finance

City of London abandons plans for widespread return to office


Thousands of staff at some of the City of London’s largest employers were told to remain working from home on Wednesday, with companies forced to abandon plans to refill offices and cancel incentives for returnees after an abrupt U-turn by the UK government.

JPMorgan is among the banks, accounting firms and private equity groups to tell workers to stay away from the office, coming just two days after a September 21 deadline for many of the US bank’s senior staff to report back into its London offices. The move came in response to a host of new curbs unveiled by UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

Up until last week, the UK prime minister and the City of London Corporation — the governing body for the Square Mile — were pleading with companies to bring office workers back to their desks to help revive city centres.

JPMorgan’s chief executive Jamie Dimon has taken a similar position, arguing that “the WFH lifestyle seems to have impacted younger employees, and overall productivity and ‘creative combustion’ have taken a hit”.

Before the latest about-face, JPMorgan, which has about 12,000 staff in London, was in the process of ramping up occupancy to a maximum of 50 per cent capacity. This has now been paused, although traders are being given priority to remain in the office.

Meanwhile, thousands of employees at Big Four accountancy firm PwC who had begun to work in its London offices again were told on Wednesday to stay at home “unless there is a clear personal or business need to be in the office”. 

As many as 11,000 had returned on a part-time basis to its offices — an increase of about 1,000 per week — which had opened for any of its 22,000 staff who wanted to come back.

PwC boss Kevin Ellis — who has argued that office life “is important for teams, good for communities and good for the economy” — on Wednesday said that it would follow the government’s new guidance and the majority of its staff “will now be working from home”.

Goldman Sachs similarly told London employees on Tuesday that many will have to continue remote working for the foreseeable future, reversing a plan announced this month to begin rotating traders in and out of its new Plumtree Court building in October.

“The UK government is now asking people who can work from home to do so,” Richard Gnodde, Goldman’s international chief, said in an email seen by the Financial Times. “Plumtree Court will remain open and we will continue to take steps to sustain a safe, ‘Covid-compliant’ working environment.”

Private equity groups such as Advent have also ditched measures to encourage dealmakers to return. The firm had paid for taxis to ferry its teams to and from the office, and offered free food from its canteen; as of Wednesday, staff have been told to go to the office only if they have been tested for coronavirus and have approval from management. They are instructed to walk, cycle or drive there, and the free food has been scaled back.

Data from Transport for London showed that journeys on the Tube dropped on Wednesday by 1 per cent compared with the same day last week.

Meanwhile, Lloyds Bank told staff on Wednesday to work from home unless essential and paused trials on “the future of the office” that had been scheduled to start in October.

About 1,000 Barclays staff who had returned to offices in recent weeks will revert to working from home, the bank said on Tuesday. Still, about 22,000 staff worldwide will continue working from the lender’s buildings as designated key workers in the financial system.

HSBC — Europe’s largest lender with more than 40,000 staff in the UK — is also halting plans to repopulate offices in major cities across the country, including London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and Southampton, according to a person familiar with the plans.

“We are telling staff that back to work doesn’t mean back to normal, get your head around it, things will be strange for a long time,” said one executive at a UK bank. 

“We have people who desperately want to get back. The next few weeks will be increasingly difficult,” he added. “My personal worry is that with the darker mornings and nights, working from home will become pretty miserable and cause a rise in mental health issues.”

Additional reporting from Kaye Wiggins in London



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