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The debate is (partly) over: flexible working wins

Flexible man practicing yoga at workplace

Life in the capital markets will, in some important details, look different after the pandemic than it did before

Since lockdowns forced bankers, investors and everyone else out of their offices last year, a question has loomed over the capital markets: will they go back to spending eight or more hours in the office five days a week? The answer is now clear, and it’s a resounding no.

This verdict comes with some serious caveats. A great deal was lost when everyone was separated from their colleagues, peers, clients and the many other people they interacted with on a daily basis before the pandemic just through the lack of human contact, and it will be valuable to revive much of that.

Accordingly, the new hybrid working models that some banks have developed do not generally involve employees working five days a week from home, or even four. Many, on the contrary, will go back to spending four or five days in the office, and there is nothing wrong with that.

As has been pointed out many times before, the reopening of offices and trading floors will be most beneficial to junior team members, who really need to spend time around seasoned professionals to pick up their craft.

But do they need to spend 10 or more hours a day in a skyscraper, five or perhaps six days a week, like they used to? Absolutely not. There is little to be learned from carrying out data entry, summarising financial information, sending emails or tweaking presentation slides in a moonlit office, as opposed to at a dining table.

Banker after banker has told GlobalCapital in recent months how much sense it makes to be able to leave the office at a reasonable time and finish off a few necessary things later at home. The most obvious and frequently given example is of the new parent who wants to be present for their child’s dinner and bedtime.

But really, one should not have to have children to qualify for a personal life outside of work. Not when everyone is amply supplied with the necessary technology to carry out work tasks from home.

This technology has existed for a while but it was the pandemic that punctured the illusion that bankers needed to be in the office to be productive.

According to a survey carried out recently by GlobalCapital, only 10% of capital markets professionals expect their firm to require them to return to the office full time once things return to normal. An even smaller proportion, about 7%, said they thought working in the office full time would be the ideal set-up for them.

Even at the US firms that are taking the hardest line on the return to the office, bankers are not going to give up all of their newfound freedom. At Bank of America, a source tells GlobalCapital that in London, “everyone is back, everyone is busy”. However, the source adds that “yes, there is an element of flexibility.”

Admittedly, BofA chief exec Brian Moynihan has been somewhat more measured in his statements about the return to the office than some of his fellow CEOs, such as JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, who claimed in May that “sometime in September, October, it will look just like it did before.”

But what is clear now is that life in the capital markets will, in some important details, look different after the pandemic than it did before.

As the situation settles, there is still a debate to be had over working practices. Will the firms offering more regular opportunities to work remotely through so-called “hybrid” working practices be more successful in the highly competitive job market? Or will firms that insist on full time office working with a more modest degree of flexibility edge out their rivals through superior teamwork and culture?

But the days and nights of conspicuous toiling in the office, simply for the sake of being in the office, should now be consigned to history. It may not seem like a lot, but this is a big step forward.

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