Bank CEOs Should Resist the Urge to Hot-Desk

The degree to which bankers will be back in the office after the pandemic looks very different depending what side of the Atlantic you’re on.

In Europe, big lenders are signaling Covid-19 has revolutionized the world of work. The century-old banking behemoth HSBC Holdings Plc recently said its top executives are giving up their treasured private offices to hot-desk across open-plan spaces. Gone too will be one-fifth of its global office space this year as the lender embraces a hybrid home-office arrangement for staff. 

In one of the boldest moves, Societe Generale SA plans to allow all employees in France to work from home at least two days a week — for some, it could be as many as three. Standard Chartered Plc is scrapping dedicated offices for more than 800 staff globally, including Chief Executive Officer Bill Winters, and making the flexible working styles adopted during the pandemic permanent.

Wall Street titans, by contrast, are itching to get back to their old work habits, their employees in tow. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co. says he’s done with Zoom calls. His counterpart at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., David Solomon, has famously said he sees remote working as an “aberration.” Any flexible options appear likely to be limited for now. 

An Accenture Plc survey of hundreds of financial-services executives in the U.S. and Canada found that almost 80% would prefer their workers to spend four to five days in the office once the pandemic is over.

Their argument is that being in the office together boosts productivity and innovation, while fostering the company culture. It also makes it easier to onboard staff, especially the juniors.

Once face-to-face meetings with clients are the norm, there’s an expectation that they are what will make the difference for clinching deals. Dimon has lamented missing out on business because rivals were able to meet with clients in person. That could be hard to reconcile with any permanent remote working arrangements.

Which side is right? I’d have to say Wall Street looks more realistic. Beyond aligning corporate strategies with their financial interests (most big banks have loaned copious amounts to the commercial real-estate industry) maintaining flexibility around just how significantly habits will change post-pandemic is the safer bet.

An overzealous drive to& cut expenses, which have weighed heavily on European banks’ profitability, could mark a quick win with employees and shareholders for firms that go big on remote or hybrid solutions. But they may be tying themselves to a mode of working that winds up being a hindrance. 

True, by taking on board employees’ needs and desires as we emerge from the health crisis, management can boost morale. According to Morgan Stanley, which has surveyed office workers in Europe’s five major economies, there’s been a consistent preference over the past few months for continuing to work from home two days a week once social distancing eases.

And there is huge pressure in some parts of banking to find ways to ease the burden on overworked employees. This transition back to the office is a perfect moment for the industry to make robust changes to address a culture that has made it impossible for a more diverse workforce to thrive in. 

Yet not everyone will have the option. Remote working in the more regulated parts of financial services may not be feasible in the long term. Regulators had no choice but to allow some flexibility while restrictions on movement were in place. But as UBS Group AG Chairman Axel Weber has noted, high-risk areas simply need to be monitored in person. And for certain critical functions, including trading where every millisecond counts, the office is by far the superior setting.

Companies should take care that any radical new set-ups aren’t poorly thought through, or turn out to be publicity stunts that don’t bring much real change. HSBC CEO Noel Quinn said the hot-desking idea stemmed from a real hunger to be back in the office with everyone, mingling and sharing ideas. But the photo he shared on LinkedIn — a bunch of seemingly randomly arranged desks with a few scattered plants — wasn’t very inspiring.

Convincing staff to forfeit their desks will require more flexibility on behalf of employers, and investment in a more desirable workplace, as my colleague Bloomberg Opinion Chris Hughes has argued.

Most people are happier going into the office if there’s a good café, a gym and a fun area to network with colleagues. That is what’s garnered a number of Goldman’s buildings rankings among the best workplaces by research firm Leesman. As a result, companies that aren’t under pressure to cut expenses are exploring ways to improve their offices and not just to reduce the footprint, a London-based commercial-property adviser told me.

The financial industry could benefit greatly by giving staff more flexibility, cleaning up its image of a dangerously rigid work culture that suits a select few. But getting that balance right won’t be easy — and first-movers may not end up winning the race.

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.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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