Marcus Ashworth

Let’s Face It, Most Bankers Are Going Back to the Office

Credit Suisse Group AG has portentously unveiled a new vision for its employees’ work-life balance with “The Way We Work.” The initiative, which promises maximum flexibility, is just too good to be true or manageable. It’s the latest example of what’s becoming an all-too-common theme: large employers virtue signaling that they’re now all hip and flexible when it comes to how and where their people work.

With the Swiss lender’s recent history — multi-billion-dollar losses due to the Greensill and Archegos scandals — it is tempting to think the company ought to be having more oversight not less. And the new model runs the risk of becoming just another corporate public relations exercise, especially as it is presently just for Swiss employees. (Its rollout in other regions will depend on country-specific Covid guidelines.) While the press release sounds nice, the bank seems far from clear on how to make such flexibility work in practice, and what happens to all those half-empty office buildings.

Although it’s easy to pick on Credit Suisse (its “New Ways of Working” program goes by the acronym N-WOW!), the bank is hardly alone.

Dig past similar headlines, and it’s clear that very few companies have actually committed to new ways of working that can be easily implemented or measured. Many have pledged to offer more flexibility without specifying who can actually take advantage of it and how frequently. The danger is that the new WFH vs. RTO rules might not be practical for many employees, and companies will have to backtrack on what has been interpreted as a commitment to lots of remote work. That’s a breeding ground for intra-office dissent.

For example, anyone who has ever spent time in a satellite office knows full well that much of the real action takes place in HQ. So if you remain an email address or a talking head in a Zoom room while others are showing up in person, well, best of luck earning that next promotion or pay rise. That’s not necessarily the way things should be, and perhaps employers can use this crisis as an opportunity to make work better and workplaces fairer. But we have to be realistic about what we’d risk losing too.

There is a lot to commend about a centralized office space — human interaction more than anything is what drives commerce. Creativity, decision-making and innovation all spring from the happenstance as much as the scheduled meeting. That is also where juniors supposedly learn from their more experienced colleagues, and I would argue it works the opposite way too. I’ll swap you a derivatives war story, if you could just explain to me again what TikTok is.

So far, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have chosen to keep it simple: Once the pandemic is over (for many, that means after July 4), employees are expected to return as before to their rabbit hutches — on time and smartly dressed too. After all, that is what current and prospective employees, and clients, are used to getting from these elite firms. It’s a bet that full office attendance and a concomitant work ethic will help them win business away from competitors.

Standard Chartered Plc, on the other hand, was one of the first to move to a much more convoluted solution — allowing employees the choice of working from home or from the office (or from a near-home office), for whatever their preferred day(s) of the week. There can be such a thing as too much choice making things unmanageable.

And you have to spare a thought for the middle-manager class. It is one thing for those on high to waft indulgences; it’s quite another for line managers responsible for making sure work gets done and teams hang together. Just imagine: “OK we’ve got to win this new contract and we’ve got to make it work. But ... where is everyone? It’s a Tuesday, so does that mean Wally’s in the new satellite place with no functioning Wi-Fi yet, or is he at home?” How would N-WOW! dictate such a situation?

Of course, some of the new flexible approaches are smart, worth trying and can even end up being more productive. Kudos to new Citigroup Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jane Fraser who has thought through how to differentiate the behemoth of more than 200,000 happy worker bees from its peers. The bank is offering Zoom-free Fridays and other reasonable flexible working options. This kind of tempered approach might actually stick. And if something ends up not quite working, I’m sure she’ll be swift to adapt.

That’s the nub of it, really. How much of this surreal white-collar lifestyle will withstand contact with a post-lockdown reality? How quickly will employers adapt and change? And what will the costs of those changes be? Face it, few will be lucky enough to avoid an RTO commute. But in a curious way, that cold, dark, windswept train platform in February has its charms too.