Goldman Sachs CEO David M Solomon has emerged as a holdout against remote working, telling an industry conference on 24 February that it will not be the “new normal” for his staff.
“I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us,” he said of the bank’s current, dispersed form. “And it’s not a new normal – it’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.” (BBC News, 25 February 2021)
Outlining his primary concern about a prolonged continuation of homeworking at the bank, Solomon cited generational factors. “I don’t want another class of young people arriving at Goldman Sachs in the summer remotely,” he said.
“And so, we’re going to do everything we can to adapt, and we’ll have to adapt to whatever the environment is, but to not put ourselves in a position where we’ve got another class of people coming in – 3,000 young people coming in – that aren’t getting more direct contact, direct apprenticeship, and direct mentorship.” (USA News Site, 24 February 2021)
Solomon’s choice of emphasis left some commentators puzzled. In an editorial, EFinancialCareers wrote: “Some bankers at the senior director and junior MD levels might be forgiven for wondering who’s looking after the middle-aged.
“It appears that decisions are being made by the most senior executives (for the most part in their fifties and likely to have been vaccinated), for the benefit of the most junior staff (who are very low risk and are quite likely to have caught the virus anyway in their dorms).” (EFinancialCareers, 25 February 2021)
The editorial pointed out that before the pandemic, it was generally regarded as technically impossible – and probably illegal – for bankers to work from home.
“When the pandemic hit,” it noted, “conventional wisdom switched to believing that it was just about possible, but likely to be disastrous for productivity. At the half-year results stage, people were ready to recognise that sales and trading could be done remotely, but that advisory clients would never do deals without face-to-face meetings. In the second half, that turned out not to be true either.”
Now, it added, “the return to the office is being justified on the basis of intangible benefits to a generation who are more experienced and comfortable with online communication than any before.”
Is remote working as bad for mentorship – and other aspects of professional relationships – as Solomon says it is?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “What Solomon’s statement and the subsequent commentary reveal is that we haven’t collected enough data on this turf yet – and what do have hasn’t been sufficiently analysed. We’re not post-Covid yet – we’re still very much in the middle of it. We have ballpark intentions in place around what a return to office space might look like, but at this stage they are only speculative.
“So, at the moment we’re seeing individual organisations responding to the scenarios in which they’ve found themselves. They will all be asking questions such as: how suitable is our work to be carried out remotely? What is being lost through remote working? What could be gained from bringing people back together? All of those questions lead to highly contextual decisions about what works for each, specific organisation at hand.”
Cooper notes: “Until we get to a point where we can look back and say, ‘These are the things we did; these were the productivity gains; these are the areas where we felt we lost ground,’ and have an evidence base for those conclusions, it’s going to be very difficult to arrive at general principles that are universally applicable. As organisations, we have learned new ways of doing things. Some of them will be worth retaining. Some will be worth modifying. Others, in time, may be rejected.
“But, as Solomon indicates, we now have a whole new cohort that has been interviewed online, appointed online and met their colleagues only online. In some ways, this would have worked very well, and in other ways, less so. It’s probably true to say that if you have a good relationship with someone and you worked with them in person for a while, it would have been easier to switch to remote working because you had that foundation.”
She adds: “Again, there’s not enough data to say how well we’re managing to build relationships that start and continue remotely. So that absolutely lends itself to research. In the meantime, though, any decisions that organisations make on these points should stem from the context of what customers expect, what suppliers expect, how work was done previously and which new technologies have come along that will make things more efficient. There are so many contributing variables, and each one is worthy of careful consideration.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on mentoring
Image of David M Solomon courtesy of Lisa Ferdinando, for the Office of the US Secretary of Defense, via the Wikimedia Commons