Jul 01 2022
Keep it or release it?
By Mike Beirne
On a Wednesday in March, Scott D. Edelman and his entire team of 11 advisors and staff gathered in their new office for the first time since his practice moved in October 2019 from a bigger location just around the corner.
The full house was a coincidence as some advisors came in to take care of tax planning duties, and others were there for marketing meetings. “That was the first time we were all together, and it felt kind of nice, but it’s also nice to be working from home,” said Edelman, a 24-year MDRT member from Yardley, Pennsylvania, USA.
A couple of weeks later, on an April morning in Poughkeepsie, New York, USA, Michael H. Bautista attended a meeting in the office he shares with five other advisors and their respective teams of three to six support staff who handle administrative tasks, like onboarding new clients, opening new accounts and client service. Half of their partners logged in through video conferencing, but plenty of people were present to spark the vibe of a bustling office.
“We’ll probably always want an office location just because as a group I think we get a lot of synergy from each other,” said Bautista, an 18-year MDRT member. “It just works out for us as long as we have communication and interaction. If I were a true solo practitioner, I would rethink having an office or think about expanding my office at home, but right now I don’t really see the need to change from keeping our office.”
Time will tell whether the notion that COVID-19 killed the traditional workplace is hype or prediction. As the coronavirus outbreak began waning in some countries, employers weighed whether to call employees back, provide fully remote work opportunities or adopt a hybrid work situation. For advisors who rent or own space, whether they operate alone or with a staff, that decision can be an acute one as they wrestle with keeping their location and office culture, or letting it go to slash overhead and keep reaping productivity from digital transformation.
Edelman and his team of advisors rarely came to their former office prior to the pandemic, as the practice had been upgrading technology years before, enabling advisors and their assistants to take turns coming to the office and working from home. Edelman and his senior managers didn’t have a crystal ball then about the approaching coronavirus lockdown. They merely concluded that their operation needed a third of their current space and moving from the 8,000-square-foot office would reduce rent by 75%.
“We redesigned our new office to have our advisors and staff using desks on a hoteling basis. I didn’t even put a physical office in for myself,” Edelman said. “I didn’t need an office because whenever I’m in there, we’re meeting clients in the conference room, or I’m bouncing around meeting with other team members.”
Besides the conference room, there’s a reception area, workstations and three assigned offices for three senior executives who come in on their designated days. Edelman quips that he’s no longer paying rent for file cabinets because paper records have been digitized to a document management system in the cloud. Also missing are desktop handsets, as a cloud phone system app on everyone’s computer and cell phones handles communication. While local authorities deemed financial services among the exempt businesses that could stay open during the shutdown, the private wealth management group choose to close the office to keep its staff healthy. Edelman explained that between the tech upgrades and a working remote experience that was seasoned long before the pandemic, the option to work from home was hardly a transition for the team. They had already been doing it.
The savings realized since then from reduced overhead enabled Edelman to upgrade employee benefits and bonuses and hire more talent — a new benefits manager and a new director of marketing who has boosted the group’s social media outreach. Those additions along with technological enhancements have helped make the client experience better and work less stressful.
People are social beings, especially those in this industry, because they require an engaging environment to thrive and succeed.
— Chaw Fook Hing
“You don’t have to worry about commuting in and out of the office, and you can be a little bit more relaxed at home,” Edelman said. “You are way more project-completion driven than you are focused on the clock, and the clock can be a detriment when you commute.”
So why still have an office? Edelman explained that his senior officers like the flexibility of spending half of their week in the office. It occasionally serves as a base for meeting clients, a drop-off for payments and documents, and a place where “the team can meet and coordinate strategies for the firm.”
Offices in Indonesia were closed during the pandemic, and the five-person staff for Miliana Marten, AEPP, a 13-year MDRT member in Jakarta, worked from home during the pandemic. That experience helped Marten realize her practice didn’t need a lot of space but still needed an office. She moved to a smaller location with cheaper rent.
“The existence of an office is still needed so that whenever we hold an event to gather together, we still have a place,” Marten said. “For example, to kick off the beginning of the year, we gathered 40 people to hold a motivational event. Also, face-to-face meetings (internally) provide a different atmosphere than online meetings.”
Her advisors split time between the office and working remote, and they met clients through Zoom or in person depending on preference. Whether in the office or at home, the staff communicated through email and WhatsApp, and documents were delivered by courier within a day at a reasonable cost.
Release the office
David Eric Appel, CLU, ChFC, does not expect to renew the lease for his Newton, Massachusetts, USA, office by the end of the year. The 26-year MDRT member moved to a smaller location before the pandemic, and his three local staff members have worked remote since then. Now he has colleagues working remote from Maryland, and he works primarily from his home office as most of his insurance clients are national and international. Since 2018, he noticed fewer people were coming into the office each year, and during the previous 12 months, he saw five clients there in person. Yet, he’s more productive than ever. For example, one day Appel had seven successive video conference meetings booked with clients — appointments he would not have been able to keep if he had to commute, find parking or schedule his visitors to come to his office.
“Although it took people some time to get used to it, I really love Zoom because I can see people’s faces and read their body language and know if they’re understanding what I am saying, whereas on a phone call you can’t see, and you have no idea,” Appel said.
He does occasionally need a meeting place, and Appel is considering subscribing to an office share in downtown Boston that provides a space 12 times a month for $500 a month or joining a social club that provides meeting rooms, workspaces and a place to take clients, prospects and centers of influence out for a meal or drinks.
“I could get an address in downtown Boston and use the office 12 times a month, which is three times a week, and it’s going to cost 20% of what I’m paying (for rent) right now,” he said.
Keep the office
As Malaysia scaled back on its pandemic restrictions, Mohamad Manmohan Abdullah, ChFC, CLU, and his team returned full time to their Kuala Lumpur office for everyday business activities, like staff meetings, goal setting, market research, financial planning and processing financial information for clients. “It would be a grave mistake to give it up,” said the 27-year MDRT member.
As for connecting with clients through phone or video conferencing, 80% of his clients prefer in-person meetings to discuss their financial needs. “Such meetings are still conducive to connecting with clients on a deeper level and serving them better,” he said.
Keeping office culture is another reason advisors hold on to their locations. Chaw Fook Hing, a five-year MDRT member from Selangor, Malaysia, is keeping his address and looking to open a second location. For him, working from the office sets a tone and mood that makes the team more productive.
“People are social beings, especially those in this industry, because they require an engaging environment to thrive and succeed,” Chaw said. “Although tech has helped advisors stay relevant in the industry and address clients’ needs efficiently, (advisors) still need
a place to call home.”
Many clients did come to prefer virtual meetings during the pandemic, and his team set up spaces in the office designated for video appointments to supplement the areas set aside where advisors meet clients in person.
Bautista did say that if he was just starting out or in the early stages of growing his practice, he might have considered letting the office go. But he and the five partners who share the Poughkeepsie space are Court of the Table and Top of the Table performers. They need a decent number of administrative and operational support people to maintain their production, so having a common location to accommodate employees to execute core tasks and support that mission makes more sense for their group. Digital transformation and the ability to work remotely gives each advisor in the group the flexibility to decide how much they want to blend their time working from home with working from the office.
“We’ve had very open conversations about (working remote vs. working in the office), and my staff actually enjoyed the office atmosphere here and the interaction,” Bautista said. “I think knowing that if they need the flexibility, we’re already set up to allow that. I think it’s a good balance for them knowing that they have that flexibility and still have a regular place to sort of be connected to.”
Advisors worried they would lose their personal connection with clients when the coronavirus put a stop to in-person meetings. But MDRT members were able to pull out pearls from the pandemic mud during this challenging time. For example, Edelman’s practice was ready for fully remote work before the mandated shutdowns in the U.S. because his practice was evolving in that direction well before the pandemic forced the closures. His three recommendations for transitioning successfully to remote work are to have a good backup system, good communication apps (he likes Microsoft Teams and has a cloud phone system on everyone’s computer) and an extensive client database.
“We have copious notes on our clients,” Edelman said. “We have a database that is phenomenal and provides us with everything. We know so much about our clients and their lives, and we connect with them on social media. We see them, and they see us on a regular basis because we have a large social media presence. Whether it’s virtual or in person, we’re having the same exact warm dialogue and connection with them.”
Other members shared the gems they discovered during their mandated shutdowns:
- “I find myself more efficient than ever after shifting to virtual meetings, as there are time savings from not having to travel to meet clients,” said Watie Kartono, a five-year MDRT member from Tangerang, Indonesia. “I can even be more well prepared. For instance, I can improve my presentation slides and organize additional materials that are presented to my clients. I am also able to engage with my clients more intensely because I am reachable and available for video meetings anytime, anywhere. I can better cater to clients who are only able to make time after business hours thanks to this shift to virtual meetings.”
- “This year, I found that there were three times more audiences joining the online webinar than the previous face-to-face conferences, and the webinar is more cost-effective,” said Wai Shan Chan, a 13-year MDRT member from Kowloon, Hong Kong, China. “Meanwhile, the hybrid work mode leads to work-life balance, and I can have flexibility in my schedule and enjoy more me-time.”
- “We are not yet out of the woods with this pandemic, so I would not want to expose myself or the people I work with, clients or prospects, to any more risks than necessary,” said Janet N. Ng, FChFP, CEPP, a 13-year MDRT member from Metro Manila, Philippines. “But I do deliver policy contracts in person, especially with first-time clients. However, moving forward, I will continue to do virtual business meetings more than face to face.”