Your boss wants you to come back to the office

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Up and down the new virtual Wall Street, the question has started to creep in: When will the bosses order us back to our real offices?

Almost six months after the coronavirus pandemic emptied towers and trading floors in New York and beyond, JPMorgan Chase executives have discussed compelling people to come back into the city and other places where COVID-19 has subsided, according to people familiar with the matter.

The bank already asked some new analysts to report into offices in New York and London to get up to speed in person after online classroom training. Goldman Sachs Group advised recruits to station themselves near its offices should they be called in. And Blackstone Group has encouraged investment professionals to return.

Read more: Lonely, less productive: How employees really feel about working remotely

Now that the U.S. Labor Day holiday has come and gone, many who were given the option of working from home are itching to learn what comes next. Memos are being parsed for clues to bosses’ preferences. Are references to safety measures at the office or to the fatigue of working from home meant as reassurances or as a nudge to repopulate Midtown towers?

Take, for example, a recent missive from top executives at Jefferies Financial Group: “We probably all feel that too much WFH is simply too much, as we all miss each other and at the end of the day, we all know we are more effective in person than on Zoom,” Chief Executive Officer Richard Handler and President Brian Friedman wrote.

Read more: 6 ways employee well-being is suffering during COVID-19

They later caveated that “no person at Jefferies should feel an ounce of pressure to return to our offices.”

In fact, almost every bank says employees are under no pressure to come back. Yet this is Wall Street, where competitive juices flow and paranoia looms large over catching deals, scoring bonuses and winning promotions. Quiet conversations about what’s next are ubiquitous, though few people are willing to talk openly about the subject for fear of sounding too reluctant or, worse, ready to volunteer.

Some privately say they’re still worried about leaving their homes and that as long as the decision is up to them they’ll wait until there’s a vaccine before coming back. Many lack options for childcare or are reluctant to brave buses, subways and trains — concerned that venturing out could expose them or vulnerable loved ones to a virus that’s killed more than 189,000 Americans.

Then there are those who are eager to rush in, whether to catch a break after months of confinement with families or to impress the bosses. That can fuel anxiety in others.

At Goldman Sachs, where in-office staffing at its headquarters has hovered around 10% to 20% across divisions, one member of the rank and file wished the firm would just tell everyone if and when they should return. One worry is that brown nosers may go get face-time with the top brass, making those who stay away look weak or lazy.

JPMorgan has been reimbursing Uber and taxi rides to the office for traders below the managing-director level so they don’t have to share public transportation. Some of the more senior traders have been walking or driving to work. And in investment banking, the firm has asked that 50% of its dealmakers be in the office on a given workday, up from 25% previously, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Executives have their own reasons for making the commute, including the message it sends to subordinates.

An executive at Citigroup plans to start working from one of the bank’s outposts, but only in the mornings. He sees it as a chance to signal to colleagues that, eventually, life will return to normal. At another financial-services firm, a manager said he plans to take Zoom calls from his Manhattan office to apply subtle pressure on subordinates.

There’s an irony in all of this: Goldman Sachs and rivals have argued for years they’re really tech companies now. But the mounting anxiety among bankers about needing to get back to the office is revealing their traditional ways, valuing face-to-face meetings and training. The denizens of Silicon Valley, meanwhile, are embracing the era of working anywhere they want.

Goldman’s senior leaders have made it clear they believe in an apprentice culture and that the firm can thrive only when people are present. CEO David Solomon has set the tone, coming into the office throughout.

The virus is still a real risk, but sometime between April, when television screens showed refrigerated morgue trucks around New York, and late summer, when infection rates there dropped to near zero, the thinking on how to staff offices shifted.

For the rank and file, banks have reconfigured their floors to comply with social distancing guidelines. Still, New York’s density presents more intractable challenges. After the commute, there’s the elevators.

It’s no wonder that the industry is so fractured over how to proceed. A few days before Labor Day, Wells Fargo & Co. told its workforce — the largest in U.S. banking — that it plans to keep most staff working from home through at least Nov. 1.

JPMorgan executives will be watching closely in the coming weeks to gauge whether infection levels worsen as more people return. If things go well, invitations to return voluntarily may become mandates, said the person who asked not to be identified. Even under that more extreme scenario, the bank doesn’t anticipate its New York buildings will exceed 50% capacity for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps, the post-Labor Day period will turn out to be a chance for employees to demonstrate their commitment without really having to stick with it.

Bloomberg News
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