This seems utterly ridiculous in hindsight, but at the time … no, yeah, it didn’t really make sense. They knew they had no work for me to do. The sham fooled no one.
But investment banking tends to be lavishly overpaid, for some of the same reasons that weddings cost more than regular parties: No one wants to risk skimping on a high-stakes, high-dollar one-shot deal. And having paid so very much for those services, clients like to feel that the help is at their beck and call every hour of every day. So the corporate culture puts face time über alles. My 70-hour weeks of thumb-twiddling were supposed to signal that I did, too. (It didn’t work.)
This system is legendarily abusive, and arguably unproductive. But it was durable, at least until covid-19, when a flurry of stories suggested that investment banks were “rethinking their pre-coronavirus lifestyle of exhausting global travel, interrupted family time and all-nighters in the office.”
I should have known that this was the “Leopard Changes Spots” of business journalism. This week, JPMorgan Chase reportedly requested that 50 percent of its dealmakers be in the office on a given workday, up from 25 percent. Goldman Sachs quickly announced it was following suit. That will put pressure on other banks to signal to clients that they, too, love nothing more than the job.
I can make an argument that this is good. Bankers may carry it to ridiculous extremes, but in-person contact matters; it is how institutional loyalty is built, corporate culture transmitted, a disparate group of strangers forged into a cohesive group. As The Post’s editorial page editor pointed out recently, many offices have done remarkably well working from home, but they’ve lost some of that institutional capital. At some point, the stock must be rebuilt.
Besides, New York City’s economy, and its tax base, depend heavily on the well-paid employees of the securities industry; both will be devastated as long as bankers are working from suburbs and second homes. And while New York City probably hasn’t reached herd immunity, the number of people who have already had covid-19 means any outbreaks are likely to grow slower there than elsewhere. So there is arguably a net social benefit to getting bankers back into the office as soon as possible, in a city that’s ready to reopen.
Constructing this argument is easy. Believing it is hard. The good institutional reasons to return to the office seem outweighed by obvious downsides — even for the rest of us, since we’ll be vulnerable to any outbreaks they seed.
While New Yorkers overall may have some built up resistance to the virus, thanks to the ferocity of the city’s earlier outbreak, white-collar workers who’ve been huddling at home since March probably haven’t. It seems rather dangerous to shove more immunologically naive people back into the office just in time for flu season.
Moreover, I doubt that the bankers are performing such cost-benefit analysis; they’re not even necessarily calculating the corporate bottom line. About a month ago, someone on the trading/markets side of JPMorgan wrote me about the pressure to go back: “Most of my colleagues who worked from home agree they were more productive from home than on the reduced schedules they have to work in the office,” but productivity didn’t seem to be the point. “The message is clear from the top: face time is the most important corporate virtue.”
Corporate cultures don’t change quickly, even in a pandemic. So I suspect that bankers are going back to the office, not because the organization or the nation requires it, but because bank culture has spent decades filtering for macho displays of pointless sacrifice, and the people at the top are apt to be among those who most enjoy them.
They’re not the only companies to stage the face-time Olympics, of course; they’re just the champions. And once the kings of face time go back to the office, the queens, jacks and jokers in other industries will probably be inspired to follow — ready or not, safe or not. Any outbreaks that start in their offices, or cities, will eventually spread to the broader community. And while it’s tempting to blame JPMorgan for all this, I fear they may simply be the first to acknowledge what all of us may soon discover: Neither we, nor our companies, have changed nearly as much as we think.