COMMENT: The disgusting coffee at my bank is a proxy for our awful culture
I have spent many years of my career on the trading floor of investment banks. Until last week, I thought they were normal. I was cool with the sea of screens, the mass of men, and the tinge of perspiration. I thought this was what a working environment was about. Until I visited the tech firm.
I'm not going to say which tech firm it was (it's a big one and it delivers food), but I have never been so envious of someone's office environment. Here was a place where the office was filled with plants, where the computer screens were new, where effort had been made to ensure plentiful natural lighting, where there was a rooftop garden for staff to eat their lunches, and where there were even shelves with books lying around so that employees could exchange novels if they wanted. Around 25% of the floor was filled with side tables and couches. There were no restrictions on where people worked, and if they needed a quiet area to finish something, they could have it.
I was astonished. I now realize that I have been operating in a cultural and aesthetic void throughout my whole career. At the bank I work for there are plants - but only in the visitor area. The trading floor is the equivalent of a concrete jungle and there's hardly any natural light ever since the bank spent several hundred thousand dollars moving managing directors' rooms across the floor to the windows. The MDs now get all the natural light, and the rest of us sit under very bright lights staring at multiple (old) computer screens (sometimes as many as eight).
In my bank, there is no question of us wandering away from our screens, browsing a book and working on a comfy couch. You're considered unproductive if you're not at your desk. We can't eat our lunch on the balcony or the roof - possibly because there's a fear that we're at risk of falling or jumping off. The environment is simply not healthy.
If you don't believe me, try our coffee. We have a machine that vends free coffee, but the product tastes like bleach. We can therefore buy coffee from a few areas inside the building, but the coffee they sell is generally burned, too hot or too cold. It's not consistent, mostly because the people behind the culture have no clue how to make it. - Plus the prices are extortionate as the coffee vendors are trying to extract the most they can from their captive audience. Most of us resort to leaving the office and buying a coffee from outside, which wastes time and erodes our productivity.
By comparison, when I stepped into the lovely, leafy, start-up office, I was asked what I wanted to drink. I was then led to an open area with fridges that had plenty of beverages. There were Nespresso coffee machines that made the perfect coffee every time and there was filtered water. And yes, it was free of charge, and I sat on a comfy chair and drank it.
The entire experience has changed my perspective. I now realize what I've been missing. I also realize how dated the environment in banks has become. Unless banks adapt and modernize I can't see that anyone would want to join this industry. The offices are uninteresting, the environment is often negative and the pay is not what it was.
Investors say tech companies are overvalued, but I disagree: Apple’s market cap is bigger than that of BAC, JPM, MS and GS because its employees are motivated and eager to succeed. This is reflected in the products Apple comes out with. Meanwhile, people on the sell-side still don’t have efficient technology to trade or to book trades; even our versions of Microsoft Office are out of date. Given all the issues, nicer coffee wouldn't heal everything, but it would at least be a start.
Vasili Kenward is the pseudonym of a VP at a major US investment bank
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