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How two big Wall Street banks are rethinking the office for a post-pandemic future

Lord Norman Foster sits for a portrait on the 42nd floor of JPMorgan's current headquarters. Lord Foster is the architect for a new 60-story building the bank is building. He describes the new structure as a "a breathing building" because of the increased focus on air circulation.
José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Lord Norman Foster sits for a portrait on the 42nd floor of JPMorgan's current headquarters. Lord Foster is the architect for a new 60-story building the bank is building. He describes the new structure as a "a breathing building" because of the increased focus on air circulation.

What will the office of the future look like?

It's a question that may seem moot for a lot of workers in 2023, when work-from-home arrangements have become commonplace — but not for Wall Street.

Financial firms are aggressively trying to lure employees back to the office.

And for two big banks, JPMorgan Chase and BNP Paribas, the end of the pandemic has been an opportunity to reconsider the role of the workplace.

JPMorgan, the biggest of the big banks, was in the midst of planning to build a new headquarters in Manhattan before COVID-19 hit.

Meanwhile, BNP Paribas, which is headquartered in France, was in the process of renegotiating the lease for its own regional headquarters in Manhattan, when New York City shut down.

A model of JPMorgan's future offices is displayed on a conference table of the bank's  current building in New York on Oct. 25, 2022.
/ José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
/
José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
A model of JPMorgan's future offices is displayed on a conference table of the bank's current building in New York on Oct. 25, 2022.

Ultimately, BNP Paribas decided to scale back its real estate footprint in the 54-story building it shares with other companies. In July 2020, it signed a new, 20-year agreement for less space — six floors in total, and worked with the architectural firm Gensler on an extensive redesign.

Both financial firms have incorporated lessons they learned during the pandemic into their designs, as they have rethought what offices can mean for their employees.

Here are three of the ways they are envisioning the workplace of the future.

Fresh air

During the pandemic, people started to pay more attention to air circulation in confined spaces, and it became a more important factor in commercial architecture.

Lord Norman Foster, who designed JPMorgan's new headquarters on Park Avenue, calls it "a breathing building."

When it is finished in 2025, there will be two times more fresh air circulating through the 60-story building than New York City's building code requires.

"There is a greater awareness, sensitivity, and acceptance of the importance of fresh air," says Foster, who worked with a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on his design.

A model of the skyline surrounding JPMorgan's future offices is displayed on a conference table of the bank's  current building in New York on Oct. 25, 2022.
/ José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
/
José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
A model of the skyline surrounding JPMorgan's future offices is displayed on a conference table of the bank's current building in New York on Oct. 25, 2022.

The tower, which will accommodate more than 14,000 workers, will also have a state-of-the-art air filtration system, and the bank says it will be able to monitor air quality continuously.

Not only that, in the expansive, jam-packed rooms where bankers buy and sell stocks and bonds and other assets, each desk will have its own climate controls, and air will be pressurized beneath the floor. That's for both health reasons as well as for energy efficiency.

Meanwhile, BNP Paribas upgraded its heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. It installed new filters that are capable of capturing most contaminants as small as 0.3 microns, which is really, really tiny, smaller than most bacteria.

Flexible workspaces

The beating heart of any big bank is its trading operation. JPMorgan buys and sells billions of dollars in stocks and bonds and other assets every day.

In its new headquarters, the trading floors will be enormous — large enough to accommodate 550 employees, and JPMorgan and its design team reimagined these spaces.

According to David Arena, the bank's global head of real estate, adaptability is critical.

"If you are trying to predict the future, it's a fool's errand," he says. "So, how can you future-proof a space? You make it flexible."

David Arena, global head of JPMorgan's real estate, stands for a portrait on the 6th floor of the active construction site of JPMorgan Chase's new future building in New York on Oct. 25, 2022.
/ José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
/
José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
David Arena, global head of JPMorgan's real estate, stands for a portrait on the 6th floor of the active construction site of JPMorgan Chase's new future building in New York on Oct. 25, 2022.

Flexibility became even more important during the pandemic, and these floors are designed to be changed easily. Even the walls are moveable, Arena explains.

"When the nature of trading changes, and it might, or when the nature of the office above us changes, and it might, it's simply rearrange the furniture," he says. "And that includes offices, walls, and the desks and chairs themselves."

It will be possible to redesign an entire floor completely in one weekend, Arena adds.

Meanwhile, BNP Paribas has added more flexibility to its new workplace. Many employees no longer have private offices or designated desks. Instead, there are "flex desks" and rooms they can reserve for meetings.

Perks, and of course, food

Like many companies, JPMorgan wants to make the office a draw again, and its new headquarters has plenty of perks.

There will be rooms for yoga and cycling, on-site medical care, and a large conference center.

BNP Paribas doesn't have a gym onsite, but the company added bike storage and opened a new outdoor terrace for staff.

"The reality is, if you are happier at the workplace, if you have a variety of activities that you can extend into the leisure element of the day, then you're going to be more productive," says Foster, the architect of JPMorgan's new headquarters.

And then, there's the food.

JPMorgan is working with restauranteur Danny Meyer, who started Shake Shack, on its cafeteria, which it describes as a "large and modern food hall." Arena is excited by expansive pantries throughout the building.

"It's no secret, people love to eat," he says. "I'm Italian. We do everything around the dinner table. And so, we have, basically, the equivalent of that here."

Meanwhile for BNP Paribas, the goal was to create a "home away from home" for its 2,000-plus New York-based workers.

For employees who spent months, and in some cases years, working in spare bedrooms and at dining room tables, that phrase has taken on new meaning.

BNP's renovated offices also have pantries, and adjacent to one of the largest trading floors, there is a full-service coffee bar. Bankers can even use an app to order cappuccinos and lattes.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.