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Gotham City

Citi limits

09.07.20

Citi to limit office return to 40% of headcount until there’s a coronavirus vaccine, although executives remain unconvinced that remote working arrangements will work in the longer term.

Citigroup chief executive Mike Corbat said that the bank will not risk “hollowing out its talent” by keeping remote working arrangements in place after the coronavirus crisis, but the bank is unlikely to rush employees back to the office until a vaccine is created.

As large investment banks consider asking employees to stay at home even after lockdown restrictions are lifted in a bid to save real estate costs and allow more flexible working, Corbat said that the bank’s “ambition is to be able to bring everyone back”.

However, the bank will not shift more than 40% of its staff back to the office until there is Covid-19 vaccine — a process that could take many more months — said Paco Ybarra, who leads its institutional clients group.

“It is going to take a long time for numbers to go up, as social distancing is reducing our capacity to bring people back to the office, while others don’t want to come back because of concerns around public transportation,” he said. “Unless there is a vaccine, the maximum we can go to is 30-40% of headcount, and right now we’re way below that.”

Other large investment banks have been slow to start returning staff to their offices in the City. JPMorgan will bring around 10% of its London-based employees back to its UK headquarters in the initial wave at the end of July, and has capped the number at 50% of total staff across all offices. Goldman is gradually moving staff back in waves after re-opening its Plumtree Court office in June.

While many bank executives — including Deutsche Bank boss Christian Sewing and Barclays' Jes Staley — have suggested more staff may work from home full-time, Corbat said he's sceptical.

“I’m not where maybe some others are in terms of saying ‘you’re working remotely and you can work remotely for the rest of your career,’” he said. “It’s way too early to be passing judgement of that magnitude."

The “productivity gains” cited by rivals were not the only argument when considering its staff base, he added, and that banking was an “apprentice” business reliant on face-to-face interaction.

Corbat said that the bank had yet to set a date on bringing all of its employees back to the office, but added that Citi was relying on a “four phase” approach to ensure the safe return of its staff. This is likely to keep employees away for months, however.

“The key phase is the third one — normalisation,” he said. “Am I comfortable getting on a commercial airliner, or getting on the tube? Or going to a concert or a sporting venue? I think, realistically, we don’t get there until we’ve got testing or until we get a vaccine.”

“Today, we are living off the contacts and relationships we have made in the past, but they have to be renewed and refreshed. The longer we are away from the office, we will see the cost of that increase,” he said.

“There's a certain part of work that relies on casual encounters and conversations that were not at all forecast to happen,” he added. “That just hasn't happened in the virtual world.”

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