Bankers aren’t returning to skyscrapers anytime soon

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Bankers yearning to return to their high-rise offices should brace for disappointment.

Headquarters built to house thousands of staff might be a “thing of the past” if social distancing means only two people can ride an elevator at a time, said Barclays CEO Jes Staley, echoing rivals’ concerns.

“There will be a long-term adjustment about how we think about our locations,” Staley said on a conference call after the bank reported earnings on Wednesday. Branches might work as alternative sites for investment bankers once staff are cleared to stop working from home, he said.

“There will be a long-term adjustment about how we think about our locations,” said Barclays CEO Jes Staley.
“There will be a long-term adjustment about how we think about our locations,” said Barclays CEO Jes Staley.

As the outbreak starts to ebb in New York and pressure rises on the U.K. government to end London’s lockdown, the largest banks are grappling with how to adhere to social distancing rules. Wall Street lenders are among the largest tenants in the global commercial property industry, with many housed in large open-plan skyscrapers that rely heavily on elevators.

Standard Chartered Chairman Jose Vinals last week suggested that staff at its sprawling global operations keep staying at home.

“One thing is for sure — after this crisis is over we may have to rethink our work-from-home practices,” Vinals said. “The experience so far has been rather good. It may be that going forward you don’t need to have 100% of the people in the office, 100% of the time.”

Companies around the world have sent staff home as the pandemic prompted governments to halt the virus’s spread by enforcing lockdowns. In banking, working from home can be complicated by technological demands; on Wall Street, many staff have been sent home, but there have been tensions as some traders are urged to come to trading floors.

Citigroup, which operates in more countries than rivals, has cautioned employees to expect a slow, gradual return with no set dates — and that some might spend the rest of the year working from home.

JPMorgan Chase said it might station attendants outside elevators to help push buttons, so fewer workers need to touch keypads. Goldman Sachs Group is exploring ways to open doors without contact, possibly setting out towelettes that can be used to touch handles and then discarded on the other side.

As Barclays studies how employees will return to the workplace, Staley warned “it’s going to be gradual.” Hong Kong will be the first office to see employees return, he said. The bank had almost 1,000 branches at the end of last year. Barclays says 655 of them are currently open.

Bloomberg News