Elaine Agather, chair of the Dallas region for JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the central region head and managing director of The Private Bank at J.P. Morgan, has maintained a front-row seat to the “way we work” in the more than four decades she has been with the company, successfully leading teams through the twists and turns of the banking industry. One constant—until the COVID-19 pandemic—was the daily routine of waking up and heading to the office for a full day of work. It wasn’t just Agather’s routine—it was most of everyone’s routine. Then, the pandemic pressed pause on the world, causing the “way we work” to look a lot different as we return to the office.
Here, Agather shares her observations from two years of remote working, the return to the office, and what she predicts will be new and next in the coming years.
As a company leader, what was going through your mind when the pandemic began about getting your team through this?
Going back two years to April 2020, no one knew how long or how far this was going to go. We were wondering if we would ever shake hands again. Business is like a contact sport. Everyone needs to be together, especially in an industry like banking. Team members come with me to make calls, we sit together, we learn together—it’s a relationship business where people need to be together to share ideas. The world proved that we can be productive at home, but do most people want to be at home all day, every day? No, we don’t.
JPMorgan, like many businesses, has heavily integrated the word ‘flexible’ into its new everyday vocabulary. What does ‘flexible’ mean in the workplace going forward?
I have been at the bank for 43 years now, and the word ‘flexibility’ in business didn’t really exist when I started out. Now, flexibility is becoming the norm, but the question becomes, “How many days a week are we in the office?” It has been proven that productivity doesn’t go down with flexibility. However, never coming into the office is not flexibility. Young professionals appreciate some level of flexibility in the workplace. We want to keep our talent and provide them with opportunities to grow older here. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I really want to be on the B team today.” People want to win. They want to be recognized, and they want to do a good job. Therefore, our job as senior leaders is to make sure team members are learning and that we have the ability and tools to teach them and give chance to win.
We are moving our offices to the Ray Hunt building, and this move has given us a chance to think about what work should look like now in terms of flexibility. The key is having an environment in your workplace that is inviting and conducive to being together to get things done. The actual look and feel of the office will change over time, integrating what is energizing and inspiring to young professionals so they want to come in. At JPMorgan, we start across the globe every day with a morning call. It gives us a sense of what is going on. In our current building, this call takes place in a conference room that is empty the rest of the day. Real estate is being repurposed so that spaces are comfortable and used. Now, the room will have a coffee bar and comfortable places for our young analysts to chat. It will be used all day long. We are re-thinking all that space that went unused in the office so that it is more relevant to how we work every day.
What are some of the positive things that you have noticed that occurred because of the pandemic?
The quality of teamwork has been solidified. We have a model here that really fosters teamwork. During the pandemic, teams would get together on their own via Zoom and bounce ideas off each other. Teamwork became even stronger. Real-life didn’t stop during the pandemic—people were having babies, people were getting sick with things other than COVID-19, and so on. It’s easier to be there for each other when you are in an office together all day. It gets harder when you don’t see your team face-to-face that often. I was in awe of how people stayed in touch with others not only for work, but also for the real-life stuff. Everyone reached out to support each other and celebrate happy occasions. That didn’t stop just because we weren’t sitting together in the same room.
While no one wants to be on Zoom all day long, it does provide us with the flexibility to reach people from anywhere. I think virtual meetings will become permanent, and it is good that we have multiple ways to connect with clients and make scheduling easier for them. However, in businesses like banking, our clients don’t always want a virtual meeting and don’t want to watch a webinar. They want to come into the bank and sit down with someone they trust. The ability of a business to do both is a positive.
If you had to provide only three takeaways for CEOs and managers to consider as their companies adjust to the future of work, what would they be?
- Ensure your office environment is inviting, fun, and encourages engagement and teaching. You don’t want your employees going back to the “same old, same old.”
- Incorporate virtual educational opportunities and meetings when needed. We aren’t giving up on that aspect of technology– just incorporating it into the routine.
- Circle the wagons and make sure you are teaching new people about your firm. Help them to understand where they work and the company’s history. Employees want to be heard and seen. Help them to see that being a part of the company is so much more than just a job they go to every day.
Elaine Agather is chair of the Dallas region for JPMorgan Chase & Co. and central region head and managing director of The Private Bank at J.P. Morgan Prior to joining JPMorgan Chase, Sherman, Texas native Elaine Agather joined Chemical Bank of New York in 1979, working in London, San Francisco, and New York until she relocated to Dallas in 1984. After the 1986 merger of Chemical Bank and Texas Commerce Bank, she was promoted to chair of Texas Commerce Bank in Fort Worth in 1992 and joined the Private Bank to manage client advisory groups across the state in 1997. In 1999, she was elected chairman and CEO of Dallas. In addition to her role at JPMorgan Chase, Agather is the chair of the board for Performing Arts Fort Worth and serves as a board member for the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame and the J.F. Maddox Foundation. She serves as the secretary of the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show and is a member of the board of trustees for the Dallas Citizens Council.