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How are the Biggest Investment Banks Handling the Return of their Employees with COVID-19?

Credit: Reuters

The phasing out of the pandemic seems quite different from its arrival. Most probably it will be – it already is – a chaotic, heterogenous, non-linear process. The ways in which American and British Investment Banks generally go about establishing policies for the return to full activity of their employees post-Covid 19 is a good illustration of how messy this “getting back to normal” process would be. 

In the US, the rise of infections, especially amongst unvaccinated Americans, in light of the Delta variant, has been followed with Wall Street companies struggling to create policies regarding criteria for going back to non-remote work. Although, in comparison, in the UK, because vaccinations are taking a more progressive stand, return to offices started again around the 19th of July, in a much smoother, and much less polemic manner. 

However, today, all major international investment banks are struggling with regards to issuing policies deciding on whether, as well as the ways in which, a return to the office must be made. There is no single right way for investment firms to go about this; they are all making and following their own policies. However, most take an adaptive approach, in accordance with and evaluation of the evolution of the pandemic, in a “two steps forward one step back” manner. 

For instance, Goldman Sachs established a policy making masks mandatory in the UK and not in the USA. This difference of policy is rooted in the fact it is decided through many actors: the banks themselves, as well as local legislations. Therefore a global investment bank may have a variety of policies in place simultaneously. 

In the USA, Goldman Sachs requires their employees to report their vaccination status, or wear masks and undergo weekly testing. However, vaccinations are not required. In the office, the wearing of masks as well as social distancing are still in place. On the other hand, JP Morgan, who was the first top-tier bank to ask its employees to come back to its offices by July, allowing the former to remove their masks, had to backtrack from its plans because of the threat of the Delta Variant. 

Source: CDC

While there seems to be in the industry a generalised impulse to get employees back in the office as much as possible; some firms such as Blackrock, Morgan Stanley, Vanguard and others are willing to allow more flexibility to employees to work from home, due in part to the expansion of the Delta variant. 

BlackRock’s chief operating officer, Rob Goldstein’s message to staff is a good example of the cautious incremental approach, stating: “We are following the Delta variant in different parts of the country and closely monitoring the latest guidance from public health officials and local government authorities that encourages people to wear masks in indoor public spaces in areas of substantial or high transmission.”

There seems to be a contingency on return policies represented by regulations and the health situation of both countries. Regulations in the USA are stricter than in the UK, considering the harder blow the Delta variant represents within those two different countries. Furthermore, in the UK, Article 8 of the ECHR ensures the discretion on one’s personal life., and data privacy laws prohibit employers to track their employee’s medical history. Firms then have to abide to these decrees. 

National variations do not come only from the law, they also come from political attitudes of governments. The more dramatic, solemn and ‘ drawing a hard-line’ style of President Macron leaves less freedom for companies to come up with their own policies in comparison to the more “laissez faire” approach of Boris Johnson’s policies, aiming towards an imminent return to normalcy. President Biden seem be at the middle-ground, assigning public functionaries as benchmarks for other sectors, most of which deciding on withdrawing from contact with non-vaccinated employees.

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The array of measures and policies that the leadership of investment banking firms must decide on is quite varied: remote working versus back to the office, vaccination versus testing, obligatory vaccination versus recommended jab, and so on. Which prompts the question of the utmost importance: what are the career consequences for employees who do not follow the recommendations nor the obligations decided by firms? 

Well, these consequences may have to do with compensation. For instance, Joe Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley has differentiated the remuneration deserved by those working remote from that of those going to the office, saying: “If you want to get paid New York rates, you work in New York”. 

Outside the banking industry, a hard-line approach has been followed by CNN, who has fired unvaccinated employees for going to the office. Here, local differences of a political sort are also at play, one of them being the strength of the anti-vaccination movement.

On one hand, this type of situation is specifically unideal for leaders of USA companies, as the country is completely split regarding vaccination, following party cleavages. Any decision brings the risk of alienating an important swath of the clients. On the other hand, countries such as Italy and Spain do not have strong anti-vaccination movements, which decreases the risks that companies bear. 

All in all, the investment banking industry however has it easier than industries whereby face-to-face contact with the client is more essential, such as the airline industry, commercial banks, or consumer goods. The main challenges the investment banking industry is dealing with now concerns the reaction of their own employees.

Hopefully, most of them will adopt a rational attitude towards the ways in which we can collectively combat the pandemic and ease the way back –or forward—to normal times.

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