The conversation started innocently enough on a group community board. Casey Sullivan of Ashworth Sullivan Wealth Advisors posted: "We have a lease expiring next year. Will our physical offices change as a result of the virus experience? I'd hate to be the last guy with a 7-year lease on something obsolete! Appreciate all your thoughts.”

There followed a spirited discussion in the community. The following outlines the key takeaways.

Smaller, intimate offices

The concept of smaller, more intimate client offices kept coming up. It is clear that advisors are rethinking how they communicate with their clients in this crisis. In most cases, it wasn’t intentional — it just happened. Anxiety and uncertainty are rife and that leads to new bonds. The conversations are deeper, life-oriented, more emotional and therefore more meaningful. It is likely that advisors will look back at this time as the period when they made their clients life-long relationships.

This has an effect on future office space. The main purpose of the office now becomes how to interact with the client, rather than being a place geared primarily to operating a business. The physical office space becomes the client experience. This means that wirehouse offices of old, which were full of mahogany and paneled offices in the best parts of town, will move to offices that are physically near to the key clients, with easy parking.

They will probably be smaller as staff models will change. Some staff will always stay at home, some will want to work in the office and some will want to choose when they come in. After COVID-19 it will be difficult for an advisor firm to say that they insist on everyone always being at the office.

Client room

The space where the advisor interacts with the client is going to change. It is going to become more intimate and casual but will be technically enabled. Easy comfortable chairs, where there can be direct eye contact. Technology to assist the discussions such as tablets given to clients and then the content run by the advisor. Or large screen monitors driven by the advisor from their laptop.

dog working from homeThere could be both styles in the same room. Comfortable chairs at one end for the start of a conversation and a table and screen at the other end for the details and the conclusion.

These conversations would be catered with drinks and snacks selected to the tastes of specific clients. In some cases that could be a type of coffee or an alcoholic drink. Snacks could be health bars or pastries depending on the client. There could be a Starbucks vibe. Whatever would encourage a relaxed conversation.

Virtual room

The virtual room or video room is set up to allow a consistent video conferencing experience or to develop videos for marketing and social media. For video conferencing, the following are key:

  • Camera: The camera in your laptop or an inexpensive standalone camera that can be positioned separately
  • Microphone:  a USB headset, AirPods or a standalone microphone
  • A backdrop: Work out what feel you want to project and set it up behind you. A lot of advisors use a bookcase. This then can be changed over time with different books interspersed with your life paraphernalia.
  • Adjustable height desk: This can either be a full desk that moves up and down or something on top of your desk that moves your laptop up and down. This allows you to adjust your environment so that the camera is slightly looking down on you and you can access your keyboard easily
  • A light ring: The light ring goes behind your laptop and lights up your face. You can change settings so that it is warm or natural light. You will get extra points with your teen children as this is also what is needed for creating TikToks!

All the above can be done inexpensively. If you want to step it up for creating your own videos, you can use a more expensive vlog camera and a better microphone.

Some advisors will set up the virtual room at their home, but situating it at the office will provide the most flexibility.

Flexible staffing support

The working-from-home (WFH) genie is out of the bottle. It is going to be very difficult after COVID-19, when most advisor offices have successfully operated in a remote distributed fashion, to insist that everyone must be in the office at all times. 

Advisor firms will have to come up with their own WFH policies. This will range from must-be-at-work to a permanently distributed office staff. There are many good virtual office staff firms. The most common approach will probably be in the middle, with staff being at home for some days and physically at work on other days.

What does this do to the office space? The idea of each staff member having their own office will probably wane. A more open plan (truly after COVID-19!) where staff can see each other and talk easily allows more flexibility, as does the idea of “hotel” desks, where staff easily set up their laptops on shared desks. The amount of office space needed is less with this configuration.

We started off this post with the contemplation of signing a 7-year office lease. Another approach is to look at co-working sites. This is more radical, but it allows you the most flexibility (no lease), a vibrant culture and good shared services. For young firms, especially, this is an interesting option.

Casey’s Plan

So let’s get back to Casey and see what he is thinking. Before the quarantine, Casey’s firm was looking at new office space larger than they have today. He was debating a 7-year lease, so that the landlord could put in the improvements that he wanted. He is now thinking of a smaller office, maybe cutting space by around 25%, and the length of the lease will definitely be up for negotiation.

His thinking has changed from a large open communal area with offices around the side, to one that is organized around a client room, a virtual room and less shared collaborative staff space.
Historically clients have come to the firm’s office to meet in person. This has been a firm philosophy, based on the client base. Casey is now rethinking this, and is actively engaging his clients to find out what model would they prefer. As a result, the firm is working out what the configuration for their virtual room could be, and how they might create a green screen backdrop — the ultimate in flexibility.

Casey is assessing Zoom as the video-conferencing technology, as it is the most simple for his clients to understand. The pandemic has pushed him into also thinking about his digital presence out in the market place, so part of his technical overhaul will include a new website revamp. Casey is an eMoney financial planning software user and he is going to make the most of the eMoney screen-sharing functions.

As you can see, Casey’s concept for his office has changed dramatically in two short months.

New normal office

It is fascinating to see the ingenuity of advisors. The pandemic is a tough time to go through, but there are opportunities and learnings as well. When COVID-19 has been restrained, the future advisor office is going to look and operate differently. 

In addition to Casey, I’d like to thank the following advisors who contributed insights to the debate: Ann Alsina, Patrick Tucker, and Lisa Kirchenbauer.
 

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