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Capital markets pros embrace flexible working

GlobalCapital Capital markets after the pandemic WFH.jpg

The office is back, but not as we knew it

The Post-pandemic Capital Markets Series

This is the first in a series of GlobalCapital articles on life in the capital markets after the pandemic, including the results of the working practices survey that we carried out in summer. We will also be publishing the full results of the survey.

Although the Covid-19 crisis is not over, the capital markets are cautiously beginning to reintroduce many practices that were abandoned in March 2020, such as working in the office, travelling internationally, and holding roadshows and events in person.

However, the pandemic will leave a lasting legacy and life in the markets will not be the same as before. The pace of technological change has increased and much more flexibility has been introduced with regard to working away from the office. Meanwhile, the industry has grappled with heavy workloads and dissatisfaction among employees, some of whom have decided to leave banking altogether. At the same time, the pressure to increase diversity in the ranks, and to reduce carbon emissions has only grown.

This article on the issues raised by the return to in-office working will be followed by the second instalment, tackling the resumption of international travel.

One of the big advantages of working in an office is being surrounded by colleagues to bounce ideas off and check assumptions with, while generally enjoying the camaraderie of being part of a close-knit team.

But while many capital markets bankers are now back in the office some of the time, they are not quite as closely knit as before.

In most offices, social distancing measures such as leaving a workstation empty between any two that are in use have now been abandoned. Even so, many bankers are choosing to take advantage of recently introduced flexible or hybrid work policies, meaning that rows of unoccupied desks are still a frequent sight in the background of Zoom calls.


And with concerns about variants of the Covid-19 virus, such as Delta, remaining heightened, some are worried about the potential return of more restrictive measures.

“We haven’t seen any significant spike or increase in terms of our UK staff and, to be honest, if people need to go back to working remotely, we can deal with that. It’s not a problem,” said a head of UK and Ireland corporate and investment banking at one firm. “What we would need to focus on more is the longer-term impact. Maintaining relationships between individuals and having a physical presence in the office is an important driver of innovation.”

Banks have already had to cope with quickly changing situations and adapt their plans accordingly in recent months.

In the US, for instance, Wells Fargo abandoned a full-scale return to the office on Labor Day (September 7) because of a rise in the number of infections.

“Back in September, when we started to bring people back into the office, it was extremely positive,” said the UK and Ireland country head. “People were really excited to come back in. It would be a shame to have to roll that back.”

‘Triumph for home working’

Indeed, capital markets professionals are, on the whole, longing to return to the office and normality. But most are also determined to make their newly-won flexibility to work at home a permanent feature of their jobs after the pandemic.

What the pandemic has shown is that we are able to do what probably a lot of people didn’t think we would be able to do remotely

Despite the loss of personal interaction, the issuance of bonds and shares has arguably become more efficient than ever during the pandemic, with bond marketing taking place on a condensed timeline, while company management teams have been spared whole days of international travel and the expense of putting on physical roadshows.

“What the pandemic has shown is that we are able to do what probably a lot of people didn’t think we would be able to do remotely,” a debt capital markets banker told GlobalCapital. “We did one transaction last year in July where we had all the investors working from home, all their swaps desks were working remotely, and all the banks were not in the office. In my mind, that is a triumph for home working, so I do think it’s going to be much more widely embraced.”

However, the stances taken on the topic by financial institutions’ top management have varied. While some, such as Citi and MUFG, have unveiled new hybrid working models to accommodate employees’ desires, others have strongly encouraged, if not ordered, a return to pre-pandemic arrangements.

The latter approach is associated with the big US firms: JP Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, has said he expects everything to “look just like it did before”, while David Solomon of Goldman Sachs has described working from home as an “aberration that we are going to correct as soon as possible”.

‘Hardcore’

But GlobalCapital’s survey of market participants conducted over the summer suggests that a degree of flexibility is likely to be available at the vast majority of banks, with less than 11% of those surveyed saying they expect their employer to insist that they work onsite 100% of the time.

Around 32% think that they will be asked to be in the office four days a week, while a narrow majority (56%) are looking forward to more flexible arrangements, with considerable scope for working from home.

These figures, which record respondents’ expectations of what will happen, track fairly closely with what they thought would be the ideal scenario for their teams.

Just 9.4% thought that having everyone back in the office all of the time would be for the best.

This minority view, unsurprisingly, is disproportionately prevalent among those people who have found a way to continue working from the office uninterruptedly throughout the pandemic.

“The people who stayed in the office are, I would say, hardcore and will tell you, ‘we don’t want to work from home, it doesn't work,’” said one senior syndicate banker.

Across all respondents, however, the most popular option was to have a set routine with different staff coming in on different days of the week, which was selected by 36.5% of respondents, followed by leaving it up to individuals to decide, at 24.7%.

The difficulty of coming up with an all-encompassing policy was underscored by the large number of respondents (24.7%) who chose to give another answer, rather than pick from the pre-defined list. Suggestions included making attendance on Monday and Friday optional; setting a limit for working from home of two days a week; and allowing some home working but less than one day a week.

It also depends on the role of the individual within the bank. When Deutsche Bank spelled out its plans for investment bank staff to return to the office in New York, managers said that “risk takers” would probably end up working from the office full time again, while those in a supporting role might be able to enjoy more flexibility.

“We took the time this summer to go through all our teams and look at what is the right model,” said the country head in London. “You’ll find that, for example, there are some roles on the trading floors where we think there is strong value in people spending more of the time in the office. We looked at the nature of the job, whether it requires further interaction, but also the structure of the team in terms of seniority.”

The senior syndicate banker agreed.

“I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all,” he said. “There are some jobs that are absolutely tailored to being executed from home, and some that can be done from home, but you are losing a lot of efficiency. What I’m doing, primarily, is one of them."

Cost-benefit analysis

When asked what would be the best set-up, not for their teams but for them personally, a slightly smaller proportion (7%) said that working in the office all the time would be ideal. However, there was widespread acknowledgement that time spent in the office was valuable, as some 42% said that the best set-up for them would be working mainly in the office with one day a week at home, and a further 27% opting for a half-and-half split between home and office.

It makes sense that financiers would opt for a combination of home and office working, since they report a mixture of positive and negative effects of being forced to work remotely.

In some cases, the positive and negative impacts were difficult to disentangle. For instance, when respondents were asked what had been the most significant effect of working from home, the most common response was the lack of separation between work and home life — which many have blamed for burnout. However, the third most commonly chosen effect of working from home was a better work/life balance.

“I get up, I come to work, I work,” explained an equity analyst who fits the description of the ‘hardcore’ office worker, in July. “I go home, I don’t work. Personally I’ve found that to be robust and I’ve found home working not to be.”

Everyone could agree, though, that the elimination of commuting had had a big, positive impact.

Burnout

Somewhere in the middle of the list of consequences of remote working was mental or physical exhaustion. This was an experience that had been felt by some financiers but not others, with about 16.5% of survey respondents reporting no sense of burnout at all and a further 25.9% saying they were not particularly burned out.

That left 57.6% suffering from a level of fatigue ranging from “somewhat burned out” (35.29%) to “burned out” (11.76%) and “very burned out” (10.59%).

Conversations with bankers suggest that this has been a particular problem for junior bankers, who tend to live in more cramped conditions than their bosses and may have found it more difficult to establish boundaries between their home life and work life while coping with what everyone admits has been a heavy workload.

Moreover, having individuals all working separately in their own homes has made it harder for senior bankers to detect distress and help juniors balance their priorities.

“If people were in the office, we would have a better sense as to how juniors were spending their time, on what they were spending their time, and how overwhelming it might have become,” said a senior investment banker in New York. “And when you’re not all together in one place, guess what happens, right? You lose some of that connectivity.”

Capital markets after the pandemic

Some banks have responded by stepping up efforts to ring-fence non-work time such as evenings and weekends and clamping down strictly on work being done during the two weeks of mandatory vacation. "If you are replying to emails, we will notice that," warned a head of debt financing.

GlobalCapital’s survey showed some support for extended time off, more advice on managing work-life balance and better monitoring by managers as ways to reduce burn-out, but the most popular option, endorsed by 71% of respondents, was a return to pre-pandemic working practices.

But this, presumably, did not mean a return to being chained to the desk five days a week and the dreaded concept of “face time” — a form of presenteeism where bankers feel obliged to be visibly in the office to prove that they are working.

Overall, bankers are optimistic about the future of working conditions in the capital markets after the pandemic. Three-fifths of those who answered the survey either agreed or strongly agreed that work-life balance would be better, while less than 10% disagreed.

“We have learned a lot during the past 16 months,” said a London-based head of capital markets. “We have identified both the benefits of working from home and also some of the weaknesses, and we have tried to put in place a new environment taking the best of the two.”

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Richard Metcalf
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