It took a year of a pandemic, but eventually one of the world’s largest banks acknowledged the huge sacrifice that remote work took on its staff. Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup, wants to ease Zoom’s fatigue and return to regular business hours. This tells you how bad things are – in investment banks and in big business in general.
Citi employs more than 200,000 people worldwide, and his attempt to address the problem should persuade other large companies to rewrite their manuals for WFH. This is a long overdue attempt to deal with the general feeling of endless working days and constant monitoring. It is also a recognition that this pandemic is unlikely to end soon and that office culture will change for a long time – perhaps forever.
Even if employees are asked to return to the office, downtown headquarters are unlikely to be eligible to fill this year as governments manage the continuing threat of COVID.
The WFH pandemic and joys have had an unequal effect on different levels of the corporate hierarchy. Business leaders say they are thriving, according to a Microsoft a survey of workers published this week, but most of their employees are struggling or just surviving in the current environment. About four out of 10 workers are thinking of leaving their employer.
It is therefore essential that companies quickly eradicate the practices of WFH, which have aggravated the burden on their workers, with extended days and the intrusion of the office into the home, which causes stress and resentment equally. Burnt-out employees who feel they want to run away from their managers will not perform well or will stay. The sudden introduction of blocking measures a year ago allowed some behaviors to go unnoticed, such as a manager sending WhatsApp messages or emails to employees at any time, waiting for a response. This should no longer be acceptable.
In a long note to Citi workers, Fraser outlined three measures to relieve pressure immediately: limit video calls to customers only on Fridays (or Thursdays, where applicable); planning business calls during what we once considered normal working hours (weekends are for rest); and encouraging people to rest. The company will also create a day off for the entire company – May 28 – “Citi Reset Day”. This kind of initiative can sometimes feel a little capricious, but if it involves real improvements in the work week, then what’s the harm?
As a diversified lender with a huge consumer business, Citi is not the same as the entire Wall Street herd: it will think about its retail operations. But rivals of investment banks must take into account his plan. Just last weekend, the head of the Goldman Sachs Group was forced to promise that Saturday would be sacred to his staff after a small group of deeply unhappy junior bankers complained about inhumane hours. Pandemic work has certainly contributed to this.
Although the prescribed measures may not always work and will require adjustments and flexibility – there may be good reasons to make a video call with colleagues on Friday, for example – Fraser at least puts a marker on the need for some kind of balance between life and work. The trick now will be to ensure that the measures are implemented in a meaningful and lasting way.
Wall Street leaders want to get everyone back to the office as soon as possible, but for a while there will be some social distancing that will keep the workforce divided in different places, whether in satellite offices, office space or at home. For Citigroup, this means that most employees will work from the kitchen or bedroom up to two days a week, which can become standard financial practice. So the blurring of boundaries between people’s personal and professional lives will continue after vaccination.
Working from home has also made people much more vulnerable to harassment and harassment in the workplace, giving perpetrators the ideal conditions to throw themselves with little disclosure. According to the US Workplace Harassment Survey of 2021, remote workers were harassed at a rate of 43%, compared with a rate of 21% for employees who do not work remotely. Half of the respondents said that the abuse took place during video calls.
As the episode of Goldman Sachs’ 100-hour work week showed, it’s best not to wait for rushed staff to explode in public before tackling the problem.
© 2021 Bloomberg LP
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