Finance

Hungover City traders’ Friday bacon sandwich run among WFH casualties

The bacon sandwich run is a City of London ritual for hungover traders who stumble into the office late on Friday mornings. It’s also yet another casualty of the new normal of hybrid work.

Trading floors across London’s financial districts are packed again, as the City has opened up. But as Barclays, Goldman Sachs and HSBC are among banks asking staff in markets units to come in at least four days a week, traders tell Financial News that trading floors have become ghost towns on Fridays.

Thursday is the most popular weekday for boozy City nights. After the close of markets at 4:30pm, traders across London can be seen spilling out of offices to haunts including the Madison near St. Paul’s, Smollensky’s in Canary Wharf or the Sea Horse on Queen Victoria Street. That makes the Friday early morning trek to the office — many must be at their desks at 7:00 am or earlier — a sometimes brutal affair.

In what has over the years become a trader rite of passage, wan, sweaty-faced traders skulking into the office past 7.50am on a Friday have been forced to buy breakfast for their team as punishment for their tardiness.

“If you didn’t get in by the market open, you had to get breakfast. And if you didn’t get in by 9am, you had to get everyone lunch,” said one City broker of the ritual. With many now working from home on a Friday, this tradition has slipped away. Now, he said, “Fridays are quieter”.

“These young’uns don’t know market etiquette,” said a trader at a US investment bank in London, referring to how work-from-home has changed this breakfast ritual.

In theory, life is returning to normal in the City. Goldman Sachs has scrapped the free food it offered its skeleton crew of office workers throughout the pandemic to encourage staff to buy sandwiches from local outlets, while HSBC has disbanded its major incidents group in the UK, a team designed to respond to the crisis, after more than 70 meetings as it has opened its doors its employees in Canary Wharf again.

Banks in London have shifted from incentivising staff to come back. Ditching the snacks for memos demanding a return to a more regular office schedule, according to dealmakers and traders.

Banks have also ditched temperature checks for office workers in favour of Covid tests up to three times a week. Social distancing has been scrapped at a number of firms as banks have inched towards full capacity, but masks are still required across most City institutions, despite the UK government lifting legal requirements to wear one in indoor settings.

A widespread return to the office has been a relief to many bankers, who have been forced into back-to-back Zoom calls during a deal boom over the past year, as well as traders, who are almost entirely back to normality.

But many are struggling with the new rituals of stepping back into the office — HSBC has implemented ‘refresher weeks’ to help returning UK employees with the transition — and while hybrid working remains an option for most, Mondays and Fridays in Canary Wharf mean empty floors, according to bankers and traders.

“[The office] is pretty active on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, a lot less active on Monday and Friday,” said Alasdair Haynes, chief executive of Aquis Exchange. “So there’s a correlation clearly between the Monday and Friday, and I noticed that because I’m back to the office almost full time.”

“We’re in the early stages of this, but there’s definite resistance from a proportion of City employees against returning to the office full-time,” added Adrian Crawford, a partner in the employment practice at lawyers Kingsley Napley. “Some banks are asking staff to be double vaccinated before coming back to the office. People are often getting double-jabbed, but not declaring it, so they can stay working from home.”

Risks remain. Some dealmakers told FN that attempts to convene teams in the office on a regular basis since the beginning of September have already been disrupted by new cases of Covid-19.

“Three of our team contracted Covid within a couple of weeks of the office opening up,” said one managing director at a US bank. “There’s still a huge amount of caution about getting back in the office — lateral flow tests on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — but people are concerned about getting on the Jubilee line to the Wharf as masks are less common and trains are more packed.”

“I have a business trip and have had three Covid-19 tests in the past 24 hours,” said the head of M&A at a US bank. “Most people are vaccinated and the risks of coming in are much lower, but there are still cases in the office. It’s just something we’re going to have to live with throughout the winter.”

At Goldman Sachs, around 55-60% of its 6,000 employees at its UK headquarters in Plumtree Court are coming into the office and numbers are increasing, while Citigroup has around half of its Canary Wharf staff coming in each day. At JPMorgan, staff numbers in London are between 40-45%, while HSBC has increased to around 40% of employees coming into its office in Canada Square.

While the number of employees coming into the office have ramped up, many bankers are struggling with the transition to hybrid working.

“I pay £60 a day to come into the office from the countryside, and half my time is spent on Zoom calls with clients or colleagues who prefer to stay home,” said one senior dealmaker at a UK bank.

“The transition has meant that I’m splitting my time between home, the office and travelling to meetings again, while other clients are expecting me to be online and responsive at all times,” said another senior dealmaker. “It’s unsustainable while we have one foot in both worlds — a lot of people are complaining.”

Meanwhile, pandemic-inspired moves out of London have upended the working lives of some senior dealmakers required to come back in the office. One banker who moved from Surrey to Dorset last year said they had to make excuses for an early exit from client drinks to avoid getting home in the early hours of the morning.

Another senior M&A banker who lives two and a half hours outside London spends their working week in a Canary Wharf apartment, while the family remains in rural Buckinghamshire, travelling home at the weekend.

“It’s been a bit lonely, and a big adjustment,” the banker said. “But at least I escape the dogs barking in the background or my teenagers inadvertently making TikTok videos of me on Zoom calls.”

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Paul Clarke

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