(Bloomberg) – After more than a year of near-empty skyscrapers and virtual conferencing, the City of London is hoping the UK government’s latest lockdown policy will help enable a wider return to the office next week.
Banks like Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have advised UK-based employees that workers should prepare for a gradual return to office starting later this month. Those plans could change if Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces an extension of the remaining lockdown restrictions in England on Monday.
Even if Johnson unlocks, those hoping for a quick return to pre-pandemic norms might be disappointed. According to estimates by the data platform Orbital Insight, it is unlikely that the extent of a return on investment will be consistent across the company, let alone across the broader industry.
If you’re a trader or an investment banker, you’ll likely be leveling off soon – if you haven’t already come back. But other areas of finance can remain calmer.
Visitor numbers to the London headquarters of Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley, which have a significant proportion of dealers and investment bankers, have been estimated to average about a fifth of that Pre-pandemic norm on May 24, according to Orbital’s analysis, which monitors activity levels through satellites and cell phone data.
According to Orbital, traffic was less than half that at UK banks like HSBC Holdings Plc and Standard Chartered Plc, whose buildings have more staff focused on retail and head office.
Bank spokesmen did not want to comment on the calculations.
Or take the two Barclays Plc buildings in Canary Wharf, London. At the headquarters of the British bank on Churchill Place, pedestrian frequency at the end of May was around a tenth of a baseline before the pandemic, according to Orbital. Around a fifth of the employees were present in the separate building that houses the lender’s investment bank.
A Barclays spokesman said May data does not reflect current occupancy levels in London as the bank’s gradual return to the office, particularly at the corporate and investment bank, began in June. The lender has also used spare rooms so some workers who normally work in the London offices are currently on site elsewhere.
“It is impossible to recreate the hustle and bustle of the trading floor at home, but there are other finance jobs that require uninterrupted focus that people who work from home may do much better than those who work in the office,” said Allison English , associate director of workplace research firm Leesman.
The fact that so many areas of finance are well suited to remote working could have a major impact on the myriad of businesses that supported the City of London when half a million daily commuters flocked to the central London borough. You will likely continue to struggle until a wider cross-section of finance returns to the office.
The tone from above can also determine some of the differences. Goldman Sachs’ London building – about a third full – is the busiest of all companies in Orbital’s analysis. The company has been a particularly vocal advocate for a return to the pre-pandemic model, with Chief Executive Officer David Solomon describing this as “a deviation that we will correct as soon as possible”.
In contrast, UK and European bank executives tend to support more flexible working hours for employees. HSBC’s Noel Quinn has promoted hybrid working, Jes Staley said Barclays would avoid a “strict mandate” every time they return to the office, and Standard Chartered has formalized flexible working arrangements for most of its employees. Retail-focused NatWest Group Plc said it anticipates only 13% of its employees will mainly work from the office following the pandemic.
“The approach taken by the US banks shows a clear contrast to the UK and the Europeans,” says David Harding, senior associate at the consulting firm Advanced Workplace Associates. “While US banks set their tone from the top and proclaim the value of their office culture, there is more of a mixed opinion between British and European banks.”
This diversity of approaches and attitudes makes it unlikely that there will be an industry-wide consensus on the financial jobs of the future in the foreseeable future.
“The financial sector encompasses such a wide range of roles that it would be incorrect to generalize that their work at home or in their offices would be better,” said English.
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