UK's biggest financial firms conflict on working from home and return to office strategy

Lianna Brinded
·Head of Yahoo Finance UK
·5 mins read
The sun sets behind the London skyline, including from left, the Shard, Tower Bridge, the dome of St Paul's Cathedral and 20 Fenchurch Street (also known as the Walkie Talkie) as the warm weather continues, in London, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)
The UK government is encouraging people to work from home if it’s not necessary to go into the office. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP

Banks across Britain, like other traditionally office-based industries, are grappling with the new rules and guidance put in place by the UK government.

While some banks are pausing return to office plans and asking staff to work from home, some are keeping the office open for those who “need” to go into the workplace.

On Tuesday, UK prime minister Boris Johnson implemented a range of new measures to try and get the nation’s reproduction (R) number — the average number of secondary infections produced by a single infected person — below 1. The R number is currently between 1.1 and 1.4.

This includes being encouraged to work from home if it’s not necessary to go into the office.

Watch: Boris Johnson addresses the nation

Johnson later addressed the nation in a televised speech and said that “tougher measures” were on the horizon if people did not follow the latest restrictions. He also warned that stricter rules could be enforced over the period of six months if the situation does not improve.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson unveils new rules to combat coronavirus second wave

Goldman Sachs (GS): In a memo seen by Yahoo Finance UK, Goldman Sachs has chosen to keep the office open for those who “need” to go into the office. The bank said in the memo that “it will continue to take steps to sustain a safe, ‘COVID-compliant’ working environment, in accordance with our own precautionary measures and UK government guidance.”

It added that if employees have concerns about where they should be working, then they would need to discuss it with their manager.

“As always, your health and wellbeing remain our top priority,” it added.

Barclays (BARC.L): In an older memo seen by Yahoo Finance UK, Barclays previously said that “colleague safety and wellbeing is at the forefront of decision-making” when it came to returning to the office, and that adequate notice would be provided if invited back to the office. The bank boss Jes Staley had previously said in a Bloomberg television interview that “it is important to get people back together in physical concentrations.”

However, following the UK government announcement on Tuesday, Barclays said that hundreds of Barclays staff who had returned to office-based working in recent weeks in London will now revert to working from home, according to multiple reports. Barclays was not immediately available for comment.

Lloyd’s of London: The private insurer said that it has asked most of its 800 staff to work from home following the UK government announcement but independent brokers who use its Lime Street headquarters will be able to go into the office.

Watch: Michael Gove has said people should now work from home if they can

READ MORE: Pubs and city centre firms warn new coronavirus rules could be a 'fatal blow'

“Lloyd’s Underwriting Room is certified as a COVID-secure environment and will remain open for market participants,” the company’s spokesperson said in a statement.

Société Générale (GLE.PA): The French lender which has a big business presence in London said in a statement to Yahoo Finance UK that it is “adapting its position in line with UK government guidelines. The group priority, unchanged since the beginning of the crisis, remains the health and safety of our employees and clients, while ensuring business continuity.” It did not give details of how many UK workers have returned to the office or how many will stay at home.

Natwest (NWG.L): Has said that staff can work from home until next year, according to multiple reports. Natwest was not immediately available for comment.

Cases rise but business lobby groups ‘disappointed’ at WFH push

THe most recent figures show that the number of UK cases rose by 4,926 on Tuesday with deaths increasing by 37.

The UK chief science adviser Patrick Vallance and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned on Monday that while these numbers seemed low compared to the onset of the rapid spread of the pandemic earlier this year, if the virus is not controlled in its spread, then the doubling of cases could be fatal when it comes up to winter months and the start of flu season. Vallance pointed out in his presentation that the spread of coronavirus had occurred in office environments, as well as a number of other places where people gather.

However, the spokespeople for business lobby groups say they are “disappointed” with the government’s encouragement of working from home.

Watch: These are some of the most important moments from the COVID-19 briefing

Catherine McGuinness, policy chair for the City of London Corporation, the local authority for the Square Mile, said: “Clearly safety has to come first and we’re at a moment when measures need to be taken. But we are disappointed at the blanket call for office workers to return to working from home where possible.

“Firms have taken huge steps to make sure that their offices are COVID-secure. It’s clear that this virus isn’t going to go away quickly so we need to find a way of living with it that doesn’t cripple our economy,” she added.

Business membership group London First CEO Jasmine Whitbread said: “While public health must be the priority, discouraging people from returning to COVID-secure workplaces risks derailing an already fragile recovery.”

READ MORE: Pound hovers near two-month low as UK unveils coronavirus second wave fears

“The new restrictions must be regularly reviewed to minimise the damage to the economy while safeguarding the health of the nation in the round — not just physical health, but mental health and our economic health,” she added.

Roger Barker, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, pointed out that greater and more efficient ways of testing would be key to progress on getting society back to normal.

“Business leaders are eager for the government to focus on the foundations, issues like childcare, public transport, and getting the testing system firing on all cylinders,” he said.