HSBC CEO plans for permanent hybrid work, much less jet-setting

HSBC predicts it will be operating in a profoundly different way, with as many as 70 per cent of its staff backing a hybrid working model. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - HSBC Holdings is not about to throw away its pandemic-era ways of working.

The bank, which is in the midst of a historic pivot and cost cutting programme, predicts it will be operating in a profoundly different way after the coronavirus outbreak ebbs, with as many as 70 per cent of its staff backing a hybrid working model and with its business travel budget cut in half.

"My own view on the return to office is it would be a waste if we didn't learn from the last 18 months," chief executive Noel Quinn said in a Bloomberg Front Row interview on Sept 1.

With major hubs around the world, the bank has had more than 90 per cent of its staff working from home during the outbreak, managing to deliver on both cost cuts and a turnaround in key businesses. HSBC expects to shrink its property footprint by 40 per cent and does not plan to renew many of its city-centre leases over the next years. The lender is shifting to a policy of about two employees per desk, excluding branches, and has even scrapped the executive floor at its Canary Wharf headquarters in London.

While Mr Quinn said he does not want to be "overly prescriptive", his expectations are now that staff who are able to would be allowed to work about three days of the week in the office. But he is also aware of the benefits of the office culture.

"I don't want to lose that DNA and that teamwork," he said. "I'm really glad to be back in the office, seeing colleagues and having conversations in the corridor or in getting stuff done on the spur of the moment, rather than having to book a VC (video-conferencing) call or a telephone call."

Lenders such as Citigroup have also signalled a permanent shift in work-from-home rules, while Goldman Sachs Group and Morgan Stanley's top executives have called for almost a full return, albeit with some flexibility.

At the same time, the drawn-out calamity of the pandemic has also caused the lender to look hard at business travel. The firm now expects its travel budget to be reduced by 50 per cent.

"We've learned to live and operate in a very different way," he said.

These lessons have been learned across the global business landscape. A Bloomberg survey of 45 large businesses in the United States, Europe and Asia showed that 84 per cent plan to spend less on travel post-pandemic. A majority of those cutting travel budgets see reductions of between 20 per cent and 40 per cent, with about two in three slashing both internal and external in-person meetings.

Still, the CEO is looking forward to once again being able to visit China, the market where HSBC is now spending billions of dollars as part of a pivot to Asia.

"I remember one day sitting at home, I travelled the world in a day, talking to clients in different parts of the world," he said. "You can't do that forever. You still want to have face-to-face interaction."

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