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Hedge Funds Are Slow-Walking Wall Street’s Return to the Office

Hema Parmar

(Bloomberg) -- As the finance world tiptoes back into the office, some of the biggest hedge funds are opting to keep their workers at home into 2021.

While Wall Street firms including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. ramp up attendance at their global headquarters, staff at Bridgewater Associates, D.E. Shaw & Co. and Two Sigma Investments are unlikely to be back until next year, according to people familiar with the matter and company officials.

Banks often have their own buildings, but hedge funds usually work in shared locations with less control over how the lobby and elevators are managed. Some are choosing to wait and learn from how others’ returns pan out, a position helped by the fact that productivity has stayed high, according to the people.

Two Sigma, which has about 1,500 U.S. employees, told workers they won’t be required to return before July 4, one of the people said, asking not to be named because the information isn’t public. Those who miss being at their desks can go in from January.

Still, some hedge funds are pushing ahead.

About 40% of Capstone Investment Advisors’ New York staff is in the office. To give employees time for creative thinking, the firm has created “meeting-less Wednesdays.”

“The No. 1 priority is the health and well-being of staff, but with the knowledge that we feel we are missing certain elements of our work discipline and culture not being in the office,” said Paul Britton, chief executive officer at the 175-person firm.

Other hedge funds are opening their doors more slowly, according to people familiar with the firms’ plans.

Steve Cohen’s Point72 Asset Management is letting about 5% of its New York and Connecticut staff come back voluntarily, while at Millennium Management and Elliott Management in New York, small numbers of people have returned after getting permission.

Citadel, which said in June that staff could come back, has seen its office population grow amid strong employee demand. The firm has on-site coronavirus testing and reimburses for car services and other commuting options.

Magnetar Capital Partners, based in Evanston, Illinois, planned to re-open offices by Labor Day, but pushed the date back.

“We did an employee survey in July and it had an overwhelming response of people who wanted to continue to work from home,” said Barbara Bernstein, human resources chief at $12.1 billion Magnetar. “That really informed us around our decision to work remotely until at least late fall.”

Of the biggest U.S. banks, JPMorgan has been the most bold in moving to restaff its offices, with an aim of bringing as much as 50% of workers back in New York in coming weeks even as the virus continues to claim lives. Wells Fargo & Co. plans to keep most of its staff working from home through at least Nov. 1, and Bank of New York Mellon Corp. told most of its workers not to return until at least next year. Citigroup plans to ramp up attendance in the New York-area starting next month but will cap daily attendance at 30%.

Bizarre times have seen hedge funds get creative.

In May, Bridgewater set up a wall-less tent in a wooded area opposite the firm’s headquarters where about 50 staffers worked at socially-distanced desks.

The few critical personnel working from Bridgewater’s offices have regular Covid testing and an app that tracks symptoms and is connected in real time to medical professionals. The firm plans a drive-up flu vaccination clinic “to mitigate against the compounding risk of both viruses,” said Richard Falkenrath, chief administrative officer.

Citadel created its own bubble at the American Club resort in Kohler, Wisconsin, where for a month about 100 interns from the hedge fund and market-making business lived and worked, one of the people said. The firm also organized social activities such as canoeing and karaoke.

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