City bigwigs say lockdown ‘novelty’ wore off: ‘We can’t toast our successes’

The City is sputtering back to life after a year in hibernation. Canary Wharf shopkeepers are raising shutters while bars and restaurants are welcoming bundled-up diners for chilly alfresco outings.

For some, normal can’t come fast enough. What started as quirky tales about elaborate bookshelves or children interrupting Zoom meetings has since become a slog. Days blur into nights, weeks edge into weekends and for some corners of the industry, record deal flow has led to mounting workloads. 

“We’ve had one of the busiest periods we’ve ever known, and haven’t been able to share the successes,” said Ross Mitchinson, co-chief executive of investment bank Numis. “Going for a drink or a meal with staff and clients after a successful IPO is a great way to bond.”

David Mortlock, managing partner at Berenberg, said his two-day-a-week office visits in an empty City are “eerie” and the whole experience is starting to grate. And he still hasn’t met the firm’s 40 new hires.

“As unnerving at the first lockdown was, there was a novelty factor,” he said. “I’ve missed wandering around the trading floor, picking up on market colour and spending time with the staff. Emotionally, the past few months have been tough on people.”

As restrictions loosen, banks are bracing as the year-long shake-up may bring about a new normal that is far different from the old one. Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan are most active in encouraging staff back, ramping up offerings of Covid tests and swelling to 20% of total headcount. Around 1,800 London staff are coming back in at JPMorgan. 

READ ‘Before Covid, WFH was seen as a day at the golf course’: How the pandemic changed the City forever

Goldman boss David Solomon has probably been the most vocal proponent of office life, saying the best way to forge bonds and maintain culture is to regularly work together in-person. Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank are also inviting back staff in the UK.

As the year drags on, more are starting to agree.

“It’s hard to read the room, have a natural free-flowing conversation and those ‘side alley’ chats that can get to the bottom of an issue,” said City grandee Baroness Helena Morrissey. “Board meetings have become more formulaic. We need to meet in-person again to have robust debates.”

Shaun Browne, co-head of European corporate finance at Houlihan Lokey, has spent lockdown at his home in Cambridgeshire. While he has gone into the City, he found himself commuting for an hour and half each way only to sit on calls for 10 hours.

“I am missing the camaraderie, spontaneity and the human interaction,” he said.  “Just being able to chat to the team informally as an ongoing thing, rather than having to make a big song and dance of booking in a time.”

READ 16-hour days and virtual roadshows: How bankers are handling a record debt bonanza from home

One mid-ranking Goldman Sachs banker said simply cycling into the office last week had been a major escape from routine, while a senior Deutsche Bank dealmaker said that booking a client breakfast meeting suddenly felt like “a major piece of news”.

HSBC now has “collaboration spaces” for client and internal meetings. Most banks have capped employees at 40-50% of office capacity, while bankers are being asked to hot-desk, which some have said reduces team bonding.

But not all bankers have felt the need to rush out of their bedroom offices.

“Now they’re used to it, there’s some reluctance to go back,” said Browne. “The right thing to do is to get everyone back,” in line with government guidance, “and see how things progress from there.”

“We might be forced back in, but there’s not much appetite,” added a director at a US bank. “Most people are thinking September at the earliest.”

Meanwhile, a survey by CityParents, an organisation that supports parents working in corporate roles, found that 80% did not want to revert back to pre-Covid-19 working patterns.

The ability to fit work around home responsibilities rather than the other way around, has offered many enhancements to family life,” said Louisa Symington-Mills, Founder and CEO of the firm.

READ When City bankers at JPMorgan, Goldman and Credit Suisse will head back to the office

Some banks have already signalled a permanent shift in working patterns. Standard Chartered is offering flexible working for 75,000 employees, while Citigroup expects most staff to work from home for up to two days a week. JPMorgan boss Jamie Dimon said he sees a significant shrink in the bank’s real estate.

Morrissey, who is chair of the Diversity Project, said she hopes the City could finally ditch its culture of facetime, which she said would help bolster gender and socio-economic diversity.

She said: “What’s most exciting is the prospect of promotion and reward being set on the basis of results rather than hours spent at the same office desk or the ability to play office politics.”

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Paul Clarke

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