If you liked being stuck at the office all day in endless meetings, you’re going to love being stuck at home all day in endless virtual meetings. That seems to be the shared experience in Wall Street and London as the first week of pandemic precautions starts to really hit home. Goldman Sachs appears to have solved the “nobody wants to be on Team B” problem by referring to its two rotating groups of employees as “Team Blue” and “Team White”. Other banks seem to be increasingly moving in the direction of emptying out the office buildings and moving as many people as possible to home working. We’re already seeing plaintive calls in morning emails for the government to permit the urgent delivery of trampolines, climbing frames and other means of getting bored kids out of the house, a service which might be more essential to the economy than you’d necessarily think.
And it appears that investment bankers are taking a while to get used to the culture shock – which is considerable, in a profession that’s famously gregarious and which has always placed a premium on physical presence and direct contact. In the initial stages of getting used to their own company, it seems that many in finance have tried to reach out for the next best thing – scheduling as many group chats and videocalls as possible, enough to fill up the day for many of those interviewed even though the markets are moving fast enough to occupy all of a normal working day and more.
But it doesn’t seem to be enough. As RBS chairman Philip Hampton says, “So much of crisis management is looking people in the eyes”, and that’s quite difficult when nobody can really manage to look straight into their webcam, the toddlers are running into the room every couple of hours and half the team are distracted by sending Bloomberg messages about how hideous they think the MD’s wallpaper is. There’s a strong sense that once things have got back to normal, the parties to the Great Home-Working Debate will have switched sides – cost-conscious managers will be keen to cut back on expensive office space, while employees who remember the pandemic experience will be horrified at the idea of repeating it.
For the comparatively few souls left making the journey over to the trading floor, things almost seem to be more comfortable. Only “staff needed for essential financial services provision” are allowed out of their houses in the UK lockdown, which in practice seems to mean a small core of trading teams who need access to particular IT systems that can’t (or shouldn’t) be connected to the internet. These key staff are being looked after with Uber rides to stop them having to take public transport and much wider desk space to ensure separation. There’s apparently “a kind of camaraderie” developing between those who share the eerie experience of the cavernous trading floors and empty corridors. At least they seem to have been spared the absolute sum of all hardships – early indications appear to be that the first quarter of 2020 has been a record one for revenues.
Daniel Davies – Read more on efinancialcareers.com