The Future Of Remote Work

Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal that the wizard is just some guy?  COVID-19 is the Toto of office-based work.

For years, most financial advisory firms rejected the idea of remote work, citing concerns about accountability, communication and culture. But the COVID-19 lockdown forced the industry’s hand.  Suddenly, our teams were working virtually – exceeding both client and firm expectations from home offices and kitchen tables across the country. 

This temporary emergency measure’s success revealed the fallacy of the office-only argument and introduced countless staffers to the benefits of remote work. What’s more, clients have learned that it’s possible to get almost everything they need from us – including reassurance – without driving to our offices.

The man behind the curtain has been revealed. And we can’t un-see him. Financial advisory firms need to adjust accordingly if they want to recruit and retain top talent and provide the best client experience.

Some forward-looking sectors and companies have already made COVID-prompted permanent changes to their remote work policies. Twitter has told staffers they may work remotely for as long as they like. Many Facebook employees currently based in Silicon Valley will soon be allowed to work from anywhere. Outdoor retailer REI has decided to sell its never-occupied new headquarters building in anticipation that many team members will choose to work remotely.

Of course, any effective remote-work policy must be tailored to both the specific industry and company. The financial advisory profession is a people business. Communication and connection with clients are critical to our mission. Any new remote-work arrangement should prioritize that aspect of our work. The new rules must also protect the organization’s culture and nurture collaboration and creativity. 

Based on all those considerations, I think our future looks something like this:

Face-to-face still rules. There is no substitute for in-person meetings when we’re building relationships. That’s why prospect meetings and the first few client meetings will always be held in the office. Long-standing clients will meet with their advisor and team, face-to-face, once every two or three years unless they request a face-to-face conference.

Screen time isn’t just for kids. Once everyone is comfortable in the advisory-client relationship, meetings will be held via Zoom-like digital video channels. This practice will require firms to invest in technology and training to ensure a robust, satisfying client experience.

Flexibility will be earned.  Advisors who meet management-established criteria for experience and performance will be allowed to work remotely unless they have an in-person client meeting scheduled. Those conferences must be held in the office. Less experienced advisors will be required to work in the office full-time while they train and develop. 

The A boss is in. Members of the leadership team will be in the office on a rotating schedule to provide hands-on oversight, manage the development of younger staffers, and interact as needed with clients who may be in the office.

You may never meet the compliance guy. Some operations positions may be filled by people located in other cities or states. Over time, investments in technology and new systems will allow some on-site operations staffers to work remotely. This will improve morale and, as a result, efficiency.

Clustering will boost productivity. Advisors will be encouraged to cluster all of their in-person meetings on one or two days of the week, rather than coming in every day for one conference. This policy reduces wasted commute time and allows the staff to more efficiently schedule and prep for meetings.

Book your office now. With less need for full-time office space, many firms will implement a “hotel” system in which common-use offices and conference rooms are booked in advance by advisors, perhaps using an app. Firms could also integrate their calendar and space scheduling systems to coordinate such bookings.

As Peter Drucker famously noted, “You can’t predict the future, but you can create it.” Our long-held ideas about the workplace were forever changed by COVID.  The smartest firms will get to work creating a future built that reality.