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From Remote Desktops, Fintechs Offer Warnings and Lessons For Advisors

As remote working becomes plain old working, what can advisors learn from the fintechs that support them?

In March, as the coronavirus pandemic grew in magnitude in the U.S., wealth management-focused fintech companies realized they would soon have to turn to remote working. In one case, a single-day work-from-home trial went from test to implementation in hours. In another, office workers had desks, chairs and monitors shipped to their homes, quickly building out a remote working setup that supported business continuity amid a global pandemic that didn’t have a clear end in sight.

In some cases, trial-by-fire contingency plans or efforts to preserve company culture have produced rich insights. Prior to the pandemic reaching our shores, RobustWealth’s founder and CEO Michael Kerins said he had always had a “pretty hard rule” against hiring remote employees. Based out of Lambertville, N.J., the digital advice platform was purchased by Principal Financial Group two years ago and wanted to build a culture of office-based cohesion and collaboration.

“We are switching now,” said Kerins. “We’re opening up some engineering positions to remote work. We’ve seen productivity increase, so some job openings are now remote, or in the office.”

Productivity has always been an important factor at fintechs but one that deserves close evaluation, said Altruist founder and CEO Jason Wenk. With workers locked in, productivity might increase, he said, but it could be artificial to some extent. Previously scheduled vacations and other paid time off have been canceled because of the pandemic, he explained, and afterwork events, like dinner and a movie or an evening drive, are impossible for some employees. Meanwhile, commutes are a lot shorter.

Altruist, an RIA-focused digital custodial and technology platform with about 40 employees, is unique in that it essentially launched in the midst of the pandemic, opening to broad market availability on March 4.

While Wenk has experience leading a company as a “remote CEO” before, the pandemic has given him the opportunity to get to know his employees a little better, he said. Weekly meetings have become daily events. Video chats have gone from discussing engineering problems to sharing tastes in music. “There are people at the company who I didn’t know what they looked like,” he said. “Now there are opportunities to be more intentional about managing long-distance virtual relationships better.”

The firm has continued hiring in the midst of the pandemic and still has openings for about 10 more employees. “This isn’t really unusual to us,” Wenk said. “We’ve been hiring people remote for a while.” After making a hiring decision, Altruist ships laptops, monitors, a wireless keyboard and mouse to its new employee.

Redtail Technology CEO Brian McLaughlin took home office setups for his 120 employees a step further, ordering desks, chairs and monitors for some. For roughly three-quarters of the company, extended remote working was a new experience and McLaughlin wanted his employees to be comfortable, he said.

While difficult, the logistics of shipping desks and monitors and making sure everyone was set up to work remotely paled in comparison to maintaining company culture, he said. “We have a strong culture of being socially connected and we’re used to having group lunches or activities in the offices together,” he said. “Now all of that’s gone.”

To maintain a sense of comradery, McLaughlin organized a Netflix watch party, used Zoom for videoconferenced happy hours and held an internet-based game night using Jackbox. He even used the remote learning tool behind his company’s Redtail University advisor training sessions to organize a trivia night.

Maintaining a sense of fun and community is important for Redtail, he added. The firm is planning to cover costs for employees to buy a dinner from a local family-owned restaurant of their choice. The company also turned a quarterly cybersecurity training session into an opportunity for employees to compete against their peers for a perfect score.

While only a quarter of Redtail employees had significant experience with remote working for an extended time period, tech-advisor hybrid FacetWealth built its business around remote planning and advice. Of the firm’s roughly 120 employees, about 90 of them are already remote, with the remainder working out of the firm’s Baltimore office. That office is temporarily closed, and co-founder and CEO Anders Jones found himself having to learn how to work from home.

“It took about a week to get used to virtual working,” he said, laughing. He was in good company however, while most of the company’s client-facing personnel, its planners and client success managers, were already working remotely—the engineers, executives and finance workers, on the other hand, had to get used to a new environment.

To maintain and bolster company culture, Jones turned to a “random lunch generator,” an algorithm that provides the names of six employees and an executive to have a virtual lunch together.

“When you have a totally virtual culture you don’t have spontaneous interactions,” he said. “You have to be intentional about having a virtual water cooler.”

He also pares back the virtual happy hours into groups of six or seven, mimicking the small groups that tend to form at larger company events.

Orion has also turned to virtual happy hours, in groups of no larger than 24 employees, to maintain parts of its company culture, said CEO Eric Clarke. The advisor technology firm has more than 800 employees across five cities—with no one required to come into the office in the midst of the pandemic.

“I’ve been blown away with how efficient and effective our teams have been,” said Clarke. “We’re all in this really tough time together.” Last week the company did its first virtual onboarding, hiring 16 new employees and providing them with their equipment.

“We were dropping off laptops on porches,” he said.

Like many business leaders, the pandemic experience has given Clarke the chance to reflect on the importance, or lack thereof, of a physical corporate footprint. Only about 5% of the company worked remotely, prior to the pandemic. “Now Slack and Zoom are required skills,” he said.

Plans to expand Altruist's Venice, Calif.-based headquarters have also been pushed years, instead of months, into the future, said Wenk. But some of the lessons learned by fintechs in the midst of the pandemic apply to advisors, too.

While fintechs grapple with how to maintain company culture and increase productivity, the pandemic is presenting a lesson about the importance of technological literacy and familiarity for advisors, Wenk said. A few weeks ago, advisors could knock on doors, visit a potential lead or host clients for a quick coffee break at the office. Today, almost all advisors are essentially call center workers—with similar levels of accessibility as their brethren at Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services or the Betterment Advisor Network.

“Just imagine, for a moment, if this never changed and you had to do everything virtually. Are you really prepared for that?” Wenk asked. “We’re all the same as them today. How are we going to deliver an experience to our clients that’s as good as theirs? Because they were built for this. Most advisors weren’t.”

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