‘Office politics’: Hong Kong bankers size up office return risk

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A man wearing a protective face mask walks past a pub, following the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Lan Kwai Fong, a popular nightlife destination in Central, Hong Kong, China March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Bankers might like to think of themselves as lone wolves, but a Covid-19 outbreak in a single gym in Hong Kong tells us otherwise. The cluster of cases has affected the local offices of HSBC, Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas among others. Even with vaccines being rolled out and global bank bosses talking up the virtues of workplaces, these cases show how hard a return to normal office life – whatever that looks like in future – will be.

Government tallies show 64 infections have so far been linked to Ursus Fitness, an upscale gym frequented by the city’s expatriate financiers. At least two schools have closed, while banks and other firms have sent workers home and sanitised some areas. HSBC deep-cleaned an entire floor in its 40-odd story headquarters. Over 240 close contacts have been packed off for a fortnight’s government-run quarantine while hundreds more have been told to get tested.

That may seem like an overreaction. Hong Kong is smaller in size, but more dense than New York or London. Multiple banks, law firms and fund managers are housed in single skyscrapers, with Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley for example sharing one with Credit Suisse. Public pledges to get cases to zero have also resulted in the city largely shutting itself off from outsiders to a far greater degree than its financial rivals, with draconian three-week quarantine requirements. That doesn’t position it to easily shift to a future where Covid-19 will still be present even though it may no longer be a pandemic.

Yet dealing with – hopefully – occasional clusters is something that everyone will face as bosses urge a degree of office return. This week DBS’s  Piyush Gupta told Bloomberg that the bank needed to bring people in occasionally for the “soul” of the company while in February Barclays’ Jes Staley was clear he expected workers back at some point this year.

In September, JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon fretted that productivity and “creative combustion” had both taken a hit from home working. This latest rise in housebound bankers in Hong Kong suggest more creativity will have to be applied on how to get around the new limits of office life.