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How, When Do Wealth Managers Return To Offices?

Brett Bernstein, June 23, 2020


A big question that businesses of all kinds face right now is when is the right time to return to an office, particularly if there can be legal consequences from such a step and subsequently hitting a problem caused by the virus. The author of this article examines the issues and how to frame such a decision.

The wealth management sector, like others, faces the challenge of how rapidly business can revive after the lockdowns pass. Some decisions are as basic as exactly when can employees and owners of companies return to work? 

To discuss such questions is Brett Bernstein, chief executive of XML Financial Group. The editors are pleased to share these comments; the usual disclaimers apply. We invite readers to supply their own observations about how they are returning to traditional work, assuming that they aren’t planning to stay working from home permanently (and even if you are, let us know why). Email tom.burroughes@wealthbriefing.com and jackie.bennion@clearviewpublishing.com

After more than three months of Covid-19 disruption, wealth management firms like XML Financial Group are grappling with a vexing dilemma: how and when can we re-enter our offices?

What changes to our policies and procedures need to be made and most importantly, what is the comfort level of our clients and employees? Above all, we do not want to put anyone in a position of feeling uncomfortable or pressured to re-enter.

Our firm created a safety committee made up of executives on our leadership committee with a few additional team members. We started by listening to various webinars on re-opening offices featuring outside experts that were facilitated by our equity partner, Focus Financial Partners.

We then discussed the various policies and procedures we currently had in place and what updates needed to me made. We proceeded to develop a framework of what we believed would be best practices, but decided not to present our ideas until we heard from our entire team.
Survey, safety and policy
Accordingly, we sent a survey to our entire firm asking team members about their comfort level in returning to the office and what they felt constituted a safe work environment. We also left space for comments and suggestions. 

From there, we purchased the necessary safety equipment, updated our policy and procedures and began to inform the team of the new changes. They included keeping the main doors locked, staggering employees in open areas through the week, requiring masks in common areas, limiting one person at a time to confined spaces like the kitchen or copy room and asking that those who have offices keep their doors shut. 

All of our open areas are more than six feet apart already. Each office location does have vacant offices so if someone who works in an open area is uncomfortable, they could use one of those offices. And because everything is cloud-based, they can simply log into a computer in one of the empty offices and it’s as if they are at their own desk. 

We found that roughly one third of our team were  ready to come back to the office, one third wanted to be sure the office opened with ready with some precautions and the final third were fine with continuing to work remotely.

Opening the doors
The next step was when to re-open our physical offices in Maryland, Virginia and Colorado.

We concluded we would reconvene the conversation after Labor Day. Our rationale was based on the fact that while states are opening back up, clients and prospects aren’t rushing to come in person to meet with us. We don’t know how the numbers will play out for the fall and don’t want to be in a position that if we open to early, we’d have to send our team back home. 

We also considered the possibility that schools may have online learning again and how would that affect our team members with school-aged children. 

For now, our physical locations remain closed. We are fortunate to have a robust cloud-based platform, VoIP phones and messaging and other tools to connect our team. We have communicated with our clients all along the way how we are operating and to them, we haven’t missed a beat. 

So, while we don’t have a magical answer, we believe that being cautious and communicating often is the best course for now. Once we have a definitive time frame, we will communicate that to all of our employees, post proper signage within our offices so our policies and procedures are clear and begin the new normal.

People vs screens
A number of firms are asking if they will even need office space at all when the pandemic is over.

For XML, the answer is yes. While efficiencies are now at all-time highs and we could bolster our bottom line by eliminating significant operating costs, we do miss the comradery and what that brings to the team. Zoom Team meetings are great but are not a substitute for human interaction among our team and with clients and prospects. 

In the end, I believe our business will very much resemble what it looked like before this pandemic hit. To be sure, advisors, clients and prospects will all be more comfortable using more technology to interact. But providing financial advice is a people business, and people prefer to talk to other people, not screens.

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