?

Like many of his fellow bank bosses, Citigroup Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mike Corbat isn’t convinced that remote working should become the norm after the pandemic. But he clearly thinks an improvement is needed in the work-life balance of finance industry workers.

From January the Wall Street giant will start offering 12-week sabbaticals (at 25% pay) to staff in North America who’ve been at the company for five years or more — a parting gesture from the CEO before he steps down in February. The bank will also offer a month of fully paid leave to anyone who wants to work pro bono for a charity.

For a big company, this is a worthy way of showing it wants to look after employees and the wider world. Even the cutthroat world of banking is starting to recognize the potential advantages of giving people a break, whether that’s someone trying to juggle family commitments or someone who just feels burned out.

While sabbaticals are often granted in large businesses on an ad hoc, informal basis, official company-wide policies are less common. In finance — especially in work-around-the-clock investment banking and trading — they’re rare. Bank of America Corp. piloted a program two years ago in its securities unit and HSBC Holdings Plc has a company scheme, though neither would share details for this piece.

In fairness, managing sabbaticals can be tricky for employers. Policies need to be clearly spelled out so that they don’t become too onerous for managers. At Citi, employees will have to give at least three months’ notice. The risk is that a valued (and hard to replace) employee takes time off when they’re needed most, or worse, that they find a new calling and don’t come back.

But these are risks worth taking. It’s time the finance industry, and the corporate world more generally, started being a little less fearful about easing the pressure on employees.

For starters, any worker qualifying for such a leave of absence will usually have had plenty of opportunity to prove themselves and their commitment to the firm. Hence Citi’s five-year qualifying period. That loyalty will probably only strengthen after a company-endorsed three-month trek around the world, or quality time spent with family without checking email whenever the kids look the other way.

High performers are a flight risk with or without a sabbatical. Better to give an ambitious banker the opportunity of doing something different after years of hard work and coming back rejuvenated. That may make them more likely to stick around.

The hard part for Citi will be making sure staff feel this is indeed a serious option, and one that won’t penalize their prospects. Take-up among senior managers will be key, as will the monitoring of how careers (and compensation) evolve for individuals who take time out. Maternity leave has been an unhappy precedent, with some women paying the price for years in terms of salary and promotion.

The timing could also be tricky for Citi. After a year of working at home — and the consequent dismantling of work-life boundaries and increase in hours — it’s entirely possible that many employees will be eager for a break to recharge once the vaccines take effect and economies reopen. Citi will have to ensure that individuals asked to postpone their requests don’t interpret this as a lack of commitment to the new scheme.

But without trying such initiatives, things won’t change in the workplace, and the unhealthy feeling that one needs to be permanently present will persist. Let’s hope Citi’s vision on the future of work becomes a template for others. As Corbat notes, banks are “apprenticeship businesses,” where individuals learn from others on the job. This would set a good example. 

We simply don’t know the pandemic’s longer-term implications on remote work for businesses whose cultures and success have depended on being in the office. But if this year has taught us anything, it’s that our work-life balance must improve. There are plenty of ways in which big companies can be more accommodating.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Elisa Martinuzzi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance. She is a former managing editor for European finance at Bloomberg News.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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