Goldman Sachs is ordering employees back to the office 5 days (or more) a week. Inside CEO David Solomon’s mission to end hybrid work

March 10, 2022, 9:22 PM UTC
David Solomon, Goldman Sachs CEO photographed in his office
David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, in his office.
Photograph by Celeste Sloman for Fortune

CEO David Solomon could not have been pleased at the turnout when Goldman Sachs reopened its 44-story headquarters in lower Manhattan on the morning of Feb. 1. The building had been closed for a month as COVID-19’s Omicron variant swept through town. Now, finally, with luck, Goldman employees could resume working together in person, as Solomon emphatically wants them to do, without further shutdowns. Yet as of late morning on that Tuesday, only about 5,000 of Goldman’s 10,000 HQ workers had shown up—despite having had over two weeks’ notice, and in seeming defiance of Solomon’s pointed desire to get everyone back in the office as soon as safely possible.

Is that tepid turnout an anomaly? Or is it a harbinger?

Solomon has risked looking like a Neanderthal as remote work has gone mainstream worldwide. Top-tier tech firms—Salesforce, Twitter, Meta (Facebook’s parent), Spotify—have told thousands of employees they’re liberated to work remotely full-time, anywhere in the world. Some of Goldman’s Wall Street rivals, including Citigroup and UBS, are letting staffers work from home regularly and claim the policy will give the firms a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining excellent employees. Solomon has said the opposite. Remote work “is not ideal for us, and it’s not a new normal,” he famously told a finance industry conference in February 2021. “It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible.” 

Now, a year after making that declaration, Solomon isn’t backing down. “The secret sauce to our organization is, we attract thousands of really extraordinary young people who come to Goldman Sachs to learn to work, to create a network of other extraordinary people, and work very hard to serve our clients,” he told Fortune on that back-to-the-office day, Feb. 1. “Part of the secret sauce is that they come together and collaborate and work with people that are much more experienced than they are. If you break that all down and scatter it around”—that is, if you make remote work the new normal—“you can still get a bunch of work done.” Goldman’s own performance bears that last statement out: The past two years were Goldman’s best ever, with the company reporting a record profit of $21.6 billion in 2021. (And Solomon collected $35 million in compensation last year alone.) “But you start to fray the foundational things that make the place so unique.”

Solomon’s inevitable conclusion: “For Goldman Sachs to retain that cultural foundation, we have to bring people together.”

Is Solomon futilely resisting the tide? Or, as he believes, is the rest of the business world overreacting to the pandemic’s temporary demands and ignoring the deep-rooted power of human beings with one another? Every organization must face such questions, and the stakes are high. Businesses that embrace hybrid work may discover only years later that with less face-to-face employee interaction, their culture and creativity have withered—and recovering could take more years. But if that risk proves baseless, employers that insist on presence in the workplace will overspend on real estate and, far worse, may not attract and keep the best workers. 

Goldman’s experience is instructive as an extreme case. Perhaps no major company values in-person work more highly—which means that when the pandemic arrived, the firm faced a uniquely threatening crisis.

With offices on six continents, Goldman foresaw the threat of COVID-19 early. Soon after 2020 dawned, functional chiefs and other executives globally began group pandemic planning calls twice weekly, sometimes more often, which continue today. A few facts quickly became clear: The virus would spread from Asia to Europe to North America; supply chains would be disrupted and unreliable; closing offices would be unavoidable. 

For Goldman’s top leaders, the pandemic forced painful decisions. “We stress teamwork in everything we do,” wrote John Whitehead, a revered senior partner, when he listed the firm’s 12 principles in 1979. But would teams really work if their members were alone in their homes? 

HR chief Bentley de Beyer, an Australian who was previously at Johnson & Johnson, arrived at Goldman in January 2020, just as the pandemic hit. He recalled in a podcast for internal distribution that he immediately faced issues of “making adjustments that might be wildly unpopular, even with some of our business leaders at the time, until the seriousness of the outbreak became more obvious.” It was wrenching. Changing policies and practices that “may have been sacred cows in the firm—something that no one in the firm would have dared touch or assess or make any adjustments to—we’ve had to do that in real time.” 

Goldman closed all its offices in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in mid-March, in step with most other big banks; Asian offices had closed earlier. The only people allowed in New York headquarters were a small number of traders who needed to make markets using technology in the building, plus a few top executives. Throughout the pandemic, Solomon never stopped going to the office.

Suddenly 98% of the firm’s workforce was working from home—a surreal experience. De Beyer recalled that “if you’d asked me, even in January, would that be possible at a firm like Goldman Sachs, I would have thought you were a little crazy.”

Goldman did not require employees to return to the office sooner than most other big banks, and in some cases it waited longer. But from the beginning, senior leaders focused intensely on making sure offices would be fully functional from the moment employees returned, whenever that might be. That’s why disrupted supply chains were especially worrying. 

People wait in line to enter outside the Goldman Sachs headquarters building in New York,
Workers entering Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York in June 2021 for a return-to-work push that was halted owing to a COVID surge driven by the Delta variant.
Michael Nagle—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Goldman relies on vendors to manage its in-house medical clinics in some offices, its travel programs, its technology services, and more; the firm “needed those vendors to be there” when it was time to return to the office, says someone familiar with the firm’s thinking, and it knew that during the pandemic those vendors “potentially weren’t going to get paid.” To ensure they’d be there when needed, Goldman continued to pay some vendors through the pandemic, even when no money was owed. 

Another of Solomon’s top concerns in the pandemic’s early days was the firm’s incoming class of new hires, arriving in the summer. That issue would be concerning at most companies, but at Goldman it’s supremely important. To understand why, and to understand more broadly why the pandemic was so traumatic for Goldman, it’s necessary to understand the firm’s unusual operating model. 

Contrary to the popular conception of a big, 153-year-old Wall Street firm, Goldman Sachs is an extremely young company. Some 73% of its 43,900 employees are millennials or Gen Z; 50% of employees are in their twenties. That herd gets thinned out quickly as it rises through the hierarchy, which is remarkably flat. Just four basic job categories separate the rookies from the top executives: analyst, associate, vice president (called executive director outside the U.S.), and managing director. A small percentage of managing directors gain an additional title, partner, though Goldman hasn’t been a partnership since it went public in 1999; today’s partners are managing directors who participate in a separate bonus plan.

Each summer some 3,000 new employees arrive, most of them having just received bachelor’s degrees. Those first-year analysts are well paid, receiving an average globally of $136,400 in salary and bonus, reports the Wall Street Oasis training firm—slightly below the major-bank average ($143,000) because applicants value so highly the Goldman training, network, and street cred. The rookies typically sign up for a two-year program, near the end of which Goldman will try to entice the very best not to go elsewhere, not even to go to business school, but to stay at the firm. Most of the rest will leave for other jobs. It isn’t unusual for 80% of an incoming class to be gone after two years.

That model offers multiple benefits for Goldman and for the young analysts, even the large majority who don’t stay with the firm. Goldman attracts an ultra-elite group of new hires and then observes them closely to identify the very best. The rest go out into the world with the gleaming Goldman credential. Many land elsewhere in the financial world. “The KKRs, the Blackstones, and others count on Goldman Sachs to hire really good people and train them for them, and try to pick ’em off,” says a retired senior partner. Those recruits sometimes rise to high positions at firms globally, which often become Goldman customers.

“I just don’t think the way we work in our business is that different than it was five years ago, and I don’t think it will be different five years from now.”

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon

Solomon explains how it all works as a system. “We hire thousands of people out of undergraduate school every year—really extraordinary people across all areas of the firm. Some of them stay. A lot go on to do other things. But they will be very proud of the fact that they worked for Goldman Sachs. They will think back generously on their experience and what it taught them.” In addition, “they’re super-smart, really interesting people from all over the world. If you’re a 22-year-old who has just been thrown into a pot of 3,000 other 22-year-olds—let alone the 23-, 24-, 25-, and 26-year-olds—you get to interact with them. Some of that interaction is professional. Some of it becomes a friends network that you carry with you in life. That is the ecosystem of the firm. That’s a very powerful ecosystem.”

Competitors and industry experts agree. In Fortune’s latest list of the World’s Most Admired Companies, the voters who determine the ranking—top industry executives and directors, plus stock analysts who follow the industry—rated Goldman No. 1 in people management in its industry, ahead of JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Citigroup, HSBC, and more.

Against that background, it becomes clear why the past two years were so agonizing for the firm. Solomon says, “One of the things we saw in the pandemic is, if all you’re doing is a lot of work and looking at a television screen, a lot of the things that make that experience so fantastic disappear.” The lifelong network, the learning from some of the world’s best, the heady atmosphere created by thousands of staggeringly accomplished peers—working alone from home, they were gone. Over time, the firm could lose its unique allure, its aura. For Goldman, remote work was much worse than just a challenge. It undermined the very “ecosystem of the firm.” 

The damage began to pile up quickly. In the office, “because you’re working so much, a lot of your relationships are with your coworkers,” says Adam Cotterill, a former Goldman analyst and associate during the pandemic. “When you’re at home, you’re starved of that. And physically being [in the office] gives you a sense of the importance of what you’re doing. You’re working with senior people, they’re speaking with clients, and it’s new and exciting. And to some extent that gets stripped away.”

The problems could be much worse. Nathan Risser joined Goldman at its London office as an analyst in January 2019 and left in April 2021, burned out and needing to protect his health. “I saw the darkest days of the pandemic and lockdown,” he tells Fortune. He wrote an article about his experience, published in New York, observing that “the first thing I noticed when I started working from home was how important the in-office perks at Goldman had become”—things like the medical center and on-site gym. “There’s something about striving to achieve the exceptional alongside others, whether by working late nights in the office or putting in a hard hour in the gym, that pulls people together. And that can’t happen in a virtual environment.” Risser tells Fortune he left because he didn’t like the work, but if it were otherwise, “I’d want to be back in there immediately.”

His experience was far from rare. The pandemic was brutal for Goldman analysts for two reasons. It wasn’t just that being stuck at home left them with all the usual hard work but without the in-office factors that made the Goldman experience bearable and valuable. In addition, the hard work suddenly turned much harder, which is saying something.

The Goldman two-year analyst program has always been trial by fire: 80- to 100-hour weeks, intense pressure, impossible deadlines. The pandemic violently disrupted an array of industries, some for better (e-commerce, video streaming, internet services), some for worse (hospitality, travel, energy), all of them urgently needing financial services. Result: Goldman’s revenue jumped 22% in 2020 and then leaped a further 33% in 2021—the all-time biggest year in mergers and acquisitions globally, with Goldman ranking No. 1 worldwide in handling M&A deals. 2021 was also the biggest-ever year for IPOs, and Goldman ranked No. 1 in handling those. For analysts, the long weeks grew even longer, the pressure heavier. 

As early as April 2020, the New York Post later reported, analysts were complaining about having to use their own computers instead of the better ones at work and not getting the $25 meal stipend available after 8 p.m. at the office—irritations that stole time and attention from the growing workload. Ten months later, a group of 13 analysts in the San Francisco office sent bosses a PowerPoint deck detailing their grievances: working an average of 105 hours in the previous week, 98 hours a week in the previous month, getting to bed at 3 a.m. on average, mental and physical health declining sharply.

The pandemic gravely weakened other critical experiences. For the first time, Goldman’s summer interns—a group that’s harder to get into than Harvard—faced an entirely digital program in 2020, lasting just five weeks instead of the usual 10, a sad substitute for the real thing. Even more mortifying for the firm’s leaders was another unprecedented event: The incoming class of 3,000 new employees would “arrive” digitally and start working for Goldman having never known the in-person experience they signed up for. 

Goldman reopened its New York area offices in June 2020 but encouraged employees to continue working from home if they could. COVID case counts began rising steeply at summer’s end, peaking in the winter of 2020–21 at levels not matched until the recent Omicron variant arrived. Yet even then, Goldman deployed the power of physical presence when it could. “Building relationships with clients comes from showing up and making the effort to be there,” Solomon says—especially amid a historic global pandemic. When American Airlines borrowed $7.5 billion collateralized by its frequent-flier program that winter, Goldman handled the transaction. American’s CFO, Derek Kerr, later told an online meeting of the airline’s bankers that Goldman got the deal because it was the only firm that showed up at American’s Texas headquarters to make its pitch. “The next morning I had calls from four banks wanting to come see me,” he tells Fortune.

That same winter, in February 2021, Solomon was already thinking hard about avoiding a repeat of summer 2020. “I don’t want another class of young people arriving at Goldman Sachs this summer remotely,” he told an online Wall Street conference—“3,000 young people coming in that aren’t getting more direct contact, direct apprenticeship, direct mentorship. That’s very, very important to us.”

He got his wish. He says now, “I think it made a huge difference for us. Last summer I believe we were the only firm that had all of our summer analysts and associates in New York, 100% there, for their whole summer experience. We worked very hard to create that opportunity.”

By then the firm had announced dates for a return to the office—expected, not just encouraged—in June 2021 at locations worldwide except in Asia. As of last Sept. 7, anyone entering Goldman’s U.S. offices had to be fully vaccinated; as of Feb. 1, 2022, everyone must now be fully vaccinated and boostered.  

For the first time in nearly two years, it became realistic to believe that just maybe, regular remote work at Goldman Sachs was over.

Now begins the great test. Has COVID-19 transformed the office-based working world forever? Or will the much-ballyhooed transformation sputter, defying the pundits and pollsters? A recent poll finds that only 3% of white-collar workers want to report to the office five days a week, and many say if they’re required to do so, they’ll quit. In today’s labor market, can the unrepentant Goldman model—requiring many workers in the office not five days a week, but often six or seven—survive?

Some argue that Goldman isn’t quite the talent magnet it once was and can’t continue demanding so much from its recruits. “Being an M&A banker is no longer an alpha male thing,” says William D. Cohan, a journalist, author, and former Wall Street investment banker whose books include Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World. “The alphas have gone on to private equity or tech.” Among the Harvard Business School’s class of 2021, 23% went into consulting, 19% into technology, 14% into private equity, 8% into hedge funds, 7% into venture capital, and just 4% into Goldman’s industry, investment banking. 

One could argue that those numbers are misleading because going from business school to investment banking is yesterday’s career model. “Back when I graduated from Columbia Business School in 1987, literally it was either investment banking or consulting,” says Cohan. “Now if you’re getting an MBA and going to be an associate on Wall Street, that’s considered a bit of a failure.” Much better is that “you graduate from college, get an analyst job on Wall Street, and then get whisked away as quickly as possible by the private equity firms.”

That only adds to the pressure Goldman is facing to continue attracting the best candidates coming out of undergrad. But the competition is fierce. The employer branding firm Universum’s latest survey of over a million students worldwide, including undergraduates, finds that the most ambitious students favor investment banking; Morgan Stanley, UBS, and Goldman are virtually tied for the top score.

But even if Goldman continues to draw the supersmart go-getters it prizes, it could pay a price in other ways. “If you really believe in diversity, our data tells us that the diverse talent—Black, Latinx, Asian, women—all have a higher preference to be at home,” says Deborah Lovich, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group. “So if there’s another employer that will meet that preference, you’re going to be left out.” That’s bad news, she says, because “diversity is key to better product and innovation. There’s tons of data on it. You’ll be at a loss.” Her bottom-line view: “The challenge is not, Do we bring everyone back?” Rather, it’s “getting hybrid work to work really effectively.”

David Solomon thinks such worries are simplistic or ill-informed. He has made diversifying the workforce a priority, for example insisting that incoming classes of analysts be at least 50% female; Goldman hit the target for the first time in 2020, with 55%. The firm now publishes data on minority representation, as do the other big banks. Goldman’s numbers are in the middle of the pack; Black employees were 6.8% of the firm’s U.S. workforce in 2020 (most recent available data), half the Black percentage of the U.S. population. But the numbers are rising, and increasing them is a factor in managers’ bonuses.

Marc Benioff CEO of Salesforce speaking during panel
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and other tech company leaders have embraced flexible work.
Jason Alden—Bloomberg/Getty Images

As for attracting the best and brightest, Solomon believes the popular framing of a Wall Street vs. Big Tech competition is “a vast oversimplification.” Each industry attracts a wide range of applicants for a wide range of jobs. “Somebody that goes to work for Facebook as a software engineer is a completely different person with completely different goals and ambitions than someone that goes to Facebook to sell advertising,” he says. “Someone that comes to Goldman Sachs to be an investment banker or trader is different from somebody that comes to Goldman Sachs to be a software engineer.” Goldman doesn’t have to beat every employer for every job opening; it just needs to get the right people in the right jobs, and Solomon believes he can still do that.

More broadly, it may well be that only 3% of the white-collar workforce want to work full-time in an office, but Goldman needs to attract only a tiny fraction of that pool. Women and minorities are more likely to prefer remote work, but again, within the averages Solomon may be able to find the special few he wants. 

One more subtlety often overlooked: On any given day, many Goldman employees are working remotely. The culture has always accommodated employees who need to stay home for unexpected reasons. The company offers a generous family leave policy. In the hierarchy’s upper reaches, managers travel heavily to visit clients, and they work from the road. When Nathan Risser burned out and told his bosses he needed time off, he says, they agreed immediately and told him to stay out as long as he needed. “Your bosses are very demanding,” he tells Fortune, “but when you put in a request for something”—he snaps his fingers—“it’s granted.” Life at Goldman is lived in “a culture that allows people to deal with what they have to deal with,” says Solomon. “But that’s very different from having the latitude to wake up and say, ‘You know, it’s raining. I don’t feel like going to work.’”

The unanswered question is whether enough of today’s and tomorrow’s best young people will accept that culture. An executive in another industry recalls that as a young Goldman employee 15 years ago, “I at least had the question in my mind, Do I need to be here doing this work? And that was with the technology tools we had at the time.”

A sharp generational fault line may be widening. Daily occupancy at Goldman HQ was recently at 60% to 70%—better than the 50% on back-to-the-office day but not back to normal even accounting for normal travel and other factors. A retired senior partner observes, “Not just at Goldman but at all the firms, the biggest resistance to coming into the office is coming from the most junior people. It’s really quite remarkable. And the senior ones don’t like it.”

Solomon is jarringly out of step with corporate America. Working from home is the new normal, office towers are being converted to condos, and homes in leafy suburbs are priced like palaces. But Solomon isn’t bound by broad trends; he’s focused on Goldman, ever unique. “I just don’t think the way we work in our business is that different than it was five years ago,” he says, “and I don’t think it will be different five years from now.”

Like any good Wall Street banker, he’s willing to bet against the crowd. Much is riding on whether he’s right.

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.

Read More

CryptocurrencyLeadershipInvestingClimate ChangeMost Powerful Women