Post-Covid-19, will work habits change?

Wall Street is not snapping back into business as usual.
Wall Street is not snapping back into business as usual.PHOTO: AFP

(BLOOMBERG) - When Ms Pam Hendrickson went into labour at a New York hospital three decades ago, she still had to take a call to sort out a problem at her work in a bank.

Now, the vice-chair of investment firm Riverside expects Covid-19's terrifying toll to finally change the unhealthy work habits of many finance professionals.

"The macho-ness definitely will go away," she said. "If you don't feel well - we've always said this, but I think some people haven't taken us seriously - keep your butt at home."

The biggest banks see a path to returning to the office in Manhattan, London and financial capitals around the world after a devastating year. Now industry veterans are hoping that Covid-19 brings about lasting change, while welcoming the return of some ancient finance traditions.

Mr Dochtor Kennedy looks forward to staring into the eyes of his rivals again. The president of AdvisorLaw represents brokers inside the industry's secretive arbitration system. Like so much else over the past year, his hearings have not been in person.

"It's a joke doing it that way - it's terrible," he said. "It feels like you're less immersed in it. You struggle to try to convey the point." The distance robs him of his favourite in-person move: "I'll literally go stand next to opposing counsel, right there, make the point with the witness, then stare," he said. "I'll look right at him, hand on the table, look right at his eyes, but talk to the panel."

But, he added, he has enjoyed sleeping in his own bed instead of travelling.

Ms Alexandra Lebenthal craves power breakfast after working from home for almost a year now. About twice a week for 30 years, the senior adviser at investment bank Houlihan Lokey would meet clients over breakfast as part of her networking. "It's not just a meal. It's an event. I'm going to have to practise wearing high heels again. I'm kind of worried."

Rising vaccinations in New York have helped push the industry towards reopening. Hundreds of JPMorgan Chase interns are set to work in the lender's New York and London offices, Citigroup will begin inviting more employees back in July, and Goldman Sachs Group has said it hopes to have more employees back by the summer.

Wall Street is not snapping back into business as usual.

Americans have to recommit to wearing masks and other Covid-19 mitigation measures to avoid a new surge. Cases have begun to rise slightly again and contagious variants continue to spread. In Hong Kong, positive cases recently appeared in the banking industry right as the city was emerging from a round of restrictions.

Things may soon look closer to normal in the United States, where 90 per cent of adults are set to be eligible for a shot by April 19.

Ms Rachel Robasciotti, who runs asset manager Adasina Social Capital, hopes that Wall Street keeps some of its recent cultural shifts.

"What's gone that I won't miss are the conferences where people drink a little too much and come into your personal space in ways that aren't necessarily appropriate," she said. She learnt how to lift hands from her shoulder and waist at hotel bars, "but it's pretty nice not having to constantly reinforce it". She wants to make her own permanent changes too.

"I'm not flying across the country for lunch any more," she said. "Unless there's a clear, demonstrable reason, I'm not getting on a plane for a meeting for a couple of hours."

Mr Bill Daley, vice-chairman of public affairs at Wells Fargo, pines for old workday rituals. "I like being in a conference room with a bunch of people talking about whatever the issue is, as opposed to looking at little squares of people's faces, trying to see if they're smiling, laughing or ignoring you," he said.

"I've been participating in Zoom happy hours, Zoom cheese and wine, and it's a pathetic replacement." He also wants to re-establish the line between life and work.

"At least when you left the office in the evening, even though you still had your e-mails come in, you went home. The day was over."

Mr Daley, who was chief of staff to President Barack Obama, never used to walk around with his phone at home. "Now I find myself carrying it with me, and I regret that. It's ridiculous."

Ms Lauren Simmons, who became the youngest full-time female trader at the New York Stock Exchange in 2017 and has since left to become an entrepreneur, is not expecting Wall Street's shifts to last.

"I think it's more of a pause," she said. "Unless leadership changes and the mentality of your leadership in your organisation changes, then it pretty much goes back to status quo as soon as they get the okay."