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Should bankers come back to the office? Opinion is divided amongst the great and the good of banking C-suites (US and Europe split on bringing bankers back to the office, Financial Times, 10th May 2021). The argument is being framed in terms of matters such as productivity, communication and training. In fact, the best way to understand the heat and noise over flexible working is to look at the changes to banking material culture bought about by the rise of tech and accelerated by the pandemic.

Productivity is an objective matter, so one would think that settles the matter of flexible working. Taylorism give us the framework to assess this over a century ago. Serious research has been done and serious answers given (Work From Home to Lift Productivity by 5% in Post-Pandemic US, Bloomberg 21st April 2021). So why the continued debate?

Partly, it’s because us bankers think that banking is special. Our specialness is that we feel we are The Best. This allows banking to get the ‘best’ graduates, and allows those recruits to righteously take decisions which affect the wider world, as Karen Ho explained in Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (2009). But hold on – we’re not the most special any more in the eyes of elite graduates, and haven’t been for some time (Why today’s most promising young people are choosing to work in tech instead of finance, CNBC 18 May 2017). Tech is shining brightly these days, there is no doubt.

Those in favour of the status quo ante argue that some banking activities are hard to carry out remotely. Sales activity and the induction of new recruits are often cited. Flexible working is an idea of some office time and some remote time. Even if an organisation feels some activities have to be done face to face, all forms of flexible working accommodate this.

Does the change in work practice caused by the pandemic, and the loss of hallowed ground status, help us understand the nature of the flexible working debate? Yes, and the key is the culture and ritual of investment banking.

With the prolonged lockdown, there’s been a loss, for example, of presenting consumer good like cars or watches to each other. The weekend FT, with its feature How to Spend It might be titled How to Spend It So You Can Flash It Around. There’s also a loss of the chance to transact in prestige through office location & the right after-work bars. Along with power and plenty, we all want our prestige.

Then there is the loss of the cultural space – risk office or trading floor – where traditions play out; the small rituals (e.g. grads getting coffees) or bigger rituals like long working hours for youngsters. A new, remote, space means that the old traditions, and those overly attached to them, are like a sad flock of birds circling their recently felled forest.

All this loss of material cultural and cultural space leads to a loss of meaning. The medium and language of investment banking culture is lost. I’d suggest there is a vacuum, where wider social mechanisms, which do operate remotely, assert themselves.

Like any system, then, the culture of banking will try to defend itself, and it’s entirely natural to go in search of time lost. The thing is, there is a better way. Let us find an adapted set of meanings which enable us to move forward faster, harder and smarter.

My own wish would be that as culture is shaken up, efforts at diversity accelerate as part of the rebuilding.  If a working-class boy in Blackpool can price a derivative, or tell me when dog money will go out of fashion, then I don’t really care what watch he wears. If a returning-to-work mother or a father wants to see the kids in the evening, then why can’t they hop off Zoom for a dinner with the little monkeys, rather than formatting a Powerpoint in the office into the wee hours? The fight to get your children to eat their vegetables is in any case great training for a host of investment banking activities, as all parents will attest. Let’s embrace flexible working with our most flexible thinking, and banking will shine once more.

Darren Sharma, CEO Frontline Analysts