Inside Citigroup Inc.’s headquarters in Manhattan, executives are trying to solve a problem bedeviling much of Wall Street: How to get employees up elevators.

With the coronavirus pandemic just starting to ebb in New York, the world’s largest banks are busily designing logistics to eventually bring staff back to mostly empty towers. Citigroup, which operates in more countries than rivals, is emblematic of the talks behind the scenes. Facing a slew of challenges, it’s cautioning employees to expect a slow, gradual return with no set dates. Some might spend the rest of the year working from home.

“We will take a very custom or very local view,” Chief Executive Officer Michael Corbat told an online town hall of employees in more than 50 countries last week, according to people who heard the remarks. “You are not going to wake up one morning or one evening and see an email come in saying ‘Come back to work tomorrow.’”

Executives at Wall Street’s largest banks agreed to share their private discussions of proposed measures for returning staff to skyscrapers. Many emphasized they are still gathering data and hashing out details before making final decisions.

Citigroup, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are all trying to figure out how to reorganize their lobbies and elevators to prevent contagion. JPMorgan might station attendants outside elevators to help push buttons, so fewer workers need to touch keypads. Goldman is exploring ways to open doors without contact, possibly setting out towelettes that can be used to touch handles and then discarded on the other side.

More broadly, big banks are exploring taking an active role in monitoring the health of their employees -- checking temperatures on arrival, requiring masks be worn, possibly even at desks, and providing on-site virus testing to catch outbreaks quickly. Firms are planning to reorganize office seating and shared spaces like coffee stations and cafeterias. Some are debating whether to help staff commute without public transit. Even then, many older employees and those with medical conditions will likely have to work from home indefinitely for their safety.

With decisions yet to be made, some middle managers in Citigroup’s vast trading division have been privately floating a range of scenarios, including the possibility that about half of their staff could work at home until December. Still, a senior official said no such dates are being set, because the return to work will depend on how the pandemic evolves. For that same reason, recalls will also vary widely among locations.

Risk Experts
It’s worth watching how giant banks adapt, because they run some of the corporate world’s most sophisticated and well-funded risk departments. Some have been honing safety measures in hubs such as Hong Kong that are likely to become the norm in New York and London. That could effectively set a standard for companies across the U.S. and Europe.

Citigroup’s success working from home is keeping pressure off. Corbat recently told analysts that at peak periods more than 130,000 employees have logged on without trouble.

“We’re absolutely open for business, we’re just working differently,” he said.

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