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Bank of America ‘Very Focused on Getting Our People Back to the Office'

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  • Catherine Bessant, Bank of America Vice Chair, Global Strategy, tells CNBC's @Work Summit, "We are definitely a company that has worked from office culture" and is "very focused on getting our people back to the office."
  • While some big sectors led by technology are embracing permanent work-from-home, banks are more hesitant to change what is essentially a transactional business that has always been heavy on the in-person relationship-building.
  • JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon was among the first Wall Street CEOs to express concerns about work-from-home as a permanent structure.

Within the world of banking, the rapid adoption of hybrid work and remote work caused by the pandemic isn't going down easy, at least not as a permanent state. And if there is the thought that maybe technology leaders within big banks would be more likely to see the ability of the world of work to be recreated virtually than CEOs who came up through the core banking divisions, Cathy Bessant, Vice Chair of Global Strategy at Bank of America, isn't going to be that person.

Bank of America went remote during the pandemic and that was the No. 1 priority for employees. "Safety of our people first, equipping our people to work remotely which was no easy feat, equipping them to work remotely, and then hardcore, precise focus on performance for customers and clients every day," Bessant, who was the chief of operations and technology at the bank in a previous role, said at the CNBC @Work Summit on Wednesday. "We were all in uncharted territories."

And it worked by one notable measure of innovation: Bank of America received more patents in the first half of 2020 than ever before in its history during a comparable time period. But now, as the world slowly moves back towards normal and return-to-office strategies, if delayed, are inevitable, Bank of America will return to a more traditional work structure.

"We are definitely a company that has worked from office culture," she said at the CNBC event. "The reason for that is that informal collaboration that you're talking about we believe produces a better and more sustainable outcome."

The Bank of America executive isn't alone among big bank peers in that view.

It was a point made by JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon in his last annual letter to shareholders early this year, where he said there are some aspects of in-office work and in-person relationships that Zoom simply cannot recreate. While JP Morgan is adopting some aspects of a hybrid approach, Dimon wrote in his letter, "remote work virtually eliminates spontaneous learning and creativity because you don't run into people at the coffee machine, talk with clients in unplanned scenarios, or travel to meet with customers and employees for feedback on your products and services."

Bank CEOs haven't always pulled punches with their work views as 2021's remote work experiment was extended.

Goldman Sachs' CEO David Solomon called work from home "an aberration" earlier this year.

By May, Dimon was saying, "I'm about to cancel all my Zoom meetings. I'm done with it."

He added for people who are worried about commuting again, "yes, the commute, you know people don't like commuting, but so what."

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan had said in June, during the week when Goldman Sachs first required workers to return to offices, that there was a desire to return among remote employees. Bank of American has more than 200,000 workers.

"People want to get back to work," Moynihan told CNBC in June. "It was interesting, I was at this wedding over the weekend and a bunch of young kids working in our industry for a competitor, and they're all ... tired of working out of their rooms." 

As the summer progressed and delta variant cases rose, the major banks adjusted plans, and have focused on vaccinated employees and additional protocols in offices. But even as the delta variant slowed down what was an aggressive timeline — at least relative to many other companies — for a return to Wall Street for many workers, bank executives have remained worried about the toll of nearly two years of work from home.

"Our people after 18 months are fatigued and they performed brilliantly, but I think I as a leader question the sustainability of innovation, the sustainability of engagement and culture building in a perpetual remote office or remote environment and that's why we're very focused on getting our people back to the office," Bessant said.

Financial performance has not suffered, though, with the bank reporting results on Thursday morning that were better than expected by Wall Street analysts.

Work will change, and technology will have to change with it, sometimes painfully, with the number of people who attach to the bank's network on a remote basis taxing "every element of our infrastructure," she said. "No matter if we're in office, if we're out of the office, if others in the ecosystem have a different way of working that we not only have all the tools we need but that our people know how to use them and that is a much bigger challenge than most people would think."

There are many aspects of the world of work that have "forever changed," Bessant said, especially for leadership and management, and empathy going from a soft skill to a core skill, "the ability to see things through other's eyes, even when you can't see them right in front of you at a desk or at a table."

Many CEOs say they are at their "wits' end" trying to get people to come back, but Bessant is among the bank executives who seems confident that's a challenge the banks can, ultimately, master.

Missed this year's CNBC's At Work summit? Access the full sessions on demand at https://www.cnbcevents.com/worksummit/.

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