Wall Street’s return-to-office push finds virus won’t cooperate

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Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York on April 11, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Mark Kauzlarich.

Wall Street leaders made the case this week for bringing more workers back to the office, while a rash of covid-19 infections on trading floors showed how quickly they could be sent back home.

Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Barclays all had to quarantine groups of traders after employees tested positive for the coronavirus. The setbacks threaten a ramp-up of return-to-office efforts that executives have said are necessary to preserve productivity and firm cultures.

JPMorgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon has made the case for a broader return, saying his firm has seen “alienation” among younger workers and that an extended stretch of working from home could bring long-term economic and social damage. While some industry employees are eager for the normalcy of their offices, others are more reluctant as experts predict another rise in cases of the deadly virus in coming months.

“Cultures were not meant to be done in a remote fashion,” BlackRock Inc. CEO Larry Fink said at a virtual conference Thursday.

But ending the lockdowns will mean trying to head off new outbreaks. Goldman Sachs had to send some traders back home after at least one employee tested positive for Covid-19 at its Manhattan headquarters. The firm hasn’t seen any transmission of cases within its offices, according to a person monitoring the situation.

“Our people’s safety is our first priority, and we are taking appropriate precautions to make sure our workplaces remain safe for those who choose to return,” Leslie Shribman, a spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs, said in a statement Thursday.

JPMorgan also told some of its Manhattan employees to start working remotely this week after a worker in equities trading became infected. The case was disclosed to trading-floor staff Sunday, just days after the biggest U.S. bank told senior traders they’d be required to return by Sept. 21.

Representatives from JPMorgan said the bank has seen “very limited cases” and that they aren’t related to return-to-office plans. “We won’t hesitate to reverse course if we start to see worrying trends,” a spokesman said.

Traders at Barclays’s London headquarters were sent home at the start of this month after two employees tested positive for the virus, according to Financial News.

So far, the cases haven’t derailed plans to return more staff to offices. JPMorgan aims to bring back much as 50% of workers in New York in coming weeks, while Goldman Sachs is making similar preparations for week-in, week-out rotational shifts starting in October.

Banks are moving toward more business-as-usual in other ways as well. Citigroup Inc. resumed job cuts this week, joining rivals such as Wells Fargo & Co. in ending an earlier pledge to pause staff reductions during the pandemic.

Deutsche Bank AG is one exception, having told its New York City employees they can continue working from home until the middle of next year. And Bank of New York Mellon Corp. plans to let most of its staff continue working remotely for the rest of the year.

Financial firms that quickly moved thousands of employees to work-from-home setups as the pandemic ravaged New York in the spring are now having to make plans to navigate the long haul. Top U.S. health officials this week said widespread vaccine use may not come until mid- to late-2021.

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