The coronavirus pandemic could permanently change how many bankers make the daily trudge into tightly packed city centre offices, Barclays chief executive Jes Staley said today. 

The bank, which like companies worldwide has seen the majority of its staff work from home or backup sites, will not revert fully to its pre-January working habits, Staley said. 

"There will be a long-term adjustment in how we think about our location strategy - the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past," he told reporters after the bank reported a fall in first-quarter profits. 

Staff including investment bankers could work instead from branches as well as other locations, he said. 

Barclays plans to reopen its Hong Kong office first before other Asian hubs such as Singapore and Tokyo, and then Europe, Staley said. 

Social distancing rules will limit how many workers can return and impose restrictions, such as limiting elevators to two people at a time, he said. 

The comments by the head of one of Britain's biggest banks show how business leaders are contemplating making possibly permanent alterations to work methods. 

Banks worldwide have in recent years increasingly shifted many staff away from expensive skyscrapers in financial hubs, but Barclays and its rivals still pack thousands of workers each into single offices in London's Canary Wharf financial district.

Earlier, Barclays said it has has set aside £2.1 billion to cover a likely spike in loan losses as thousands of its corporate and consumer borrowers battle to cope with the financial fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The British bank booked first-quarter pretax profits of £923m, down 38% from £1.5 billion in the first quarter of 2019 and shy of the £1.27 billion average of analysts' forecasts compiled by the bank. 

Barclays said the impact of the coronavirus hit late in the first quarter and was likely to linger, striking a less positive tone than Standard Chartered which earlier today reported a 12% dip in profit for the period. 

"Given the uncertainty around the developing economic downturn and low interest rate environment, 2020 is expected to be challenging," chief Executive Jes Staley said.

He added that the lender's "diversification by business, geography and currency" would ensure its resilience going forward. 

Barclays said group income rose by 20% to £6.3 billion, boosted by a surge in activity in its transatlantic investment bank where pretax profits leapt by 42% to £1.2 billion. 

Barclays CEO Jes Staley

The fixed income, currencies and commodities division was the investment bank's strongest performer over the period, generating a 106% rise in income to £1.9 billion as it cashed in on sharp swings in global markets. 

Income at its markets business rose by 77% to £2.4 billion, a record quarterly performance likely to undermine a campaign led by Barclays top shareholder Sherborne Investors to radically pare the bank's investment banking division. 

The impairments number included a £405m hit from single name wholesale loan charges, while charges in its consumer, cards and payments division nearly trebled to £885m from December 31, as the deteriorating economic situation increased the chances of customers missing payments. 

The coronavirus outbreak has hit its credit card business particularly hard, with spending in Britain and the US in the last week of March just half the volumes seen in the same time a year ago. 

Banks like Barclays have been key to UK government efforts to keep British businesses and households afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic by slashing charges, dispensing billions of pounds of state-backed loans and granting debt repayment holidays. 

As at April 24, Barclays said it had lent £737m via the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan scheme, approved over 238,000 mortgage and loan payment holidays, and waived overdraft and business banking charges for more than six million customers. 

Despite the tougher economic environment, the bank said it still believed its return on tangible equity target of greater than 10% remained appropriate over time. It delivered a group ROTE of 5.1% over the first quarter, while the investment bank chalked up 12.1%.