Hedge Funds Plan Extreme Lengths to Protect Staff After Lockdown

One hedge fund may shut an office in Asia permanently and have employees work from home. Another may dramatically shrink its Manhattan headquarters.

Meanwhile, industry titanMillennium Management has a 50-point checklist for reopening offices that includes air filtration and an application process for staff who want to come in. Around town, rivals are discussing procuring infrared temperature scanners for entryways and plexiglass dividers to slide between desks.

If Wall Street’s big banks are adopting off-the-rack approaches to reopening skyscrapers to armies of employees, the asset management industry’s solutions aremuch more bespoke. Interviews with almost a dozen industry players show their plans are idiosyncratic and may go to new extremes. It reflects their need to protect star traders at any cost, but also the reality that they have less control over buildings shared with other tenants.

The result will be some combination of working from home long term or from fortresses.

How might it look to traders and portfolio managers entering a Manhattan hedge fund once quarantine eases?

Some may automatically be scanned for fever on the walk to the elevator, where a gloved porter will limit how many can enter and press the buttons. One-way corridors could lead to carefully redesigned desks and even revamped restrooms. Say goodbye to conference room meetings and hello to face masks — all day long.

The breadth of additional ideas getting floated are varied and numerous. The checklist at Izzy Englander’s $42 billion Millennium, which has more than 1,300 staff in New York alone, also covers the details of commuting and vacation planning, according to a person with knowledge of its talks. Some offices won’t be reopening until September at the earliest.

“You have to rethink all the little things,” said Barbara Bernstein, chief human resources officer at $12.5 billionMagnetar Capital. Executives at the firm have been discussing modular furniture, grab-and-go lunches and foot pedals on stall doors in restrooms. “One thing’s for sure, our offices will look and feel different.”

Air Flow

The greater New York area was hit hardest as the deadly coronavirus began spreading in the U.S. this year. Banks and hedge funds, such as Steve Cohen’sPoint72 Asset Management, soon began to see cases of Covid-19 in their workforce. In the midst of epic market swings in March, the denizens of the finance industry hastily retreated to their homes, often working on makeshift arrays of screens.

Since then, global banks have generally dominated the conversation over how to operate and have adopted similar practices — keeping skeleton crews in the office and everyone else in their dens. But some other firms have been thinking more creatively. Ken Griffin’s market-making firm Citadel Securities isolated teams at a swanky Four Seasons hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, where he set up a makeshift trading floor. Only employees of the company and hotel were allowed inside.

Now, giant banks are publicly discussing measures for reopening that largely focus on crowd control. JPMorgan Chase & Co. told employees it expects to keep offices half full once the lockdown ends. Citigroup Inc. is considering opening satellite offices in New York suburbs so staff can avoid densely packed Manhattan.

Like banks, large asset managers such as Point72 and Millennium will apply likely lessons learned from their offices in Asia that are reopening and where temperature checks and masks are the norm. Point72, which has yet to set a time frame, also plans to keep office doors open to increase air flow, set up sanitizing stations and restrict common spaces, a person said.

Last week, Millennium told staff in the U.S. and Europe that a gradual reopening of offices won’t start until at least September, and even then, it’s optional for staff, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. In fact, employees will have to make a business case for why they need to be in the office or why they can’t work from home. And if they do come in, they must abide by checkerboard-style seating and limited access to shared spaces such as restrooms, the person said.

Afsaneh Beschloss’s $13 billionRock Creek Group will have similar rules in place when it starts letting some employees come back to offices in Washington and New York in mid-June.

“We’ve bought masks for our staff to wear. We’re thinking of closing the kitchen, and limiting bathroom use to two at a time,” said Alifia Doriwala, a managing director at Rock Creek, which has weekly virtual team happy hours and even started a virtual book club for staff.

Safety Training

Clearbrook Global Advisors, which invests in hedge funds, has developed a seven-step plan for reopening in stages. It calls for appointing an in-house Covid-19 coordinator and testing the firm’s 24-member staff in New York before they return, said Tim Ng, the chief investment officer. Employees will have to take educational training courses on how to navigate the premises. And there will be temperature checks and masks.

The world’s largest hedge fund,Bridgewater Associates, hasn’t decided yet when it will start ramping up staffing at offices in Westport, Connecticut. But for now it’s planning to increase deep cleanings, limit mingling of employees in groups and require masks at least some of the time, a person said.

A May survey of more than 50 hedge fund clients conducted by a prime broker found about 70% of respondents have started sketching out measures for reopening. Reconfiguring floor plans to separate employees and desks, sometimes with screens between them, are among the most common, according to a person with knowledge of the survey. Some buildings may encourage use of stairwells or regulate deliveries such as takeout. One in five funds said they will probably grant priority to staff who can safely walk or bike to work. They are typically the most eager to return anyway, while those in the suburbs tend to be more content.

Only 7% of respondents said their buildings have mentioned staggering the timing of when people enter and leave.

Restroom Risk

One of the biggest complexities may be how to manage restrooms, as recent data has found infected particles can linger in the air after flushing a toilet.

Another big hurdle is transportation because of concerns about the safety of public transit. Some funds have discussed covering parking costs but are concerned about the infection risks posed by valets.

And then there’s the talk of doing away with real estate costs altogether, according to people who agreed to discuss the deliberations on the condition they and the firms aren’t named. Companies include a global fund with offices in Asia and a billion-dollar money manager that’s questioning the future of its Manhattan offices because working remotely is going so well.

Earlier this year, before the virus spread, Magnetar Capital had made plans to shift some U.S. staff to another building. But now that’s up in the air, too.

“The pandemic has given us an opportunity to rethink what our office spaces should look like in the future,” said Bernstein, the human resources chief. That includes “just how much space we’ll need now that more employees are more likely to work from home.”

— With assistance by Katherine Burton

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