There won’t be much rubbing of elbows on Wall Street this summer.
That’s the whole point, as major investment banks test-run plans over the summer to bring more employees back to Manhattan offices that emptied out in March as the coronavirus pandemic bore down on New York City and force New Yorkers to take a historic pause.
The city this week hit another milestone with its Phase 2 reopening, following a near three-month lockdown to contain skyrocketing daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Restaurants equipped with outdoor seating cooked meals once again for guests. Drinks could be had at sidewalk bars, haircuts booked at salons and barbershops. The real-estate industry got the green light to resume showing apartments.
Wall Street, a major source of New York City revenue and jobs, started to bring a limited number of workers back to the office, albeit under new public health and social measures that aim to prevent a resurgence of deadly COVID-19 infections, which now grip Arizona, Texas and other U.S. states.
Here’s a snapshot of what Wall Street’s return-to-work protocols look like.
Face coverings, daily wellness checks, staggered elevators and desks, spaced at least 6 feet apart, are part of the reworked landscape. A few firms think cubicles and plexiglass will help, at least on trading and sales floors where staffers for decades have worked shoulder-to-shoulder.
For its part, SL Green Realty SLG, -3.45%, a major Manhattan office landlord and the owner of Credit Suisse Group AG’s CS, -2.19% North American headquarters at Eleven Madison Avenue, highlighted a host of technologies it might adopt to help smooth the path for its returning tenants, during a second quarter earnings call in April.
Overhead thermal scanners, antibody testing stations, and hands-free turnstile features have been explored, so have futuristic ultraviolet light and vapor systems designed to keep commercial spaces free of COVID-19 or other potential pathogens. “There is not a single thing that we haven’t looked at,” said Edward Piccinich, SL Green’s chief operating officer, during the earnings call.
Credit Suisse and other investment banks have studied the issue of offering free antibody tests to employees globally to screen for prior COVID-19 exposure, as part of their new safety plans, the Financial Times reported this week.
“I think that over the next couple of months, we’re in this collective experience, where landlords are willingly embracing technologies and processes to help get people safely back into buildings,” said Nima Wedlake, a principal at Thomvest, a venture capital firm, where he focuses on early-stage investments in technology and real estate startups.
Wedlake also pointed out that even before COVID-19, companies were relying more on satellite offices in less expensive cities as a way to cut overhead costs. Wall Street firms said they also are studying their existing suburban footprints to see if it makes sense to shift workers away from densely populated urban cities where infections have rapidly spread.
“The question will be, will there be a true dispersion of employees across the country or across the world?” Wedlake said.
The near-term plan at several Wall Street firms is to keep only about 15%-20% of their staff on hand in Manhattan over the summer, and to recall more employees after Labor Day, which this year falls on September 7. That gives time for companies to test out staggered shifts and new technologies when Manhattan habitually thins out over the summer.
JP Morgan Chase & Co. JPM, -5.31% told staff this week it expects “employees will return slowly in waves,” to Manhattan and that the firm-wide approach is for everyone to follow “their own return” to the office. A notice earlier in June to employees said its properties likely would be staffed at 50% or less for the “foreseeable future.”
That’s an increasingly common forecast, with a survey released this week by real-estate investment and management firm Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. JLL, -2.01% showing that companies globally were looking to avoid exceeding 50% occupancy in buildings in major cities until a vaccine is successfully implemented or local guidelines are relaxed.
Dr Anthony Fauci, a top U.S. infectious disease expert told members of Congress this week that he is optimistic that a vaccine for COVID-19 could be ready by the end of the year or early 2021.
On Friday, major U.S. stock indexes were tumbling again, capping a volatile week in which the U.S. set a new record for cases and Texas ordered bars to re-close and leaving the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -2.29% down more than 600 points. While the mood of the market always can change, the pandemic already forced hard-charging Wall Street firms to adapt, shift on a dime, and embrace remote work like never before.
As one bank’s chief executive put it: The trend of working from home is here to stay.