Amid this global experiment in the future of work, the strenuous efforts of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs to get employees back in the office are two case studies worthy of close real-time examination.
The details of what happened at both banks differ slightly, but the big-picture takeaway is the same. Take a hard line on return-to-office schedules at your own risk.
It started over a year ago, when the chieftains of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan took strong public stands against remote work. Exclusively working from home “doesn’t work for those who want to hustle,” declared Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan, adding in a separate interview that people “don’t like commuting, but so what.”
“I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us and it’s not a new normal,” said Goldman CEO David Solomon of remote-work arrangements generally. “It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible,” he added.
While their official return-to-office details differed—half of JPMorgan’s employees can work in either a hybrid or remote model, while all of Goldman’s were told to return to the offices full-time—both firms made it clear that in-office working was preferred. And when employees began returning in earnest, both firms reportedly monitored worker office attendance by tracking ID swipes.
“At JPMorgan, nobody trusts you,” one staffer told Business Insider. Another said some managers appeared “deathly afraid” of their teams falling short of 100% compliance.
At Goldman, reports surfaced of employees allegedly threatening to quit in reaction to the five-day rule. Being monitored is “an uneasy feeling,” an analyst told Business Insider. “Knowing you're being tracked kind of feels like you're going back to high school and they're taking attendance."
In late April, some JPMorgan employees were reportedly granted a carveout and could reduce their days in the office to two from three. A person familiar with the bank noted that worker schedules vary by business and by individual manager and said a very small group was impacted by the change.
Earlier this month, Goldman’s Solomon appeared on CNBC and reported that in-person attendance in the firm’s US offices is between 50% and 60%, down from a pre-pandemic figure of roughly 80%. “It’s going to take time, you know; behavior shifts take time generally,” he said.
“You waged a public campaign, it would seem, to have people show up five days a week,” retorted CNBC’s David Faber. “It feels like you lost.”
Solomon said his view was always “rooted in flexibility” and that his approach has “been portrayed as much more dogmatic than it is.”
Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford Business School who has studied remote work for years, says that in today’s working world, demanding employees return to work five days a week is a mistake.
“The biggest problem with [it] is what to do when, as is clearly going to happen, employees do not return to the office full time. There are only two choices,” Bloom says. “One is to ignore it. That makes the firm and its leadership look weak. The other is to sanction employees with fines and punishment. This is even worse, as you are punishing employees that are otherwise highly performing for a rule they broke which is pointless and arbitrary.”
“That is the fastest way to lose employees,” he adds.
London Business School professor Lynda Gratton, author of Redesigning Work, has noted that some companies like Goldman don’t necessarily need to care about employee work flexibility in order to attract talent. Goldman itself recently received a record 236,000 applications to its competitive internship program.
A Goldman spokeswoman noted that in a town hall meeting on March 30, Solomon pointed out that on any given day before the pandemic, 20% to 25% of employees were working remotely, whether due to an ill child or a personal obligation. Solomon added that being in the office is more important for a young employee than a more experienced employee juggling a family.
We’re in a period of real experimentation, with each organization finding its way. And some experts have predicted that companies could largely revert to more traditional in-person arrangements over time.
But the cases of JPMorgan and Goldman show how best practices rooted in research—eg around the importance of aligning the expectations of managers and workers around flexibility, the need to approach return-to-office with empathy, and the importance of trust—are largely playing out as expected in real life.