That kinder, gentler, more flexible Wall Street that emerged in the pandemic, where bankers had more flexible schedules and the ability to work from home? It was nice while it lasted.
Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon has long been one of the loudest voices calling for a full-time office return. Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman scolded employees to focus on “CareerLand” over “JobLand” by going back to in-person work. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon infamously described working from home as “management by Hollywood Squares.’” All three banks did away with their Covid protocols after Labor Day.
Indeed, offices in New York, the headquarters of financial institutions in the US and worldwide, were filled to their highest post-pandemic levels last week. Occupancy reached 47.8% in the week ended Oct. 12, according to Kastle Systems, a company that tracks security swipes into buildings.
Many of those swiping do so begrudgingly. A Wall Street Oasis poll of bank professionals found 45% of associates preferred to work from home, compared to 13% who wanted to be in the office. In an August poll from productivity-software company UpSlide, nearly three-quarters of junior bankers said they were pushing to keep hybrid work schedules and don’t want to return to the office five days a week. The numbers align with other reports and studies showing workers would take a pay cut in order to continue working remotely.
To capture their sentiment, I spoke to a director in a large investment bank, who vowed to never go back to the harried, unbalanced life he once had—and yet in recent months has found himself exactly there, again.
This person is in his thirties, lives in a suburb of New York City, and works for a so-called bulge bracket investment bank (that’s a catchall term for the large global banks; think Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and UBS). He spoke on condition of anonymity to share his experiences with returning to work. Here’s what he said, in his own words, edited for space and clarity:
I’ve been doing this for 10-plus years. There are different paths that people take to work in investment banking. For some people, it almost feels like they're raised into it, or it’s their entire life's focus to work in investment banking. Other people kind of stumble into it. I probably fall into the latter group.
My family lived in our shoebox apartment in New York City for most of the first year of Covid, then made our way to New Jersey. While we loved the city, the space was becoming more important as our family was growing. Our son was getting older, and we later had a daughter. The reason why we felt we were able to do that is because of my work situation. Everybody in my sector—my primary focus is on helping large companies get financing—was still fully remote at that point. There were no decisions yet in terms of what the post-pandemic environment would bring.
Covid in many ways was a blessing, because I got to play a role as a parent I never thought I would. Before Covid, in my industry, you're working anywhere between 60 and 100 hours a week. That was absolutely all in the office, especially if you were more junior and not traveling quite as much as some of the senior people. For most of my son’s first year, I wouldn't get home until after he had already gone to sleep. I was getting home on average after 8:00 and getting into the office before 7:30 in the morning. But working from home, I was seeing my kids every single day instead of just being a weekend parent.
The remote work environment also enabled my wife and I to to spend more time focused on our relationship as a couple, and placed less of a burden on my wife as a primary caregiver. It allowed her to focus more time on side hustles and becoming more involved in our local government. It gave us each time to focus more on our individual health, and to take up the occasional virtual chess lesson, a reminder we’re able to still do something fun together outside of the shared experience of parenting.
Then, a few months ago in my industry, they said we needed to go back. Some institutions, including my own, have made it mandatory to at least be in four days a week. We received an email that we would all be expected to be back in the office four days a week. No exceptions. It's quite contrary to the message that was delivered by both my company and the industry, that it felt like two or three days in the office was here to stay.
That came as a bit of a shock to everybody, and left a lot of us feeling at a loss. A number of people moved out of state and relocated their families to different parts of the country during the pandemic. Also, you get to a certain level and you tend to travel a lot, so in-office time didn’t seem to be as critical. Now there's definitely a push even for those people to be in the office.
But I can't see myself ever going back to the way it was before. When Covid happened, it made me realize there was another way that we could live our lives that didn't ever seem possible before, and I didn’t need to change industries or take a different career path to make it happen. When I had breaks during the day in between calls or projects, I'd take 30 to 45 minutes and take my son to the park or have lunch or just play with him, even if it was for five minutes.
It added so much more to the completeness of my life and my wife's life, and certainly my son’s life. Covid allowed us to have more of a personal life and not just be a “company man” or “company woman.” Now without the flexibility we have had over the last several years, my daughter will not have the same early life experiences that my son was lucky enough to enjoy, with both of his parents around him for each important moment of his days.
People have this old-school mentality, where they feel like you should be in the office five days a week if you want to be successful in this industry or in corporate America in general. Investment banking is an apprenticeship culture where you learn by experience, and I do think there’s a belief that maybe the remote or hybrid work situation wasn't completely working for young talent. But while there's a lot that you can learn from sitting around people, the reality is that no one is sitting on a bench behind somebody for their first two years of their career, soaking things in. Through Covid, a lot of companies invested in technology that allowed for more connectivity, constant communication, and allowing younger people to learn and pick things up more quickly than perhaps was the case before.
And it's not just people in my age group with young children who want to be home more. I think young people also want this. Even if you don't have children, working remotely gives you the ability to exercise, to focus on your mental health.
As someone raised by a single parent, being an involved parent was something that has always been very important to me. Being a parent isn’t just a part of my identity. It’s the most important thing about who I am. To not hear my children’s voices laughing and their joyous screams bursting through the floor below me while I’m working, and to have that replaced with the white noise of hundreds of my colleagues around me, is a soul-crushing thing to endure.
There needs to be some way to break this culture spawned from generations of company men, most of whom were and continue to be older white men in non-caregiver roles, who continue to make decisions out of touch with Millennial and Gen Z values, as well as the values of women and non-white colleagues. Employers preach the importance of diversity and inclusivity while creating policies and workplace environments that are eroding much of the progress we’ve been able to make over the last several years. The patriarchy very much remains intact and in power. Despite how terrible Covid was, and still is, it brought about real societal change. That feels like it's fading away.