Bank Bucks U.S. Peers, Saying No One Should Return 5 Days a Week

Even as many of the biggest U.S. banks rush to restock their towers with workers, at least one lender is giving up its pre-pandemic norms.

Synchrony Financial -- the bank behind credit cards offered by Amazon.com Inc. and PayPal Holdings Inc. -- began to test its reopening plans in recent weeks by bringing back about 200 employees to its Stamford, Connecticut, headquarters and three other U.S. locations. The move comes as larger competitors such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are ramping up their own returns, ordering much of their staff back this summer.

There’s one big difference in their approaches going forward: Synchrony workers have been told they can’t come back to the office five days a week.

“Our employees told us across the board they wanted a more flexible work arrangement,” Chief Executive Officer Brian Doubles said in an interview. “A big part of this is how do you go about this in a way that’s inclusive?”

Synchrony is part of the raft of companies, from Ford Motor Co. to Facebook Inc., betting that the coronavirus pandemic has permanently upended the way Americans want to work. The firm is embracing remote work and ditching a significant portion of its real estate along the way -- moves that will help the lender shave a quarter of a billion dollars from expenses this year.

Synchrony will now have three types of offices. Employees who opt to work from virtual hubs will have no physical office nearby and will work remotely permanently. Then there’s the so-called hoteling sites, where people will be able to book a desk when they need it. Lastly, staff can work a hybrid schedule that gives them the option of having an assigned seat.

The plan suggests the bank is an outlier in the financial-services industry, according to data compiled by CBRE Group Inc. Almost a third of such companies told the real estate firm in a recent survey they were already at normal occupancy in their offices, while another 64% said they would reach that level by the end of the year.

And just 8% of banks and other financial companies are expecting to significantly shrink their office space over the next three years.

Left Behind

Some financial firms, including American Express Co. and Citigroup Inc., have said they expect more flexibility. But across corporate America, plans for hybrid work have led to concerns that those who have less face time with bosses may get fewer opportunities for advancement. Synchrony said it is seeking to address that issue by requiring that even those who want to go to the office work remotely one or two days a week.

“We don’t want people to feel left out,” Doubles said.

Companies are coming up with creative ways to ensure that employees who choose to work from home are still part of a firm’s culture and on track for promotions, said Kate Thatcher, CEO of Architecture + Information, which advises companies on culture and architectural design.

One financial firm, for instance, is planning to align its schedule with the school calendar, Thatcher said. Employees will be expected to work from the office four days a week when school is in session and will be allowed to be fully remote during academic holidays, she said.

“Senior managers and executives tend to set the cultures at companies, and if they’re working all the time in person -- even if they’re not requiring all staff to -- it starts to drive the center of power and gravity right back to the office, leaving out those who take advantage of working from home,” Thatcher said. “Wherever those influential voices are is where the conversation is happening. That’s one thing that folks are trying to be cognizant of.”

Synchrony envisions that about half of its employees will work from the hybrid offices, while roughly 30% will operate from sites with the hoteling format. About one-fifth will be entirely virtual.

For now, the bank has invited staff volunteers who are fully vaccinated to return to offices across the U.S. That’s allowed the company to test out some of the social aspects of the office such as opening up its gym facilities or reinstating seating in the cafeteria.

“The energy levels here are off the charts,” Doubles said. “I do think personal connections are important.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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