As all 50 states are now in some stage of reopening after the COVID-19 shutdown, financial planners are grappling with how to safely return to the workplace and resume meeting with clients. I spoke to planners across the country to hear their plans and perspectives. Here are some best practices and items to consider when reopening your office.
Determine what reopening means to you. It may be helpful to view your office in two different ways: a place to work and a place to meet with clients. Reopening may mean no longer working from home but waiting a little longer before resuming in-person client meetings. I know of a few firms that never truly “closed” as they have had just one person working in the office while everyone else worked from home.
Follow your appropriate state and local rules and guidelines. You may or may not agree with the approach that your government is taking. For example, some may think that the guidelines infringe on personal liberties while others argue that community risk is still too high. Either way, you don’t want to be known as the planner that disregards rules and regulations.
Review the overall risk for the team. Start by constructing a “map” to understand your office’s overall social network. This will provide information on how everyone may potentially be affected. An office with a planner and an assistant who both live alone has a different exposure footprint from an office with three planners and two assistants, all of whom are married with children living at home.
Some teams may have vulnerabilities that should be discussed. For example, perhaps the team has a senior member in his or her 70s, or a team member might have a spouse with a health condition that makes the virus particularly risky.
Set clear policies and procedures for the team. The CDC has guidelines, but generally speaking, there are three areas to consider:
- Distancing: how many team members will work in the office at the same time? How close will they sit to each other?
- Protection: will team members wear masks? One firm in Knoxville, Tenn., decided that team members don’t need to wear masks when working in their respective offices but must put them on when moving to a common area.
- Cleaning: how frequently will the office be cleaned? Who will clean it, what will be cleaned and how?
After your policies and procedures have been developed, document them clearly. Share them with the team and invite feedback. It’s important to enforce them strictly. If one person stops following the policies and nothing is said, then everyone else will stop following them, too.
Additionally, consider what information would cause you to change your policies. Presumably, you don’t want to wear face coverings forever. But maybe you do want to keep a more frequent cleaning schedule. What will serve as the “all clear” signal so that you can resume a “normal” routine?
Decide on how you will meet with clients. Financial planners are incredibly fortunate to have technology that allows virtual meetings. If COVID-19 appeared five or 10 years ago, most planners would struggle to maintain the same level of connection and productivity.
However, as wonderful as it is to have virtual meetings, Zoom fatigue is real. As one planner told me, “Clients still want to see the words coming out of your mouth.”
So, what can you do to provide a safe place to meet with your clients? Here are some suggestions:
- Create an additional set of policies and procedures that govern client meetings. A firm in Lancaster, Pa., has designated their conference room as the only place for client meetings. The planner will meet the client outside the front door and escort them inside, so the client won’t have to touch any doors. Both the planner and client will wear masks throughout the meeting. The conference room will be thoroughly cleaned after each meeting is over.
- Clearly communicate your plan to clients and prospects in advance and in writing so they will know exactly what to expect.
- Be prepared with a response to avoid unnecessary conflict if someone doesn’t want to comply. For example, you can say, “I understand your reluctance. Because we care about the long-term health and well-being of our clients and our staff, we are being extra cautious for the time being. If wearing a mask is uncomfortable for you, let’s stick with virtual meetings for a while longer.”
As with the internal policies and procedures, identify a clear benchmark that will prompt a change in how you meet with your clients. At what point will in-person meetings become your default way to meet? When will you once again shake hands and show a welcoming smile?
These last few months have provided an incredible opportunity for planners to demonstrate their value. As you reopen your office, taking the time to fully consider how to ensure the safety of your clients and your team will further show your genuine concern for others.
Adam Kornegay is co-founder of Pathfinder. With a background in marketing and business analytics, together with his experience as a financial adviser, he helps a broad array of clients, from relatively new advisers to experienced planners, as well as having consulting relationships with various financial services firms.