UK bank office return plans hang in the balance

UK bank bosses are anxiously awaiting further government guidance on the easing of lockdown as they plan for when their staff can return to the office.

Restrictions on social distancing are set to be lifted on June 21 in the UK, but the rapid rise of the Delta variant first identified in India has led ministers to consider pushing back the date by several weeks.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has indicated to colleagues he would be relaxed about a delay, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson is considering a “mix-and-match” approach to easing. 

Most banks with large UK operations have pegged their return dates to original government guidance, with NatWest, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs specifically telling staff to prepare to start returning to the office from June 21, according to internal memos seen by the Financial Times.

“A lot of work has gone into preparing for more staff returning to the office from June,” said one bank executive involved in the planning process. “If the dates get pushed back after late June, there is a feeling among most banks that we may as well push our own return dates back to September.”

Unlike their US peers, many European banks have been less prescriptive about when they expect workers to return to the office.

HSBC, Barclays, Standard Chartered, Lloyds and UBS have not set dates, but all have said they are following government guidelines.

By contrast, some US bank bosses have taken a firmer line. Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan, said last month: “We want people back to work, and my view is that sometime in September, October it will look just like it did before.”

JPMorgan reopened its offices on May 17 and expects that by early July all US-based staff will be in the office on a rotating basis. Workers in London are expected back from June 21.

Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, has told US staff to be in a position to return from June 14, with UK workers having been asked to prepare for June 21. The New York-headquartered bank is requiring workers to disclose whether they have been vaccinated before they come back to the office.

Citigroup said it expected up to 30 per cent of US workers to return to the office over the summer from July. It also said that more than 1,250 staff had been working in its London offices throughout May.

However, one British executive said much of the talk about US bankers returning to the office quicker was overblown. “When you listen to people locally, it’s clear that occupancies in New York are much lower than the public rhetoric would have you believe,” he added.

On the same day that Deutsche Bank told its 1,500 US investment bank employees they needed to return to the office by September 6, the lender’s UK and Ireland chief Tiina Lee sent a separate memo to UK staff saying they should prepare for a gradual return from June 21.

Retail-focused banks such as Lloyds and NatWest have very few staff at present commuting to the head office, while even Standard Chartered, which has big corporate and investment banking arms, is operating with a capacity of just 10 per cent of staff in its City of London headquarters.

European banks have introduced or boosted their working from home policies in expectation that staff will want more options for working remotely.

NatWest has said just 13 per cent of its staff would continue to work in the office full time, with 32 per cent expected to work primarily from home and 55 per cent adopting a hybrid approach.

“I would say that we’ve busted the myth that jobs need to be done in a certain way,” NatWest chief executive Alison Rose told staff at a recent company town hall meeting.

Meanwhile, 80 per cent of Lloyds staff have told the bank they would like to work from home for three or more days a week.


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