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Goodbye WFH: Staff at City banks are under pressure to return to the office

JP Morgan has had all its managing directors back in five days a week from April — a nod to everyone else (PA Archive)
JP Morgan has had all its managing directors back in five days a week from April — a nod to everyone else (PA Archive)

The City boss was fuming about the lack of staff in his expensive office on Friday. “You can make money and not turn up. You can turn up and not make money,” he said. “You can’t not turn up and not make any money.”

That’s what he would say to staff if HR would let him — they are going to get the message fairly clearly anyway. That view is running strong in the Square Mile. Banks are less likely to ask Covid-traumatised staff, how are you? Now it’s more: get in and crack on.

A few things are playing into this shift. There’s a general back-to-school feel, a desire that this year is different from the last.

Companies also want certainty on their real estate — how much do they need and when? So those banks that are relaxed about seeing staff three days a week are demanding to know, which three?

The other factor for the traditional City — the shirt-sleeved traders and bankers — is that there isn’t enough business at the moment to keep them all in lunch.

If things don’t pick up by Christmas, redundancies are coming — a bonfire of the bankers, perhaps.

Another City boss says: “It’s no longer 2/3 days in but 3/4. The investment banks are making cuts and it doesn’t help not to be seen. The temperature has been boiling and I see full offices, not bankers working from the garden.”

The days when office incentives were the plan — free taxis, free food, free hairdos — have been replaced by an approach that is more stick than carrot.

Part of what’s driving the fear — the sticks — is that the City is going through one of its periodic panics that it is in danger of being usurped by some upstart financial centre — Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Luxembourg.

These fears always turn out to be overdone — some bits of trade, usually not very profitable bits, move abroad. Most of what London wants to keep, sticks. It has so many advantages over would-be rivals.

One of which is this: The City is fun. Less fun than it used to be, since the arrival of Americans with white shirts and even whiter teeth, but still full of clever people thinking and doing smart things, often with a sense of humour and perspective.

Even on its worst day, it beats the hell out of, say, Frankfurt, which has lots of bicycles and a famous-ish book fair.

This is not to say the City is serenely untroubled. There’s a definite problem with the stock market, which isn’t functioning like it should.

London-listed shares are unloved, undervalued, a fact that has been true for too long to be seen as just an anomaly that will correct itself.

That means there aren’t enough new company flotations to keep the army of brokers and bankers who live off such things in the style they expect.

But the stock market is only one relatively small part of what the City does. It’s the most visible bit, the easiest to follow, so it gets written about most often. The rest of it — insurance, bonds, derivatives, legal services — are probably more important and they work just fine. Still, the office pressure is on.

Some have moved faster than others. JP Morgan has had all its managing directors back in five days a week from April — a nod to everyone else.

The Goldman Sachs trading floor on Shoe Lane looks nearly full. You can work from home, say insiders, but you need a reason.

Aviva said in a statement ‘as office attendance has increased, absence due to mental health has decreased’

One City investment banking chief said he would be stepping up the pressure on all management-level staff to return full-time.

He said: “The working from home culture is terrible for young people, they lose all those ‘apprenticeship’ benefits of sharing ideas, spontaneity. You can follow up on things immediately after a meeting in a room, it’s so much harder after a Zoom call, it takes days.”

Last week Lloyds Bank, a mainstream lender, not a City monster, cranked up the return to the office. CEO Charlie Nunn earlier said: “We need everyone in this together, working at pace, if we are serious about transformation and change.”

Aviva, the giant insurer, puts a positive spin on the same thing. It says: “We are seeing consistent increases in office-based working month on month. What is particularly interesting and encouraging to see is that as office attendance has increased, absence due to mental health has reduced.” Get in here for your own sanity, in other words.

The post-Covid City might soon look a lot like the one before. Maybe that period when investment banks were cuddly towards their staff was always going to be a blip.

Simon English is financial editor