“Creative combustion” is what Jamie Dimon apparently calls it. In a recent session with equity research analysts from securities firm KBW, the JPMorgan Chase chief executive lamented the impact of six months of working from home. Junior employees were losing out on the informal, intangible benefits of sitting together in the office, he said. They no longer benefit from the spontaneous learning and creativity that spills over from human-to-human contact.
Their chances to make friends and have fun in the rough-and-tumble of a New York traineeship are equally curtailed.
Mr Dimon and other Wall Street overlords have therefore been trying to bring their worker bees back into the office even as the coronavirus pandemic stubbornly persists.
In the early months of lockdown, office-based businesses claimed that technology had made the transition away from the office relatively seamless. Many road warriors said they preferred to be grounded. They no longer wasted time stuck in planes, trains and automobiles.
Things feel a little different now. In late summer and early autumn, New York banks and law firms are filled with eager-beaver new joiners. And while they have top credentials, most of what they will be doing on a daily basis — spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, legal research and writing — is picked up from those exactly one or two years ahead of them. Those exchanges now mostly happen on the phone or on video. Companies and newbies themselves are right to wonder how learning curves, unlike Covid-19 graphs, are being perhaps permanently flattened.
Remote working, for all its drawbacks, is still a privilege at a time when many are unemployed and infection risks persist. This chart from a recent study by two American economists shows how workers most exposed to Covid-19 also happen to be the worst paid.
For now, banks and law firms are relying on virtual training to teach core skills. The trickier part, however, is that as young workers move up the ladder, what matters more than mastery of rote tasks is developing personal relationships and good judgment.
One top law partner explained to me the benefits of sitting together in the same office to join conference calls as a group. “So much of the job is on calls and so much of the mentorship comes when you hit the mute button and tell the associate ‘that’s bullshit’ or ‘that’s important’ or ‘you can tell he’s bluffing’ or ‘look at this other document right now and show me section 4.6’.”
Career implications aside, one has to wonder about the mental health of young bankers and lawyers. There are plenty of buyouts, restructurings and financings, so there is plenty of work to do. But grinding 80 hours a week on pitchbooks from one’s small urban apartment does not seem healthy. It can leave trainees feeling disengaged. One contact told me that at their bank, some junior analysts had not even bothered to make the move to the Big Apple yet.
What makes gruelling traineeships tolerable — apart from glittering career prospects — is the chance to be around people your age and make new friends in a strange, overwhelming new city. Pleasures include late-night takeaway dinners in conference rooms and impromptu soccer matches in hallways at weekends, when no managing directors are to be found. Such activities build esprit de corps and life-long bonds.
It is easy to be cynical about Mr Dimon’s attempts to lure his young charges back into the office. But when it is truly safe, I suspect the kiddos will be the first ones through the door.
Enjoy the rest of your week,
US Lex editor
Get alerts on US banks when a new story is published