Financial institutions will take many months to return to theiroffices, with some considering that up to a third of theiremployees will remain more permanently off-site, according toa recent Deloitte report. Inthe meanwhile, financial services firms are facing real estatecircumstances unique to the industry that will also factorinto their return plans.

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The accounting firm's report cited a mid-April surveyby Deloitte of 100 senior financial service industry executiveswith responsibility for crisis management and business continuityplanning. That survey showed at least half of respondent firms weredeveloping COVID-19 operational contingency plans spanning at leastthe next three months.

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Deloitte noted that many financial industry leaders are still inthe early stages of developing return-to-workplace strategies. Fromoffice towers to data centers to bank branches, the industry is thesecond largest in terms of office space leasing, accounting formore than 15% of total office leasing activity, the reportsaid.

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The office return time period could take years. "Onefirm leader we spoke with said they hope to return 40 percent oftheir employees to the office by August 2021," Deloitte said."Overall, the reality is that there isn't any urgency to return toa physical space."

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"Based on conversations with industry leaders, some companiesmay consider remote working for 30 percent to 35 percent of theirworkforce on a more permanent basis," the report added.

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Some banks have already revealed their office return plans.Capital One, for instance, said that it will not have any broadreturn to work until at least September, the report notes.

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Some banks with retail footprints have remained open,using drive-thru facilities to avoid contact, the report said,noting that 80% of Chase branches are open with reduced staff.

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But in other parts of the industry, Deloitte said, a fewcompanies are evaluating real estate space requirements based onthe number of employees who worked at each site. One insurancecompany CFO said they hope to convert offices with fewer than 10people to remote models.

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Deloitte's survey responses reveal that restart plans werelikely to be role-specific or geography-specific, or a combinationof the two. Other factors were densityreduction, sanitation, and employee supportmeasures in their return-to-work strategies, the reportsaid.

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There are some factors that are unique to the banking industryin real estate.  For example, some banks are developingtouchless interactive teller machines for drive-throughs, reducingthe need to have tellers onsite. But the lack of available turrets,which are specialized phone systems for traders, along withpotential compliance concerns, may require traders to return to thetrading floor, Deloitte said.

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"Extra planning will also be needed for office towers to ensuredistancing measures are followed in elevators and lobbies so peoplecan move throughout the building in an orderly and timely mannerand avoid crowding," Deloitte said.

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One firm's simulation showed it can take as much as twoand a half hours to move people into and out of a fully occupieddowntown office tower, revealing the need to stagger entry andexits, the report said.

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"Corporate real estate leaders will have to look at contractsfor leased space to determine who would be responsible to implementthese changes and will need to work collaboratively with landlordsduring the planning and implementation phases," the reportsaid.

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Once they decide some employees will return to their office,bank management will need to review social distancing measures suchas seat-sharing policies, structured shared-seating programs,staggering work hours and using large meeting rooms for smallergroups. Some firms are now deploying contact- and workspace-tracingapp, Deloitte noted.

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The stakes are high. One investment management leader felt thattheir firm's brand and reputation, in the long run, will beinfluenced by how it manages employee and customer experience.

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Christine Simmons

Christine Simmons writes about the New York legal community and the business of law. Email her at [email protected] and find her on Twitter @chlsimmons