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Inside investment bank BTIG's move to work from home for all of 2020

In July, BTIG became one of the first major U.S. financial institutions to say its U.S. employees will work remotely for the duration of 2020.

While having traders work from home was "completely unprecedented" leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the shift has gone "remarkably well," according to BTIG COO Jennifer Mermel.

➤ BTIG's management is now having conversations about how remote work could figure into its culture well beyond the pandemic, Mermel said.

When Wall Street institutions began taking steps toward reopening their offices to a handful of employees, BTIG LLC was heading in the exact opposite direction.

With COVID-19 still raging across the country, the investment bank and brokerage decided in July that its 520 employees across the U.S. would work from home for the rest of 2020.

In doing so, BTIG became one of the first major U.S. financial institutions to state publicly that its employees would be able to continue to work out of their basements, home offices and spare bedrooms, a decision that other companies on Wall Street such as BlackRock Inc. reportedly have come to as well.

Now, BTIG executives are starting to think about how working from home will figure into the company's strategy beyond the COVID-19 era, according to COO Jennifer Mermel, who recently spoke with S&P Global Market Intelligence about BTIG's decision and what the future holds for remote work at the company.

The following is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

SNL Image

BTIG COO Jennifer Mermel
Source: BTIG

S&P Global Market Intelligence: What drove BTIG to allow employees to work from home for the remainder of 2020?

Jennifer Mermel: Mainly, we've been watching the guidelines from the governors, which is to say that, if you can work from home, you should work from home. And we can. We've proven that. Our employees have proven that they can work from home and communicate with one another and clients. That ability to actually conduct business operations at full scale from home was really the No. 1 factor to even think about it.

We've also talked about it from a national scale. As the reopenings started, we thought, "Well, we have a dozen people who live in Texas so maybe Dallas can reopen. They haven't really been affected." And just as we were starting to model out that scenario — what the return would look like and how we would ease into it — Texas started seeing this terrible upward swing. It was a real learning moment for us that this wasn't over. It's unpredictable.

How have employees reacted to the decision? Why did BTIG feel the need to make a work-from-home announcement for the rest of the year in July?

It's been extremely positive. I think they've been grateful that we have taken the long view.

One of the impetuses for making the announcement so early was we recognized that people need to plan, whether they're planning for childcare or commuting. We've had over 100 employees relocate on a temporary basis as a result of the coronavirus. And we wanted people to have the ability to make commitments. We think they do their best work when they're not constantly thinking about transitions. So we hope that this decision provides people with some certainty.

When BTIG made the year-long remote work announcement, it made a point of saying the decision included trading teams. Across Wall Street, some of the largest investment banks and trading shops have been bringing employees back into the office. Why did BTIG not feel that same pressure? Had BTIG traders worked from home in the past?

It was completely unprecedented. If you had told anybody at BTIG in January about traders working from home, it would have seemed almost impossible. But it's gone remarkably well. The traders, in addition to our bankers and investment analysts, all of our teams, have done great remotely with tremendous efficiency and accuracy. They've really exceeded our expectations. They went into uncharted territory, and they made it work.

BTIG has highlighted that remote work will play a "prominent role" in the company's culture going forward. What does that mean in your eyes? Do you think remote work will extend beyond the pandemic at BTIG and its trading desk?

We're thinking beyond. We are a high-touch firm. That's how we refer to ourselves in our interactions with clients, and we really believe our employees benefited from being in the office, feeding off of one another's energy, having rapid-fire engagement and seeing what was going on. It really elevated the experience for everybody and shaped our culture.

Having gone through this real-time social experiment, we realized people can do their best work at home. For many people, doing work from home, even if it's not 100% of the time, can reduce a lot of stress in life and make them more focused when it comes to work. Whether it's reducing somebody's commute time, enabling them to have a little bit more time with their families — or sometimes [home] can be a place for silent work free of office interruptions. There were benefits that we hadn't fully appreciated. We're now actively talking within the management team about what that return might look like. Certain roles will have to come back. But we think many roles will come back with some hybrid schedule.

As a regulated business, any decision [on traders] we make in the future will have to be done in step with FINRA. Right now, FINRA has been very cooperative and supportive of the firm's decision to have everyone work from home. But until they issue a long-term view, we're not going to shape ours on trading.

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