Flexible-work policies have become a key bargaining chip to persuade top dealmakers to move firms, Wall Street recruiters say

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Flexibility is top of mind for Wall Street talent right now.

Recruiters told Insider that some senior bankers at the managing-director level and above are saying they won’t consider new roles that are based in the office full-time.

Investment bankers are in high demand across Wall Street as mergers and acquisitions and initial public offerings surge, with firms looking to bulk up in hot areas like tech and healthcare in particular. 

For some senior bankers, rigid return-to-office policies are enough to consider a new gig, Jeanne Branthover, a managing partner and global leader of financial services at DHR International, said in an interview.

And she’s starting to see candidates interested in making a move — and vetoing certain opportunities  — based on firms’ remote-work policies.

"What’s most surprising is at every level, we are getting pushback from candidates that they will not relocate, and they will not work anywhere that’s not at least somewhat remote," said Branthover, who focuses on the executive level but whose financial-services team places candidates of all levels at top banks and firms.

"I’m not talking a few people; I’m talking most people," she said.200 West Street the Goldman Sachs building in New York

Leaders at JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley have been vocal about their desire to get people back to the office as soon as possible.

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said this spring that employees were more likely to contract COVID-19 while out partying than working from the office. Goldman CEO David Solomon said that remote work is an "aberration." And Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman has said that "if you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office."

JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs have fully reopened their New York offices — although JPMorgan last week reintroduced a mask mandate due to the Delta variant surge. Morgan Stanley planned for a full reopening after Labor Day that has now been pushed back to early October. 

Returning to the office is even more complicated because, in practice, banks that have taken a hard line against long-term remote work are more flexible behind the scenes, like at Goldman, where staff has been milling in and out of the office on an ad hoc basis this summer.

Some firms are raising offers in lieu of promises of remote work.

If large banks are indeed more flexible internally when it comes to remote work, newcomers likely won’t get the same kind of treatment and will have to put in more face time when they join, Branthover said.

She said some firms are coming to the table with larger compensation packages in lieu of promises of remote work — but that’s not enough to move the needle for some candidates, especially those who moved during the pandemic and don’t want to relocate to be closer to an office again. 2021 04 16T114221Z_1773665257_RC2ZWM9JH876_RTRMADP_3_MORGAN STANLEY RESULTS.JPG

"What’s different compared to 10 years ago is that it’s not all about the money anymore. It’s about safety, health, family values and things many people used to think about but didn’t take center stage," she said. "Flexibility has become incredibly important when attracting and keeping talent. The world has changed, and being inflexible doesn’t sit with the way the world looks today."

Alan Johnson, managing director at the compensation consultant Johnson Associates, told Insider that one of the biggest factors in the remote-work equation is how to compensate people fairly if they’re not showing up to an office in person and are living in a part of the country with a lower cost of living.

"I’ve had conversations about what it would look like if someone wants to work at a firm and live in Boulder, Colorado, and the more direct question is, ‘Will we pay them the same as if they were in Manhattan?’" he said. "Most firms want to have as few people in Boulder as they can, and the view that you’re never in the office will be the reality for relatively few people in financial services."

Indeed, Gorman has already said that Morgan Stanley employees who want to earn a New York salary must live and work in New York. For some candidates who have left big-city life behind, that might not be enough to make them return, Branthover said.  

"When I recruit for a job in a city like San Francisco or New York and relocation is involved, candidates have said, ‘If I can’t work remotely, I’m not interested in this job, no matter how interested I was before,’" she said. 

Robin Judson, the managing partner and group founder of the search firm Robin Judson Partners, said that hybrid-work models will likely appeal to senior bankers, who travel often in normal times and can effectively do most of their work home alone. 

But remote work could have a negative effect on junior bankers, which down the road poses a threat to the firms themselves.

"Juniors will suffer in their ability to grow," she said, speaking about the in-person training and mentorship they’ll miss out on with senior bankers calling in from home. "The institutions that employ them will also suffer because you won’t have a skilled workforce when they get to be more senior."

Some say it’s too early to make big career decisions based on current work policies.

But Wall Street’s return to the office has been complicated, and that extra layer of uncertainty is creating additional challenges for recruiters. 

"We just don’t know, and we don’t know what we don’t know," said Gary Goldstein, CEO and cofounder of Whitney Partners.

While the question of remote work in the future hasn’t dominated his recruiting conversations yet, he’s been managing candidates’ concerns about returning to an office as coronavirus case numbers once again rise. 

"Some people clearly feel this Delta variant will change things again, and some firms are reluctant to push people back — although others can’t wait to get back to the office as soon as possible," he said. "Right now, the greatest concern is that we’re going in the wrong direction by heading back to the office now."

Johnson added that the pandemic created "permanent change" in the industry in regards to technology enabling remote work and firms becoming more OK with it.

"Three years from now, it would be shocking if everyone at JPMorgan was in the office every day and no one at Citigroup ever came in," he said. "It will blend out."

Goldstein said big banks could end up being less flexible on messaging because they have tens of thousands of employees and leadership doesn’t want to show favoritism to one group or business line. Advisory firms and M&A boutiques might end up with the most remote-friendly policies because senior dealmakers in normal times were often already traveling for most of the week, he said. 

Still, it’s still too early to be coaching candidates about what the landscape will look like in the long term and making decisions now based on current return-to-office policies. 

"I wouldn’t be surprised if three days in, two days out becomes the standard for senior people," Goldstein said.

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