JPMorgan is building tech hubs for millennial staffers

Perhaps Wall Street's solution to luring top tech talent means separating them from bankers and traders.

A bank office with pool tables? Yes, really.
A bank office with pool tables? Yes, really.   

The JPMorgan Chase staffers stopped, briefly startled by construction sounds resembling a jackhammer that interrupted their gathering on the ninth-floor offices of its digital headquarters. They quickly returned to the task at hand: billiards.

Needless to say, this is not your ordinary bank office.

JPMorgan's digital initiative made its new home in 5 Manhattan West, near the city's developing Hudson Yards district and representative of a culture shift taking place on Wall Street. The bank aims to recruit millennial talent away from startups and tech industry titans, whose experience is ripe for financial services products that are increasingly being consumed online.

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Today, the bank's digital operations headcount is more than 1,500; it seems certain that figure will only grow.

"We really need to attract talent from across the industry spectrum," Gavin Michael, JPMorgan Chase's head of digital, told CNBC.com in an interview.

Wall Street has to compete for tech talent with Silicon Valley companies eager to cater to needs and whims with in-office chefs, exotic retreats and benefits extending to employees' pets. It comes as pay on Wall Street, especially on the entry-level scale, has failed to match the banking business' outsized expectations.

Billiards, foosball and leather pants

Sometimes it means hiring developers, product specialists and designers away from Silicon Valley behemoths like Alphabet, although newly-minted PhDs in mathematics and engineering are in demand as well.

The dress code at 5 Manhattan West, which opened its doors in early December 2015, is always casual — it might not be uncommon to run into a millennial in leather pants, for example. There is a break room, where a couple of employees take one another on at FIFA on XBox; nearby acoustic and electric guitars and amps await their next jam session.

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All of Wall Street — not just JPMorgan — is grappling with ways to integrate increasingly diverse young talent who perceive the generational gap between themselves and would-be managers as being enormous. This isn't JPMorgan's only millennial-friendly office; the firm has established similar offices in Brooklyn; Columbus, Ohio; Delaware and San Francisco, with plans to open still more digital work spaces.

Conference rooms at the West Side office are named for New York City landmarks, like Highline, the elevated walkway that connects to Hudson Yards and stretches through the West Village. West Village is also a name for a segment of Chase's digital office, and other neighborhoods, like Murray Hill, have designations. These are New York ZIP codes millennials live in (or, at least aspire to); but Staten Island's Dongan Hills, for example, is nowhere to be found.

The blue hues one might expect at a Chase branch are also not in sight, and shades of purples, greys and greens abound instead. On top of the billiards table that, surprisingly, was getting use mid-morning on a Tuesday, there are multiple foosball tables. Ping-pong will eventually be incorporated as well.

Individual offices are scant in the open-seating plan; conference rooms are walled off with glass, although it's easy to see inside.

'Environment plays a role'

Hudson Yards number 7 train subway station
Steve Sands | Getty Images
Hudson Yards number 7 train subway station

"What you want to do is create a feeling of openness," says Larry Senn, chairman of Senn Delaney, which is Heidrick & Struggles' culture-focused consulting business. "You feel as if there's a sense of transparency. As part of culture, environment does play a role."

The office culture already shows traits commonly affiliated with the new generation JPMorgan Chase aims to recruit. Abhijit Bose, JPMorgan Chase's head of digital intelligence and a managing director, said the use of email is down and workers function without the utilization of popular office chat tools like Slack.

For the developers, applications like Github supplant communication among teams. But there is no shortage of screens for teleconferencing with far-flung colleagues.

"Scrum teams" tackle development projects in glass-walled rooms where walls double as white-boards, making everything besides the carpet and the ceiling effectively a notepad. Even the backs of chairs in its game room, and elsewhere, can be used with a dry-erase pen.

The 125,000 square foot space, which fits about 800 professionals, feels enormous; hundreds of white noise machines attached to the ceilings return a sense of quiet and keep noisy discussions from spilling across the room. It may have the feel of being laid-back, but it's still high-end: Ted Moudis Associates, architect to Tiffany and Conde Nast, was recruited to develop the space.

Even rote Wall Street administrative functions get a millennial upgrade here.

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James Young, managing director and chief information officer of the digital group and a 25-year veteran at the bank, acknowledged memos and conference calls are fewer at the bank's digital hub. Later this particular day, Gavin Michael will gather hundreds of staffers for an informal town hall meeting at the facility's multi-tiered grandstand. When construction is complete, the grandstand will offer a downtown view to staffers, sipping cappuccinos they procure from the automated barista situated nearby.

And while a chat like the town hall certainly seems feasible for someone like JPMorgan's Michael, it's difficult to imagine another incoming Hudson Yards tenant, KKR founder Henry Kravis, embracing similar tactics (The private equity firm is not expected to move in until 2020).

"There's some tremendous thinking here from our millennial generation," Michael says. "What is incumbent upon us to do is to provide an environment that makes them want to run to work."