CoronavirusAug 6 2020

Flexible working is here to stay for financial advisers

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Flexible working is here to stay for financial advisers

Flexible working is here to stay among the biggest advice players despite government guidance on working from home having changed this month.

With the ‘work from home’ guidance coming to an end on August 1, this week has seen some employers exercising discretion as to the location of their staff for the first time since the UK entered lockdown in March.

But several advice companies, platforms and providers told Financial Adviser working practices that became commonplace during the coronavirus crisis were set to become a permanent feature in the financial services industry.

They included flexible start and finish times, an end to the traditional five-day working week and refurbished headquarters to allow for social distancing and a permanent shift to a new way of working.

Voluntary return and agile working for advisers 

Flexibility and remote meetings are key themes in plans at some of the UK’s biggest advice companies, with St James’s Place, Quilter, Ascot Lloyd and Fairstone all offering ‘agile’ working as part of a phased return to the office.

Advisers will also find socially distanced desks, hand sanitiser stations, one-way systems and personal protective equipment as commonplace.

SJP said all its offices had been risk-assessed to be Covid-secure, with occupancy levels in buildings that had re-opened at 10-12 per cent to ensure social distancing.

The advice giant said it had asked employees to include some days back in the office from August 1 on a voluntary basis.

The SJP spokesperson added: “We are aiming to have most buildings open by early September with occupancy levels at 30 per cent until we receive further guidance from the government.”

Nigel Stockton, chief executive of Ascot Lloyd, said the advice company had not yet mandated any way of working and was currently offering staff the option of working from the office, remotely or a combination of both.

Mr Stockton said: “We are now offering our clients the choice in how they wish to contact us and communicate with us, be it over the phone, via video call or now with face-to-face visits again, while  always ensuring we are strictly adhering to the safety criteria and social distancing.”

At Quilter the majority of employees are continuing to work from home, but a small number have returned to the office in the UK, and this is expected to soon be on the cards for the company’s platform and advice arms.

Karin Cook, chief operating officer at Quilter, said: “However, we’re also keen to capitalise on some of the benefits of remote working.

“Many advisers already adopted a flexible approach that allowed them to maximise their focus on getting out to see clients, rather than feeling tied to their desks.

“Of course those clients’ interactions have moved to online video meetings during the pandemic, and while these won’t replace face-to-face contact altogether, they can introduce additional flexibility to the way advisers communicate with clients.

“With that in mind we’ll be working with adviser firms to ensure they can return to offices in a safer manner where they wish to do so, but also help them to continue to offer a smooth online experience where they continue to meet clients remotely.”

Consolidator Fairstone has planned a three-phase return to the office, with about 20 per cent of staff in the first group, which returned to the office at the beginning of this week.

The advice company said it had “no immediate plans” to resume face-to-face meetings with clients, instead continuing with virtual meetings.

Fairstone chief executive Lee Hartley said: “Enabled by the latest IT technology, the concept of agile working is proven to improve work-life balance, and I truly believe it will be a positive step forward for us all as individuals as well as for the wider business.”

Providers in "no rush" to return to office

While pension providers are not focused on having the whole workforce back in the office at any time soon, they are looking at how they can operate in the future.

Canada Life told Financial Adviser it was looking to move away from the traditional five-day working week in the office and was already planning a “major refurbishment” of its head office.

Steve Mason, chief people officer at Canada Life, said: “This has presented us with an opportunity to re-imagine how we work and think more creatively about how we utilise the office space. Our plans already include a major refurbishment of our Potters Bar headquarters before colleagues return.”

Meanwhile, Aviva said it does not have any plans to stop using its offices, or indeed downsize, but will look to use the space it has more wisely.

An Aviva spokesperson said: “During lockdown, we’ve learnt to work in new ways. We will continue to create new ways of working that enable us to improve productivity and deliver the best possible outcomes for customers while providing colleagues with flexibility that helps us attract and retain the best and most diverse people.”

Slow and steady in the platform arena

Fidelity said it was “very gradually” allowing a small number of employees back to some of the company’s offices but that the vast majority would continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.

Jonathan Gunby, Transact’s chief executive, said it was “too early” for any concrete plans as it was still in the process of engaging with its staff on the matter.

But AJ Bell and Hargreaves Lansdown were further ahead in their back to work plans.

A spokesperson for AJ Bell said: “Over the past couple of weeks the number of people working in the office has started to increase but we are taking it very slowly and managing it in a controlled way with the safety of our staff as the priority.”

The platform stated it had encouraged staff to take flexible start and finish times to lower the number of workers in the office, while a new entry and exit system as well as restrictions in social spaces and meeting rooms were in place.

Chief executive Andy Bell has previously told FTAdviser he had been “completely wrong” in thinking all staff in the office at all times was the most productive way of working, saying there were "lots of good things" coming out of the crisis and businesses would be "foolish" not to embrace them.

Danny Cox, head of communications at Hargreaves Lansdown, said the company would begin bringing staff back over the next couple of weeks, but that it would be phased approach and no one would be forced to return.

He said the firm was taking the opportunity to “review flexible and home working” to establish the optimal combination for staff, adding a full return to pre-pandemic ways was unlikely.

Brokers return from furlough

In May Robert Sinclair, chief executive of the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries told FTAdviser the trade association expected to see more mortgage brokers gradually return as the purchase market reopened.

Similarly David McGrail, compliance director at broker First Mortgage said: "During the lockdown we furloughed 40 per cent of our workforce and the rest moved to work from home. We’re now bringing back everyone who feels fit and able to attend the offices, and expect most of our advisers to be back working in branch in August.

"There are some exceptions which are brought about through different individual circumstances, be it childcare or increased vulnerability to Covid, and we are doing our best to support these advisers by allowing them to continue working remotely."

For clients who require face-to-face advice in branch, Mr McGrail said that precautions had been taken to create a "safe environment" for employees and customers. Like retailers, First Mortgage’s offices have been fitted with screens to distance the client and adviser, with sanitising stations at the entrances of all its branches.

Mr McGrail also said "stricter" appointment booking schedules were in place to limit the number of visitors and enable social distancing.,,,

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