Financially Speaking | Summer 2020
Making Work-From-Home Work for Your Firm
The remote work experience can work for financial advisors and their firms, but it requires some fine-tuning first.
Mark J. Gilbert, CPA/PFS, MBA
President, Reason Financial Advisors
As an Illinoisan, you may be familiar with a quote attributed to a certain Chicago mayor:
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” But my favorite part is Rahm Emanuel’s
next sentence: “It’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
How appropriate for 2020! All of us have been forced to conduct business in ways that we
never imagined because of the coronavirus crisis.
Perhaps the biggest change to our day-to-day lives is the shift to working from home. Here
are my observations as I adapt my financial planning practice to a new normal.
IT'S EASY TO TAKE THE IN PERSON FOR GRANTED
As an employer running a financial advisory business, I’ve found working from home to be
dissatisfying. At first, the idea of cutting out my commute, holding videoconferences with
clients, and working remotely with my staff was quite attractive. And I can honestly say that
the first few weeks of working from home were fantastic.
However, as time goes on, I realize that I miss the personal connections with those normally
around me. A videoconference doesn’t permit me to see a client’s body language and
calibrate my advice accordingly nearly as well as when I’m sitting across my desk from him
or her. There’s also almost no opportunity to take a break from the work at hand to chat with
a colleague or fellow business owner in my suite when working from home. And it’s now
much more difficult for me to sense if a staff member needs assistance. I must admit that it
took losing those in-person aspects of my work to realize how important they are to me.
EMPLOYEES NEED EXPECTATIONS—AND BOUNDARIES
It’s not just us firm owners and employers feeling a disconnect—there is at least some
evidence that working from home is more stressful for employees as well. Writing for
Bloomberg, Michelle F. Davis and Jeff Green noted more and more employees are
reporting that their bosses equate working from home with 24/7 availability. And we thought
that cellphones and wi-fi had already blurred the distinction between on-the-job time and
Surprisingly, a growing number of employees feel they have even less downtime than
before the stay-at-home orders were issued. I spoke with Cameo Roberson, founder and
CEO of Atlas Park Consulting, an outsourced virtual COO platform for financial advisors,
who confirmed the sentiment. She explained, “Bosses have little control over employees
now and no way to track productivity when working from home. The inability to walk to a staff member’s desk or catch up in the hallway to get an update
has created a level of anxiety for employers. In addition, working
from home is a new reality for many, and employees are playing
catch-up to establish both good working-from-home environments
and habits.” Roberson suggests using a CRM platform that tracks
tasks and responsibilities to help manage this anxiety and eliminate
possible workflow inefficiencies. She also says something as simple
as weekly staff meetings to touch base and get updates is a great
way to connect.
In their attempts to ensure productivity and keep up communication,
employers often fail to distinguish between business and after-hours.
I suggest employers and managers establish boundaries with their
employees and direct reports. Not every employee will feel the same
way, but straightforward communication will go a long way in
reassuring your team that even if you do email them at 11 in the
evening, you don’t expect an immediate response.
CONNECTING WITH CLIENTS IS MORE
IMPORTANT THAN EVER
The needs of the most important constituency, our clients, may be
easiest to meet among the three groups when working from home.
How much easier is it for clients to accept phone calls or invitations
to virtual meetings than driving to their advisors’ offices? However,
this assumes that clients enjoy a terrific virtual experience.
Roberson maintains that the most important goal of working from
home, as it is when working from the office, is providing an excellent
and seamless client experience.
Technology is a big part of this, but it’s not the only part. For
example, like face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings must be well-planned
and organized. In general, people are still getting
accustomed to communicating via video, whether it is for work,
personal business—like meeting with their advisor—or for social
connection with family and friends. Pauses in conversation make
some people uncomfortable, so Roberson advises limiting
videoconferences with clients to 60 minutes or less and having a
clear agenda to keep communications meaningful.
In addition, Roberson recommends that CPAs and financial advisors
using video chat with their clients do a little stage-setting.
Conducting a videoconference from a home office is ideal, but no
matter where it takes place, remove as much background clutter
as possible and creating a pleasant, organized backdrop. Also, pay
attention to the positioning of the camera and the lighting; you want
your clients to have as clear a view of you as possible. Continue to
watch for social cues like crossed arms or lack of eye contact to
see if your client is comfortable. Lead with empathy during your call
to show both care and concern. This will put your clients at ease.
ZOOMING FORWARD WARRANTS CAUTION
Video communications apps and software, like Zoom, are powerful
tools for creating a meaningful virtual client experience and
replicating office connections between employees and employers.
However, videoconferencing isn’t always the safest way to share
clients’ private personal and financial information. John Sileo,
president and CEO of the Sileo Group, a technology think tank,
recommends ensuring your connection is encrypted, creating a
unique meeting ID and password for each interaction, and not
sharing files via these services. Protecting your clients’ information
should be a priority, so be aware that software licensors are
recording the content of your meetings and generally reserve the
rights to collect and share that data. Zoom offers the ability to
record the content of your meetings, but Robertson advises
obtaining consent from anyone you speak with prior to recording.
If they do consent, consider only recording the session to your local
computer versus storing it with Zoom. In other words, be mindful to
balance the benefits of easily sharing information against the costs
of making that information available to third parties.
Sileo also advises CPAs and financial advisors to protect against
the vulnerabilities of which we are already aware. Working from
home may mean relaxing in pajama bottoms, but it doesn’t mean
taking it easy on cybersecurity. Regularly update your computer
and smartphone operating systems. Establish firewalls and VPNs,
especially in employee home computer networks that are often at
greatest risk of being hacked. Finally, consider outsourcing or hiring
a trusted information technology professional to establish top
quality security features across your firm’s computer systems and
other technology tools. The cost of a technological breakdown and
loss of firm or client data is much higher than the expense of
preventing the loss in the first place.
THIS COULD BE OUR NEW NORMAL
The popular opinion seems to be that once the coronavirus
pandemic subsides, working-from-home will remain prevalent in
some way, shape, or form. That will come with both benefits and
costs to us and our clients. As trusted advisors, we must ensure
that we do the best we can for all parties involved, whether that
means not calling our employees after 5 p.m. or doubling up our
cybersecurity measures to protect clients. Let’s not waste this
perfectly good crisis when we can use it to strategically improve
our remote work experience and add value to the insights our
clients count on us for in times of crisis and beyond.