SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Less than a month ago, Banco Santander Brasil had nearly 65% of its employees back in offices, while Brazil’s two largest banks kept almost all of theirs working from home.
Now, under pressure from workers and health authorities, the Brazilian unit of Spain’s Banco Santander is telling more of its staff to stay at home.
Santander Brasil’s retreat is the latest sign of tension between a corporate eagerness to re-open offices and the growing risk of contagion as Brazil’s COVID-19 crisis worsens.
“There are no hospital beds left, so banks are sending workers back home,” Ivone Silva, head of the bank workers’ union in the Sao Paulo region said.
Santander Brasil said in a statement to the union on Wednesday that it will further cut the size of the teams working at its headquarters, but did not disclose by how much.
“After a lot of pressure, Santander reduced the number of employees in their offices to about 30%,” Silva said.
Santander Brasil declined to comment on whether the move was taken under pressure. In an internal memo to workers, it said it was emptying its buildings due to the worsening pandemic.
The Brazilian bank’s Chief Executive Sergio Rial has been an outspoken critic of working from home, saying it prevents dissemination of the company’s culture.
“It’s no panacea, nor something transformative as you might imagine,” he said on one conference call.
Banks are among Brazil’s largest employers and 450,000 people work for financial institutions in roles ranging from tellers to traders and investment bankers.
In Spain, a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic also forced Santander to send workers home again, reducing office staff to 30-40% in January and February from 50-60% in December.
A spokesman said it has since returned to December levels.
REMOTE WORK ‘UNAVOIDABLE’
Santander Brasil is not alone in having to revise its plans.
Banco BTG Pactual also retreated from returning 30% of staff to its Sao Paulo headquarters in recent weeks, reducing that to just 10%, Mateus Carneiro, BTG partner and head of Human Resources, told Reuters.
Even with health protocols in place at the office, remote work is “unavoidable” at the moment, Carneiro said, citing high infection rates and the overwhelmed Brazilian health system.
Those working at the offices of Latin America’s largest independent investment bank are tested twice a week, Carneiro said, and must social distance from colleagues.
“Now it’s a safety issue,” Carneiro said, adding that the bank hoped to have just 15% to 30% of its 3,800 employees working remotely in the longer term, as it considers a physical presence important for mentoring and investment banking work.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who for months played down the pandemic, has called outgoing Petroleo Brasileiro Chief Executive Roberto Castello Branco’s practice of running the oil company remotely “unacceptable”.
“We still have some companies with a very controlling management style, that want their employees close by,” said Tatiana Iwai, a professor specializing in work culture at the Insper business school, of mid-sized Brazilian companies.
Nevertheless, Banco Bradesco SA and Itau Unibanco Holding SA have kept 94% and 97% of employees working from home. Their CEOs said this month they had no estimate for a return to the office, but they are planning to adopt part-time remote work when the pandemic is over.
In Europe, HSBC, Lloyds, Nationwide and Santander UK have said they will slash office space and mix working from home with offices.
Brazil’s bank workers union said Santander and Itau in Brazil failed to follow a government suggestion that they open their branches less than five hours per day. Most cut working hours by one hour, but some slowly returned to longer hours.
Santander said in a note to clients on Wednesday that it would temporarily close some branches for two weeks to help curb the spread of the virus and cut working hours by one hour.
Itau also said in an e-mail to Reuters that its branches will close an hour earlier from Friday.
(Reporting by Carolina Mandl and Tatiana Bautzer; Additional reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer in Sao Paulo and Emma Pinedo Gonzalez in Madrid; Editing by Christian Plumb, Alexandra Hudson and Alexander Smith)