Thursday 14 May 2020 7:47 am

Square Mile lockdown: City firms plot staff's return to work

City banks and professional services firms are drawing up plans to send staff back to the office as the UK begins to ease its coronavirus lockdown.

Earlier this week Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that people who can work from home should continue to do so, as he laid out guidance to make workplaces “Covid-secure”.

Most City institutions are continuing with widespread home working even while eyeing the logistics of getting staff back to work as lockdown is relaxed.

Read more: ‘We cannot afford another lockdown’: Italy’s cautious return to work

Last week JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon told staff that the US banking giant was developing “protocols and practices” for a safe return to the office.

Face masks and staggered commutes

In an email seen by City A.M., Dimon said the bank was examining issues such as “establishing additional security and health protocols for entering buildings; arranging desks, workstations and other end user equipment, as well as the flow on floors and in common areas like cafes, lounges/pantries and elevators to adhere to social distancing guidelines; and establishing food handling protocols in locations that offer cafe services”.

He said the bank would reopen offices in phases, as dictated by local conditions, with staff returning to work in “waves over a period of time”.

In the UK a small number of JP Morgan staff are still in the office, split between Canary Wharf, Victoria Embankment and a back-up location in Basingstoke.

It is understood the bank has asked staff to wear masks where they cannot effectively social distance.

Big Four accountancy firm KPMG UK said it was using best practice from other firms that have already begun to return to offices.

Staff face ‘very different office reality’

Tim Jones, chief operating officer at KPMG UK, said: “As part of our preparation, we’re applying lessons learned from other firms in our global network.

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“These include looking at how we’ll implement social distancing in our offices, guidance for colleagues working at client sites, phased returns and staggering our travel times.”

He added: “We are anticipating some form of restriction for at least the next nine-to-18 months, due to testing and vaccines being required at scale. What we can be sure of is that we will experience a very different medium-term reality, and one that may vary for different groups of colleagues and across different locations.”

Fellow Big Four firm PwC is also engaged in planning for a return to the office. However, its position remains that staff should continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.

Square Mile lockdown: Bosses eye collaboration tools

Kevin Ellis, PwC UK chair and senior partner, said: “It goes without saying we’re planning for how we might gradually increase numbers of people in our offices for when restrictions are lifted. This includes rethinking what collaborative working looks like in a workplace where social distancing rules apply.”

It is understood the planning includes looking at how to ensure social distancing and prioritising which teams could start to return to the office – even if only occasionally – when the crisis begins to recede.

Legal giant Baker McKenzie, which first evacuated its Ludgate HQ in February after a coronavirus scare, has surveyed its staff about a return to the office.

Joanna Ludlam, a litigation partner and member of the firm’s coronavirus crisis response team, said the return to the office would not be swift.

Read more: Coronavirus: Baker McKenzie clears out London HQ as staff member who went to Italy falls sick

“It’s a heck of a lot more complicated to get back into the office than it was to get out of the office into lockdown,” she said. “I think it will be a much slower and more gradual process.”

Ludlam said the crisis team was examining ideas like staggered arrival times, one way systems in corridors, and reconfiguring desks to ensure social distancing. It could also set up separate teams to contain the spread of coronavirus in the case of an infection.

She said Bakers had not yet made any changes to its offices, but said the firm was “well on the way to finding some solutions”.

City of London lockdown continues

While banks and professional services have begun looking at a possible return to the office as lockdown is eased, the status quo remains working from home for businesses across the City.

Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs are among investment banks in the City that have advised employees to continue to work from home, after eight weeks of lockdown.

In a memo last week, Goldman Sachs said that while staff in Hong Kong, mainland China, Stockholm and Tel Aviv had started a gradual move back to the office, it would take longer in New York and London.

Retail banks are also not making any speedy moves to return to the office just yet. Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which has around 60,000 staff working from home, said there were no immediate plans to change its approach.

Read more: Bank of England must weigh up negative interest rates, says deputy governor

The bank said: “We are not planning any changes to how employees have been working for the last eight weeks and are advising our staff not to come into our premises unless they have already been doing so.”

Banks stick to remote working strategies

“In the meantime we are preparing all our buildings for the future and will follow local government guidelines as a minimum. The health and safety of our staff and our customers remains our number one priority.”

The government has called on businesses to stagger arrival and departure times for office workers to reduce contact amongst their staff.

The workplace guidance announced on Monday has emphasised that workstations be assigned to an individual. It outlines that protective screens should be installed where social distancing is not possible.

Read more: Business welcomes ‘step forward’ in new work safety guidance

Lloyds Bank also said it would follow the government’s guidance while it monitors the situation closely. A spokesperson added: “All colleagues who can carry out their roles from home have been asked to do so.”

Barclays has made no suggestion it will require staff to return to the office. Last month, Barclays chief executive Jes Staley said big city offices “may be a thing of the past”.

He added that the bank was re-evaluating how much office space it needed as it was now being run by employees working “from their kitchens”.

Deutsche Bank is also seizing the opportunity to press on with its cost-cutting drive by pivoting to working from home.

At the bank’s virtual AGM, boss Christian Sewing said: “If 60 per cent of employees worldwide can work away from their offices and still deliver excellent services to our clients, then of course we have to ask ourselves: can we give our staff additional flexibility to work from home if they want to?”