By Sumeet Chatterjee and Scott Murdoch
HONG KONG, May 15 (Reuters) - The greetings are awkward and the skyscraper lifts half-empty. But Hong Kong's cafes are filling and taxis are harder to find as the first wave of financial professionals return to their offices after an easing of coronavirus lockdown rules.
The re-emergence of facemask-wearing bankers, investors, lawyers and their clients in Central, Hong Kong's main business district, is being closely watched by other major financial centres looking forward to resuming business.
Few, however, have described it as anything like a return to a pre-virus normal.
"Everything takes time these days, and there are queues everywhere," said Alex, a bank worker lining up for the lifts in the 88-storey IFC 2 tower, which houses UBS, Nomura , BNP Paribas and others.
"Everyone is very cautious ... you literally have to think before you do anything - literally anything - even doing a high-five with a buddy."
Greetings have proved a particular minefield as face-to-face meetings resume.
Handshakes are sometimes offered, producing awkwardness over whether to accept, while others report an uptick in "namaste greetings", with palms pressed together, or the Chinese-style fist pressed in a palm. Foot and elbow bumps are also popular.
Face masks are de rigeur on the streets – and increasingly uncomfortable in Hong Kong's sweltering summer weather – and several bankers report their use inside offices, even though not all firms demand it.
"It’s not the nicest thing in the world but you get used to it," said one banker at a European institution. "Also you aren’t being particularly respectful if you are not wearing one."
Banks including Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley are now allowing meetings of up to eight people, although all meetings at Bank of America remain virtual, sources said. Citigroup allows meetings of up to 10 people if they can't be avoided.
Morgan Stanley has changed the algorithms for its dedicated lifts in the 108-storey ICC tower – also home to Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank – to allow a maximum of eight people, while Citigroup is installing plastic partitions in higher-density areas like trading floors.
Office staffing levels at the banks vary from around 50% to just 15%.
Private bankers have noticed a pick-up in meeting requests – particularly among their older clients.
“The family offices are fine because they would have proper set up… but some of the high net worth individuals who are older may not be that tech-savvy,” said Anthony Chan, chief Asia investment strategist at Union Bancaire Privée.
Many bankers are still leery of face time, however. One senior dealmaker at another institution says while some of his team attend a regular Monday meeting together, he dials in from his office in the same building.
With the bulk of interaction still being online, dress codes have become markedly more casual. Few expect that to change soon, with travel banned and external meetings so limited.
Several banks have said “smart casual” will suffice for office goers and some staff think a more relaxed dressing style could become permanent. The dealmaker not attending his team meeting in person said his tailor told him some bankers were asking for casual shirts and jackets, not suits.
Mahendra Kumar, Asia Pacific head of financing for financial sponsors at Deutsche Bank, has swapped his suits for business causal and stubble for now.
"I'm not going to the tailor ordering a few suits at once like I usually do every January. He is not going to be my friend anymore."
However, Kumar sees private equity activity picking up later in the year, which would mean a return to his monthly China trip and in-person client meetings.
The chances, and merits, of a return to regular travel are hotly debated. Before the crisis, about a third of investment bankers in Hong Kong could expect to be travelling at any one time.
“One thing has been shown during the coronavirus shutdown was that so much more can be achieved using technology,” said one chino-wearing capital markets lawyer.
Previously, travelling to Beijing from Hong Kong for one meeting could take up two days of your time, he said.
Hong Kong this week broke a 23-day run of zero local infections with a family cluster of three positive tests, but some government officials say they do not currently plan to tighten restrictions.
Bars in the city re-opened last Friday, observing a 1.5 metre gap between tables, while restaurants and cafes can now seat groups up to eight at similarly distanced tables, leading to long queues at popular banker hangouts.
One group of bankers this week gave up on a team coffee and returned to their office after waiting for a table.
“Even going out for coffee with colleagues has become such a big pain now,” said one of the group. “It’s refreshing to come back to the office, but with so many restrictions, I now wouldn’t mind working from home once in a while.” (Reporting by Scott Murdoch, Sumeet Chatterjee, Kane Wu, Noah Sin and Alun John; Writing by Jennifer Hughes; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)