Wall Street vs. Big Tech: Why finance is racing back to the office while tech embraces WFH

May 29, 2020, 10:00 AM UTC

Don’t tell Goldman Sachs that the era of the office is over.

Speaking at a virtual conference on Wednesday, Goldman president and COO John Waldron shed light on the investment bank’s plans for returning its workforce to an office setting. With Goldman having already set into motion efforts to return its people to their desks in Asia and continental Europe, Waldron revealed that select “markets-facing” employees in the U.S. and London would begin heading back “over the next several weeks.” 

At a time when major tech and media firms are prolonging their work-from-home policies amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic—raising questions from some about the future viability of the commercial office model—Wall Street’s big banks seem to have a singular goal in mind: a return to business as usual. 

JPMorgan Chase launched a Return to the Office task force earlier this month, according to internal memos. The task force is assisting in the transition to workplaces that JPMorgan expects will remain only half-full (or half-empty) even after lockdown restrictions end—with new protocols around seating plans, “people-flow” in common spaces, and food handling in dining areas.

Citigroup, meanwhile, is said to be considering short-term leases on more sparsely populated satellite offices in the suburbs around New York City, in an effort to address concerns around the use of public transportation and densely occupied urban office buildings.

In comparison to Silicon Valley’s tech giants, who have embraced the work-from-home paradigm to an unprecedented extent, Wall Street is taking a relatively urgent approach to returning its employees to conventional work environments. Jack Dorsey has famously given Twitter employees his blessing to work from home indefinitely; Sundar Pichai is providing all “Googlers” with an allowance of $1,000 to cover home office expenses; and Mark Zuckerberg expects up to half of Facebook’s employees to be working remotely within the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, the New York Stock Exchange partially reopened its trading floor this week, after two months of electronic-only trading that went off without a hitch, for the most part.

Perhaps the financial sector’s commitment to a traditional office model shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the industry’s reputation for breeding cutthroat, nose-to-the-grindstone workplace cultures. Apparently, that sort of culture starts at the top; some of America’s most powerful bank CEOs—such as Goldman’s David Solomon, Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan, and Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman—kept coming into their offices even as the pandemic escalated (Gorman himself later revealed he had contracted COVID-19).

But the same culture that supposedly drives bankers, traders, and other employees to maximize productivity can also prove an unflattering look during a pandemic. As COVID-19 tore through the world’s financial capital this spring—killing thousands of New Yorkers and infecting hundreds of thousands more—traders at JPMorgan and Bank of America reportedly felt undue pressure to continue showing up at their New York offices.

From an economic perspective, it’s not as if big tech firms haven’t relied on the same office leasing framework as their financial services counterparts—at least before the coronavirus outbreak. While the likes of Google have shelled out billions of dollars to own their own buildings, tech firms have represented an ever-expanding share of the office leasing market in recent years, with Facebook and Amazon gobbling up space in major business districts.

But it is possible that, in time, the big banks will warm up to Big Tech’s more nimble approach to stationing its workforce. The tried-and-tested model deployed for decades by trading desks was already in the midst of a transformation prior to the pandemic, as the heightened “electronification” of securities trading has prompted banks to shed thousands of workers across the industry in recent years.

Waldron acknowledged on Wednesday that the pandemic had accelerated Goldman’s technological transformation and convinced the bank that it can “run a more distributed model” with more employees working in remote (and often lower-cost) areas. 

Yet he noted one particular reason why Goldman is still eager to get its employees back into the office and working among themselves: its culture, which he said emphasizes collaboration, mentorship, and “people-development.” 

Without direct, interpersonal communication, “I worry that [culture] decays over time,” Waldron said.

More must-read finance coverage from Fortune:

—Saving lives vs. saving the economy is a false tradeoff, economists say
—Real unemployment rate soars past 24.9%—and the U.S. has now lost 33.5 million jobs
—17% of unemployed workers aren’t looking for work—and that’s warping the official unemployment rate
—Does Apple’s stock buyback strategy make sense in this market?
—Goldman Sachs doubts there will be a Round 3 of PPP loans for small businesses
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
—WATCH: Why banks were ready for the financial impact of the coronavirus

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