A gradual return from shorts to suits

Market moved to home-working for resilience – it may linger for convenience

I don’t know who used the analogy first, but in recent years it has become almost unavoidable in markets retooling projects: at some point, someone will compare it to the task of changing a passenger plane’s engines in mid-flight.

The analogy should be adapted for the job of moving the $6.6 trillion-a-day foreign exchange business to widespread home-working. It’s more like transferring each of the passengers from the in-flight jet to their own single-seater planes – while still allowing them to pass the time of day.

Whichever analogy you prefer, the market handled the unprecedented move with some poise (read our feature on the topic here). The bigger question now is how to get all of the passengers back on the jet – and, in some cases, whether that’s necessary.

Back in March, when the switch was in progress, physical equipment such as computer screens had to be sourced and shipped quickly, while desk staples – dealer boards and turrets – turned virtual. Data feeds were set up to maintain the flow of information, and trading platforms were able to digest a big increase in volume.

Internal communication has turned out to be the bigger challenge, but the market has found ways to stay connected. Market-colour conversations between traders or salespeople that were normally shouted over a bank of desks are now held over video calls or put into chat rooms. Birthdays and shout outs for outstanding work are regularly recognised over video.

It’s not just a way to keep people engaged, it’s also to head off feelings of disconnection, remoteness and loneliness that can develop in situations like this, particularly if someone is living alone in an apartment in a major city.

As lockdown measures start to gradually ease, market-makers are starting to work out where to go next. Dealer sources say the handful of staff in the office today are being ferried to and fro in taxis to avoid public transport, and have food provided so they don’t have to go outside. That doesn’t work at scale, of course.

One senior FX executive talks of getting 30% of staff back into the office initially, moving up to half within the next six to nine months, while maintaining social distancing requirements – so, leaving a good proportion of staff at home for the foreseeable future.

It’s widely acknowledged that management mistrust of home-working has largely been put to rest. But while market participants say they’re enjoying setting their alarms a little later, avoiding the commute, and having space to think, many are still looking forward to getting back into the office, where they feel they’re most productive.

Others point out that the office is the best learning environment for junior sales and trading staff.

But of course, many roles don’t need to go back. The head of one FX market infrastructure company says he’s wondering whether the firm still needs expensive central London office space when its programmers can all work perfectly well and happily at home.

These decisions about who to move back – and when – won’t be easy. There’s no rush, though. It’s a major plus that the world’s biggest market can function in suits from the office or in shorts from home – it’s been a source of resilience during this crisis, and it offers benefits that extend far beyond the pandemic.

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