Rob Clifford is chief executive of Stonebridge
While it is very early days – I’m writing this in the week when further lockdown restrictions were lifted mid-May – I’m already starting to hear some whispers which suggest (fingers crossed) that we are beginning to see the signs of a return to a pre-pandemic normality. With the considerable caveat that nothing is ever likely to be the same again.
“I’m now in the office a day or two a week.” “The roads/trains/buses were all busier today than over the last few months.” “I had to queue up to get my coffee today”, being a first-world problem of the finest order.
Tongue in cheek it might be possible to say, ‘nature is healing’, or at the very least we’re starting to feel the urge – or we’re being urged – to perhaps drop into the office again, or potentially for mortgage advisers, to do both that and perhaps put out tentative feelers to clients who might now wish to see you face-to-face.
For advisers who have spent the past 14 months or so dealing with clients largely via Zoom, Teams, phone, message and email, there might well be a considerable urge to ‘get back out there’ and start to see the whites of a client’s eyes again.
I know of many Stonebridge AR firms who pride themselves on the personal service they deliver to clients, and pre-pandemic this would have been a face-to-face interaction as a matter of course for many firms. Whether it was a visit to the client themselves or an invite for them to pop into the office, many advisers will feel that it adds something significant to the relationship to be able to meet, put a face to a name, etc, and to engage with each other. I agree.
Of course, that’s not been possible on several levels. Regular office presence has been pretty much non-existent for many until relatively recently, in favour of a home or a remote working space. And now, just because you’d like your team back in the office, or you’d like to visit a client, doesn’t mean that either will be ready.
This is a sensitive line to tread. Colleagues who have spent 14 months juggling home life/schooling/work and every other responsibility under the sun, might not take too kindly to a suggestion that they are now required in the office four/five days a week, especially when home working has been proven to be successful and where the dangers around COVID-19 have clearly not gone away despite the success of the vaccination programme to date.
As an employer we’re acutely aware of this, plus there are the logistical challenges that come with the current office environment. Given the need for, and sense in, social distancing we simply can’t have all staff in at any one time, and quite frankly, there is no need for us to have them here, with most wanting to be flexible with their working arrangements.
It’s why at Stonebridge we’ve invested hundreds of thousands of pounds on our office environment, creating more space by removing banks of desks, putting in workstations, and instead opting for bigger meeting rooms with more video conferencing equipment which will allow more people to work collaboratively.
In fact, we envisage our office spaces being used mainly for employees needing to get together for team sessions, share ideas and the like, rather than a place where they turn up to every day to sit at a laptop and work in isolation.
Advisers too I suspect will continue to review how and where they work. This industry is a very personal one, fundamentally based on relationships, but whereas in the past you might have been willing to spend most of the day travelling for a meeting, now it’s likely you’ll weigh up the costs of that, against the ease of simply doing it over a webcam, or phone.
There is clearly a balance that advisers and firms will strike this year and you’ll also need to be flexible in terms of what your clients and staff both expect. Accommodating both will ensure you continue to grow out of this pandemic and have a business that is able to cope with anything else that might be thrown at it. After the last year, I suspect like us, you feel prepared to deal with anything.