Return of the office: What's changing for some advice firms?

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UK advisory firm Chapters Financial has started conducting client meetings in a socially distant way.
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UK advisory firm Chapters Financial has started conducting client meetings in a socially distant way.

As the UK emerges from lockdown and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has encouraged businesses to consider returning to their offices, advisers are formulating plans for the so-called new normal. Claire Tyrrell speaks to two advice firms about their plans as lockdown is eased.

Capital Asset Management head of operations Chirine Harb says the London firm has completely changed its approach to office working.

Pre-pandemic, the firm adopted a relatively flexible approach for its workers, but since lockdown it has extended that flexibility significantly. So much so that Harb has told the firm's 14 employees to "come into the office when you think you want to".

It is not mandatory to be in the office, it is not mandatory do to 9 to 5..."

"It is not mandatory to be in the office, it is not mandatory do to 9 to 5," she explains. "What is mandatory though is output and delivery to clients."

Capital AM started allowing staff to come into the office in early July through a sign-up system where people need to provide advance warning of their plans.

Face masks

The office is equipped with sanitising stations and workers are required to wear face masks and wash their hands regularly. Harb said very few workers took up this offer because they had become accustomed to working from home, which departed significantly from early in lockdown, when Capital issued a survey to its workers asking how soon they wanted to return to the office.

Guildford-based advice firm Chapters Financial also reopened its doors at the start of July, installing screens and supplies of face masks, gloves and hand sanitiser for staff and clients.

Chartered financial planner and director Keith Churchouse is becoming accustomed to client meetings during the pandemic. The firm has two advisers, Churchouse himself and Vicky Fulcher; both of whom are back in the office on a periodic basis.

"The other adviser wanted to come back and I felt that was okay, and as the owner of the business I'm keen to have the opportunity to go back into the office," Churchouse explains.

"As long as everyone adheres to the rules and keeps as safe possible we're okay. One of our advisers was really keen to go back - being around the family and away from the office was a distraction, so that was the driver."

'Social distancing'

He adds that the office structure makes it relatively simple to practice social distancing: "We are in a fortunate position that we have two offices, side-by-side, and both are the same size. We normally run our operation from one of them but what we've been able to do is move the meeting facility into the other office, so you can socially distance. We have the facility to accommodate a client meeting if we want to," he says. 

Chapters conducted its first 'normal' client meeting post-lockdown this week and Churchouse says it would take a bit of adjusting to get used to running meetings in a socially distant way. Aside from the lack of handshakes, the firm's advisers had to lay out client papers on the table and point to them.

Home

As for the employees of London-based Capital AM, Harb explains people became keen to return to the office after the first few weeks of lockdown: "We discussed it and we thought we're not comfortable sending people back to the office, so what we did instead was help ease them into a work environment within their home.

"We bought desks and chairs and additional screens for people to make them more comfortable. We decided we were going to follow the government guidelines. If they said go back to the office we would start allowing people to do that, if they didn't say to go back to the office we're going to have to tell people no. But in the meantime we're going to help them adjust to new working environments at home."

 Video conferencing

The firm also increased the number of social events via video conferencing software, boosting staff morale. Harb adds the firm laid a lot of groundwork for remote working ahead of the pandemic, which made the transition to working from home seamless.

"When I first joined [in March 2019] we revamped all of the office processes and I put a robust disaster recovery programme in, which involved restructuring and revamping the IT infrastructure. Where everybody had desktops before we changed it all to have laptops - even the administrators and office juniors," she says.

"In the first couple of weeks in March we started sending the laptops home with everyone. Instead of them leaving them in the office we started telling them 'you have to take your laptop home with you just in case something happens overnight.'"

Harb adds: "When we started feeling the team was starting to get uneasy, we sent a broadcast to say from today onwards nobody go in [in mid-March]. I think people appreciated that partly because they were starting to feel anxious before the government put lockdown in place."

The firm's four advisers plan to come in on an ad-hoc basis when they've got client meetings scheduled.

This article first appeared in International Investment's sister title Professional Adviser

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