Sarah, a young analyst at one of the world’s biggest investment banks, is back in her Lower Manhattan office about three days a week now, mostly clocking the kind of long hours typically required of the junior Wall Street set.
She’s got free breakfast in the morning, a comped gym membership and can expense a car ride home at night if she doesn’t feel like hopping on her bike and pedaling back to Chelsea, all new perks dangled by her bosses to lure employees back to headquarters in the late Covid era.
But the tug of remote work remains.
During the pandemic year, Sarah (who asked not to use her real name so as not to upset her employer) had more autonomy over her workday: She could log into her computer early, put in her hours, then duck out for a walk or dinner before jumping back online later to finish up.
When in the office, Sarah says, bosses typically disdain anyone who says they will be “working from home.” Pre-Covid, they considered that code for, “I won’t actually be doing anything.”
As a result, people stuck around late just to be seen by their managers. Covid changed all that. And Sarah doesn’t want to revert to the way things were.
“I could see being in the office a few days a week, and they are doing whatever they can to get us back,” Sarah said in an interview. “And some of my colleagues with kids and families really want to go back so they aren’t bothered all the time at home. But I think for a lot of us, a hybrid model is what we want.”
Sarah’s experience is playing out across the white-collar working world as the biggest, fastest and most head-spinning disruption in American working life in generations rambles toward some kind of return to normality. The trouble is that almost no one — workers or bosses — has any real idea what normal means now.
The pandemic almost instantly transformed working life in the U.S. and across the world, driving companies in industries from finance to technology and media to upend the way they operate, vacating centralized workplaces and turning employees’ homes into offices.
It scrambled how parents handle childcare. It made employers question whether they needed most of their employees to come into headquarters or if they could dramatically cut down on overhead costs, especially expensive urban real estate.
In other words, Covid smashed the fast-forward button on transformations already under way in the nature of white-collar work. The “Future of Work” is already here. But it’s a deeply confused picture.
Initially it looked like workers could be just as — or even more — productive if they no longer had to commute and could structure their hours however they liked. In September of last year, a study by consulting firm Mercer found that 94 percent of employers said productivity was as high or even higher following the rapid shift to remote work.
Senior managers across Wall Street began to calculate how much money they could save on expensive Manhattan commercial real estate if they simply shifted large blocks of their workforce to remote work.
“Early on we looked at the productivity numbers and they were great and the cost savings looked significant,” the CEO of a large bank said in a recent interview, requesting anonymity to talk freely. “But we’ve kind of rethought a lot of that.”
Now, as many big employers target the end of summer as the time to figure out exactly how they will structure work in the post-Covid era, there is little consensus. And remote work itself has already become a bargaining tool as a tight labor market affords employees more leverage and limits bosses’ ability to demand their workers get back to the office.
“It’s all over the place,” said Ed Egee, who handles workforce development for the National Retail Federation. Remote work is “definitely going to change the workplace. But I don’t think I know, and I don’t think [employers] know, exactly how yet.”
If there was one industry that might have seemed ripe to go remote, you might have expected it to be Wall Street. After all, most trading long ago moved off physical trading floors and onto computers and servers, and bankers and financial analysts are some of the most technologically savvy workers you can find.
But investment banks also have a traditional way of working that required long hours in the office and traders yelling at each other between desks during market hours. Now employers on Wall Street and elsewhere are struggling to decide just how much being physically present in an office really matters to their work culture and their bottom lines.
So far, there’s little consistency. Banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorganChase are nudging and prodding and sometimes, gently demanding that workers get back to the office. Others like Citigroup are using the promise of continued remote work as a lure to draw talent away from rivals.
At JPMorgan, branches are mostly reopened with workers back on the job. CEO Jamie Dimon has urged the employees in the corporate office and the investment bank to be there in person at least half the time now with a plan of getting closer to normal full-time office work by the end of the year, albeit with some increased flexibility.
Some of the calculus at JPMorgan is around worker productivity, an executive at the bank said in an interview. But some of it is also about employee mental health.
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