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Back to the Office?

What’s gained and what’s lost from the remote, in-office and hybrid work models for retirement plan advisors.

It’s proving difficult for some employees to give up working remotely. Multiple news reports have detailed how financial services firms, particularly in New York City, are encountering resistance to getting employees back to full-time, in-office schedules.

One result of this reluctance is that the 9-to-5 weekday in-office routine will no longer be the dominant operating model for many firms, at least for the foreseeable future. A recent national survey from Fidelity Investments and Business Group on Health found that 60% of companies indicated that most of their employees would be working under a “hybrid” work model in 2022. About half of those companies expect their employees to work onsite three days per week.

Last year at this time I asked WealthHarbor Capital Group’s Brandon Grandbouche and CBIZ Retirement Plan Services’ Stan Milovancev how their firms were managing staff amid COVID-19’s disruptions. Their firms represent opposite ends of the spectrum. WealthHarbor Capital Group in Metairie, La., has a staff of seven split between in-office employees and remote workers in other parts of the country. CBIZ Retirement Services operates nationally, with over 400 employees in 32 offices throughout the country. Grandbouche and Milovancev, plus Eric Phillips, CFA, senior director at 401(k) provider Human Interest, recently shared their insights on how they’re managing the in-office versus remote work challenge.

Current Policies

Coronavirus variants continue to emerge, but both Grandbouche and Milovancev report that their staff are back in the office, at least for most of the work week. “Currently all of our home office employees are back in the office,” said Grandbouche.

Because CBIZ Retirement Services operates in multiple states, during the pandemic the organization had to follow both local and national guidelines. Currently local offices are operating with a hybrid model. Most employees are in the office most days, says Milovancev, but there is some ability to work remotely one or two days. The firm also works to accommodate employees who want additional distance between their work space and other employees or who prefer to attend employee meetings virtually.

Phillips explains that before the pandemic, his firm’s staff were mostly office-based and lived within commuting distance of corporate headquarters in San Francisco. Over the course of the pandemic, however, the company experienced significant growth and now has employees in 40 states; three-fourths of the workforce lives outside of the Bay Area. Human Interest does not have a requirement for in-office time and most employees work remotely, said Phillips.

What’s Gained and Lost

The remote-only and, to an extent the hybrid model, impose costs, these sources agreed. In Grandbouche’s experience, the collaborative elements of the business are still better done in-person and knowledge transition between senior and junior staff occurs better organically when everyone is in the same place. For employees who focus on the back office or administrative side of the business, remote work makes sense, he said.

Milovancev expresses similar thoughts. Office camaraderie, such as the ability to share impromptu humor, develops better in-person. Teamwork can be easier when staff are sitting near each other and encountering one another in the hallways. Consequently, “We had a lot of people that enjoyed coming back to (in-office) work,” he said.

Phillips maintained it's possible to have the best of both the in-person and remote models of work. Hiring remotely across geographies allows companies to access a much broader set of talent than confining themselves to a specific city, he said. Hiring within a city and having people physically co-located allows for more collaboration and iterative problem solving, which remains hard to do online. “At Human Interest we are using a hybrid approach to get the best of both models,” said Phillips. “We are hiring the best people we can find for each role in the company, regardless of their location.”

Early in the pandemic, numerous advisors told me that their business development efforts had ground to a halt. But Milovancev said his firm maintained “very strong” business development efforts throughout, and he pointed to virtual meetings as a positive factor in that result.

Shifting to virtual sessions provided several benefits, Milovancev said. Pre-pandemic, the usual procedure was for the participating CBIZ personnel to drive to the prospect’s location for meetings. With virtual meetings, the time spent driving was freed up, essentially creating several new work hours in a day. Members of the national teams, who previously knew each other mainly through phone calls and emails, built stronger relationships and improved teamwork with live video.

Video calls were also more productive because they forced participants to treat others on the call as if they were meeting in person by looking them in the (virtual) eye, not typing or playing with their phones, and so on, he said. The video communications flow was smoother, as well, without the constant interruptions and “No, you go” of multiparty telephone calls. Another benefit: It became easier for dispersed teams to collaborate on calls with clients and prospects by providing increased access to in-house expertise. “Now some of our clients are telling us, ‘We're not sure we're going to go back—we love these video calls,” said Milovancev.

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