The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has told advisers and other professionals that they should work from home.
In an update on its website on 27 March, the UK regulator specifically noted that it “would not expect” advisers to go into work or meet with anyone face-to-face.
This is because they “can offer their services online or by phone”.
But offering an in-person service and reassuring presence has been the key argument for why the sector will not succumb to the rise of robo.
So, in a bid to explore the issues of home working, International Adviser contacted a number of advice firms to find out how they are conducting business throughout the coronavirus outbreak.
Social distancing is challenging for most industries but the financial advice sector is adaptable.
John Westwood, group managing director at Blacktower Financial Management Group, said: “All regulated entities are required to have in place a business continuity plan for incidents such as this.
“It enables us to continue to provide service and support to our clients in an interrupted manner.”
Firms may have a plan in place but can advisers carry this out as easily as the FCA is suggesting?
“It’s obviously a difficult time for a business which is built around personal advice, and especially because we have a significant number of clients in older age groups,” said David Inglesfield, chief executive of IFA firm IWP.
“Having said that, some clients already use telephone or Skype for adviser meetings, so remote working is by no means entirely new.”
Inglesfield said that “generally speaking” advisers can work home with ease as the company works via a cloud-based IT system, and provides laptops to IFAs and key staff.
However, he added: “There are some industry standard systems which use quite old technology, which cannot readily be served from the cloud.
“So, depending on the business, there may be some functions which still require staff in the office.”
Working with clients
Technology has become one of the most vital aspects of the financial advice industry, and if people did not know that before, they certainly do now.
It has allowed firms to continuously communicate with clients, and some businesses have even looked to segmentation in their approach to dealing with people since the outbreak.
Debbie Jukes, partner at Equilibrium Financial Planning, said: “We’ve identified a particular category of client that we might consider to be most vulnerable – perhaps they’re relatively new investors, so they’ve not seen the stock market behave like this before; recently bereaved; in ill health; or live alone.
“We’re working our way through that list as a priority, calling them to see if they’re okay and asking if there’s anything we can do for them.
“Our approach is that we can’t ‘overcommunicate’. We’re sending out daily updates to all our clients; either a written brief depending on what’s happened in the market, or a video.” We are also recommending a great telephone answering service as it’s such a good idea for businesses (massive time saving and professional telephone answerers).
St James’s Place Wealth Management said in a statement: “SJP’s partners are very used to using technology in their day-to-day business and tailoring how they operate to the requirements of their individual clients, so will continue to remain flexible in what they can offer, including remote and telephone appointments.”
It seems that business are functioning well at the moment, but the question is how long can they keep it up?
The UK government has stated that social distancing could continue for at least 12 weeks, is that feasible for financial advisers?
IWP’s Inglesfield said his firm can “provide a reactive service to clients indefinitely”.
“And if clients wish to hold advice meetings by Skype or phone that is of course also possible.
“As long as small numbers of key staff are able to access the office, we can also maintain analysis, reports and transactions, although our capacity for volume will be reduced.
“However, the majority of our clients are used to face-to-face meetings and I think it is inevitable, therefore, that the current crisis will substantially slow down our business.”
Dukes said: “It’s going to have to be [feasible].
“We diarise six-monthly reviews for all our clients, and we’re now putting them into May or June and contacting them to walk them through what their options are (eg postponing or conducting via video link).
“We’re giving whatever options we can, taking precautions where necessary, and approaching things sensibly.”
Firms need to know that they have some support in times of uncertainty.
The Personal Finance Society (PFS) recently produced a guide explaining the forms of financial support available to businesses as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Chief executive Keith Richards said it “will produce virtual content to assist our members with running their business”.
“In these times of heightened anxiety, we will continue to be here to assist the profession.”