Wall Street’s Rigid Culture Bends to Demands for Flexibility

When Tom Naratil arrived on Wall Street in the 1980s, work-life balance didn’t really exist. For most bankers of his generation, working long hours while missing out on family time wasn’t just necessary to get ahead, it was necessary to not be left behind.

But Mr. Naratil, now president of the Swiss bank UBS in the Americas, doesn’t see why the employees of today should have to make the same trade-offs — at the cost of their personal happiness and the company’s bottom line.

Employees with the flexibility to skip “horrible commutes” and work from home more often are simply happier and more productive, Mr. Naratil said. “They feel better, they feel like we trust them more, they’ve got a better work-life balance, and they’re producing more for us — that’s a win-win for everybody.”

Welcome to a kinder, gentler Wall Street.

Much of the banking industry, long a bellwether for corporate America, dismissed remote working as a pandemic blip, even leaning on workers to keep coming in when closings turned Midtown Manhattan into a ghost town. But with many Wall Street workers resisting a return to the office two years later and the competition for banking talent heating up, many managers are coming around on work-from-home — or at least acknowledging it’s not a fight they can win.

Flexibility is a new mantra at many major banks, which are shifting to more days at home, hours that adjust to suit family needs and reworked office spaces, in a break with industry tradition that has long emphasized face-to-face relationships built over grueling hours and punishing workloads.

UBS, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, HSBC and BNY Mellon have all announced flexible work plans. Even JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s biggest bank and a hybrid-work holdout, expects that only about half its employees will ultimately be in the office five days a week. The bank’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, wrote in his annual shareholder letter on Monday that he believed 10 percent of JPMorgan’s roughly 271,000 employees could eventually work from home.

“Although the pandemic changed the way we work in many ways, for the most part it only accelerated ongoing trends,” Mr. Dimon wrote.

But he didn’t sound particularly happy about it, ticking off a list of “serious weaknesses” of virtual work, including slowed decision-making and a lack of “spontaneous learning and creativity.”

“While it’s clear that working from home will become more permanent in American business, such arrangements also need to work for both the company and its clients,” he wrote.

But increasingly, work schedules also have to work for workers.

“It’s all about the talent — how do you retain it, how do you attract it,” said Mr. Naratil of UBS. The bank rolled out its plan last month to allow 10 percent of its 20,500 U.S. employees to work remotely all the time and offer hybrid schedules for three-quarters of its workers.

“Talent will move, and it’s not only about a paycheck,” he said.

UBS recently rolled out plans to allow 10 percent of its 20,500 employees in the United States to work remotely all the time.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Citigroup has its 65,000 U.S. employees in the office two days a week and has held workshops for managers and employees on remote collaboration. Globally, most roles will move to a minimum of three days a week when it is safe to do so, the company said. Wells Fargo started bringing back most of its 249,000-person work force in mid-March with what it calls a “hybrid flexible model” — for many corporate employees, that entails a minimum of three days a week in the office, while groups that cater to the bank’s technology needs will be able to come in less often.

BNY Mellon, which has nearly 50,000 employees, is allowing teams to determine their own mix of in-person and remote work. And it introduced a two-week “work from anywhere” policy for people in certain roles and locations. “The energy around the office has been palpable” as the staff eagerly map out their plans, said Garrett Marquis, a BNY Mellon spokesman.

Moelis & Company, a boutique investment bank, has strongly encouraged its almost 1,000 staff members to come to the office Monday through Thursday, but with added “intraday flexibility” over their hours, said Elizabeth Crain, the company’s chief operating officer. That might mean dropping children off at school in the morning, or taking the train during daylight hours for safety reasons, she said. The new approach fosters teamwork and enables employees to learn from one another in person, while also giving them more control over their schedules.

Ms. Crain said everyone is much more flexible. “We all know we can deliver,” she said.

Ms. Crain, who has worked in the financial industry for more than three decades, recently committed to something that would have been unthinkable before the pandemic: a weekly 9 a.m. session with a personal trainer near her office. She said she hopes breaking out of the confines of the traditional workday sends a message to employees that they are trusted to get the job done while making time for their personal priorities.

“After two years, haven’t we all changed?” she said.

Elizabeth Crain, chief operating officer of Moelis & Company, said the boutique investment bank’s more flexible approach fostered teamwork and gives employees more control over their schedules.Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

Not yet. There are some notable holdouts: The Wall Street heavyweights Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have acknowledged the need for more flexibility, but have so far resisted overhauling their operations.

Both called employees back to offices full time last summer, emphasizing the merits of in-person work for building company culture, innovation and learning. James Gorman, the boss at Morgan Stanley, said at the time: “If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office.”

While he stands by that comment, Mr. Gorman’s tone has softened somewhat: Showing up three to four days a week is important for career development and growth, enabling professionals to hone skills like emotional intelligence and reading body language, he said last month.

But he and Goldman’s David Solomon have welcomed efforts to get workers back into Manhattan offices. Mr. Solomon echoed Mayor Eric Adams at a talk at Goldman’s headquarters in March, saying it was “time to come back.”

Andrea Williams, a spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs, said returning to the office “is core to our apprenticeship culture” and client-focused business. “We are better together than apart, especially as an employer of choice for those in the beginning stage of their career,” she said.

For months, Mr. Dimon has made a similar argument at JPMorgan — and continued to even as he said that about half its employees would work from home at least some of the time.

“Most professionals learn their job through an apprenticeship model, which is almost impossible to replicate in the Zoom world,” he wrote. JPMorgan has hired more than 80,000 new workers during the pandemic, he said, and it strives to train them properly.

“But this is harder to do over Zoom,” he said. “Over time, this drawback could dramatically undermine the character and culture you want to promote in your company.”

HSBC expects to reduce the size of its workspace as more of its employees work from home.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Some banks are rethinking their real estate needs. With more people working from home, HSBC — which has nearly half its 8,000 U.S. employees in Manhattan — expects to reduce its real estate footprint, said Jennifer Strybel, its chief operating officer in the United States.

The bank is keeping its building, which overlooks the main branch of the New York Public Library on Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, at 40 percent capacity. The space has been retooled, replacing rows of open-plan terminals with more tables to encourage collaboration. There’s a booking system for desks, lockers for employees to store belongings and a “keyboard garage” for those who don’t want to lug around equipment. Charging stations are dotted around the premises.

Mr. Dimon said JPMorgan, which is building a new headquarters in Midtown that will be the home base for up to 14,000 workers, will move to a more “open seating” arrangement.

Banks outside of New York are also adapting: KeyCorp, which is based in Cleveland, hasn’t set a specific return-to-office date, but expects half of its staff to eventually show up four to five days a week. Another 30 percent will probably come in for one to three days, with the ability to work from different offices. And 20 percent will work from home, albeit with in-person training and team-building events.

The new setup is “uncharted territory” that is necessary to keep the work force engaged, said Key’s chief executive, Chris Gorman. While he comes in every day and is a big believer in face-to-face meetings, Mr. Gorman said he has avoided a heavy-handed approach that could alienate employees and prompt them to look elsewhere.

Nearly half HSBC’s 8,000 U.S. employees work in Manhattan.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Mr. Naratil, the UBS president, is also a believer in in-person gatherings — he still spends most of his week at UBS’s office in Weehawken, N.J. — but he said that the great remote-work experiment of the last two years had debunked the myth that employees were less productive at home. In fact, he said, they were more productive.

The increasingly hybrid workplace has forced leaders to connect with their teams in new ways, like virtual happy hours, Mr. Naratil said. The rank and file have shown that they can rise to the occasion, and the onus is on bosses to attract workers back to physical spaces to generate new ideas and strengthen relationships.

Managers, he said, needed to have a good answer when their employees asked the simple question: “Why should I be in the office?”

“It’s not ‘because I told you to,’” he said. “That’s not the answer.”

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