It’s been more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic upended life around the globe, and as vaccines bring new hope for a return to normalcy, financial advisors are faced with tough decisions on whether to return to the office or make working from home permanent.
We spoke with MDRT members to hear their plans for the future, and the only consensus is there is no one-size-fits-all solution. While some are finding new efficiencies — along with new revenue streams — that come from working remotely, others say they’re eventually headed back to the office. Still others are finding solutions that lie somewhere in between.
Searching for a new kind of office
Esther Althaus, FChFP, in South Yarra, a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, recently took an afternoon with her staff of three to scout coworking spaces as an alternative to returning to a rented office. Althaus, a eight-year MDRT member, said the pandemic posed an opportunity to see if working from home was feasible.
“One (staff member) would like to work from the office a few days a week; the other was 100% at home, and that wasn’t so good for him,” she said. “We’re looking at a coworking arrangement so we can have a dedicated space. That would end up costing a lot less than my current rental arrangement.”
Although she and her staff will be working remotely part of the time, Althaus said she has the technological infrastructure to go fully virtual if necessary. She has already set up a virtual phone system, and all documents are available online through a cloud service as they’re also going paperless, she said.
For Althaus’ personal office space, she’s using the money she saves from renting office space to build one in her home. “It’s not a huge renovation, but it would enable a nice work environment,” she said. Her project entails removing a wall on the ground floor of her duplex and creating a separate entrance that will enable her to conduct business and, if necessary, meet with clients.
Althaus said she meets with most clients via Zoom video conference but anticipates she’ll be traveling to meet with them in their homes once it becomes safe to do so. “The nature of the work I’m doing is more sophisticated and high-end,” she said. “I just think if I’m able to go to a client’s home, I get a better outcome. I’m not going to make the clients come to me.”
Expansion plans reversed
Kimberly A. Harding, CLU, CFP, a 16-year MDRT member in Woburn, Massachusetts, USA, is similarly pivoting as she makes her post-COVID-19 plans. Harding said she and her husband, co-founder Benjamin Harding, CFP, ChFC, a 17-year MDRT member, were planning to expand their office prior to the pandemic, but now they’re looking at downsizing to a smaller space.
The smaller office will provide room for members of the team — three other advisors and four operational staff — who want to return to work. More than half of the team is positioned to work remotely, though, she said.
Harding, who serves clients all over the country and in Europe, had an advantage when the pandemic hit because of her previous experience conducting meetings via Zoom. She had already established an online phone system and paperless office, which made the transition to remote working seamless. “My team went home and plugged in and set up, and it was like we never missed a beat,” she said.
The Hardings and their family have been living at their vacation home in Maine since the onset of the pandemic and plan to stay there until the end of their daughter’s school year in June. They’re waiting to see what happens before committing to return to Massachusetts. “The virtual element will be a big part of the business moving forward,” she said, adding that she’s found clients are more focused in a virtual environment. “If someone insists, I won’t tell them they can’t meet in person, but I won’t be traveling anymore.”
A hybrid approach to the virtual office
Yuka Nakahara-Goven, MBA, CLU, a 24-year MDRT member in Dallas, Texas, USA, whose staff works partially from home, said she’s had luck meeting with clients over the phone.
“They’re a captive audience and they often don’t want to hang up; I have their undivided attention,” she said. Most of her clients — typically in their 60s, 70s and 80s — are more likely to agree to a phone call than a video meeting. She said the phone conversations, and focusing on her core clients, enabled her to double her business in 2020 from the previous year.
“COVID-19 has allowed us to focus more on what we have,” she said. “We always have to develop new business, but we’re developing new business within our client base.”
Nakahara-Goven plans to keep her existing office — she’s currently in the second year of a five-year contract for a 1,000-square foot space — for meetings with clients and for her two full-time employees.
But she’s not planning to require both staff members to be at the office every day, she said. They’re currently already rotating days so only one person is in the office at a time, and while most work can be done virtually, some equipment is only accessible at the office. “I’m going to see how it works out — it helps to have both staff in the office but not all the time. It could be more efficient with one working from home,” she said.
Nakahara-Goven has been working primarily from her home office for the last five years and typically goes in one or two days a week. “I’m not a person who thinks you need to go into the office,” she said, emphasizing the importance of self-care. “Before I take care of my clients, I have to take care of myself and my family.”
Moving toward virtual, while keeping the office
Elaine Milne, Dip PFS, in Bristol, England, UK, is a “big believer in environment,” she said. While working remotely, Milne, a 13-year MDRT member, said she tries to keep her work life and home life separate to maintain work-life balance. “When it’s more focused, you’re more productive,” she said. “I wouldn’t sit in my lounge with my laptop doing work.”
In addition to her home office, Milne has two office spaces at her disposal, including one in Dundee, Scotland, UK, which she purchased about four years ago.
She typically works from her home office, while her staff — a full-time office manager/personal assistant and a part-time administrative assistant — work at the Dundee location. Milne said she plans to reopen the Dundee office, which she typically works out of for a week every month and a half or so, once it’s safe to return.
“I feel it’s a good place for my staff to be, and it’s for some of the older clients who need that face and a place where they can go to drop off documents,” he said. Milne also described the office as an investment — she co-owns the building and sublets one of the spaces — and she likely would take a loss if she were to sell it now.
She already meets with clients virtually, many of whom never realize she left Dundee two years ago. “My plan (before COVID-19) was to attempt to start to persuade clients to go a bit more remotely,” she said, noting that getting clients to change their habits pre-COVID-19 proved to be a challenge. After the pandemic hit, though, “client resistance stopped,” she said.
What to consider when thinking about life after the pandemic
It all really depends on your situation, but advisors we spoke with gave us their tips when considering a return to the office.
Location is still important. Esther Althaus is considering downsizing from a traditional office to a coworking space, noting, “It still has to be easy to get to and have accessible parking.” On a recent tour of a space a few minutes from her house, Althaus realized that while it was easy for her to get to, it would add about a half-hour each way to the commute of one of her employees. “She wants to stay with me as long as she can, but she doesn’t want to drive an hour and a half each way, and I don’t want her to have to do that,” she said.
Adopt new technology that allows management to stay connected to the staff. Project management applications such as Monday.com and Asana can help projects move forward and keep managers apprised of their progress, Althaus said.
Help the client go virtual, too. Kimberly Harding plans to make as much of her office as virtual as possible but added that it might take some extra work with clients to get them comfortable with the technology. Her team has used this to their advantage by giving clients tutorials on videoconference technology. She said clients were grateful not just for the help getting set up but also for gaining a new way to connect with friends and family.
Make more of your content appealing for a web-first environment. Harding and company are also enhancing the client experience through the creation of a video with information about the company philosophy, short bios on the advisors and more. Elaine Milne, who plans to eventually reopen her office in Dundee, said connecting with clients is crucial when there’s not a physical office to visit. She’s focused on becoming more active on social media and producing short videos to keep clients plugged in. “Be real, be authentic, be a person — make it about you,” she said.