Uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has made a hybrid work environment a part of the new normal. For advisers, that means embracing technology or risk falling behind.
Roughly four months since the novel coronavirus shuttered office doors across the country, firms are grappling with what back to office plans might look like. Wells Fargo & Co., for one, plans to have its more than 200,000 employees continue working from home until at least September, CEO and President Charlie Scharf said during the bank’s second-quarter earnings call on Tuesday.
“It is too early to determine exactly when we will ultimately return to a more traditional work environment,” Scharf said. “But we will be cautious about bringing people back into the office … and we will make these decisions by geography, by facility.”
Bank of America may allow its employees to return to office in phases after Labor Day, but the bank doesn’t have a timeline set in stone, according to a company spokesperson. However, employees have been told they will receive 30 days’ notice prior to returning to the office.
For UBS, a hybrid work environment may be the new normal as a third of its 70,000 employees across 50 countries opt to work remotely on a permanent basis, Chief Operating Officer Sabine Keller-Busse said in June.
According to an IBM survey of 25,000 U.S. adults, 75% of working Americans indicated they would like to continue to work remotely at least occasionally, while more than half (54%) say they would like to permanently work remotely.
Financial advisers, in the meantime, must ramp up their adoption of tech-driven tools to keep operations moving forward while maintaining engagement and interaction with clients amid market volatility.
Tools like DocuSign and eSignature have been around for years, and typically when BNY Mellon’s Pershing Advisor Solutions would hold training sessions for advisers, maybe one or two would show up, said Christina Townsend, head of platform strategy.
“Now, it’s a sold-out show,” she said in an interview. “We have hundreds of advisers coming to training and they’re like: ‘Why have I never used this before?’” In fact, adoption of tools like eSignature, for example, increased 80% in the first two weeks of the pandemic among Pershing advisers.
At Merrill Lynch, digital adoption and engagement has skyrocketed. Advisers hosted approximately 98,000 Webex meetings during the second quarter, a more than fivefold increase year over year, according to the bank’s second-quarter earnings reported Thursday. Moreover, the MyMerrillmobile app saw a 28% year-over-year increase in users during the quarter.
Fidelity Investments, too, has seen a significant increase in digital tool adoption during the COVID-19 pandemic as advisers switched to working remotely, Lisa Burns, head of strategic platform development at Fidelity, said in an interview.
For example, the number of transactions using eSignature for money movement more than doubled between February and April, according to Fidelity. Moreover, digital tool adoption for both clearing and custody account opening also grew, including a 45% increase in new account eSignature adoption for custody in the same time period.
Yet, all the technology tools many firms are touting as the pandemic has forced remote work, “don’t matter without a stable, secure and scalable platform,” Burns said.
RIAs EMBRACE TECH
The main reason advisers in traditional work environments that are now remote struggle is because they tend to have legacy infrastructure, according to Baltimore-based RIA Facet Wealth’s chief technology officer Paul Martin. “That tech infrastructure is set up assuming everybody is sitting in the same physical location, and then they stick a firewall in front of it and think it’s secure.”
To promote remote work, Plano, Texas-based Insight Wealth started to adopt several technologies to maintain productivity remotely, including encrypted virtual meetings via Zoom, secure document exchange with DocuSign, and a cloud-based encrypted server for client files. The nine-adviser firm manages $435.6 million in client assets and allows employees to come and go in office as they see fit.
However, the RIA has experienced challenges with clients wanting to engage more via mobile devices. “I have protocols and best practices for tech usage I advise clients to take not only with me, but with other providers,” Josh Hargrove, a financial adviser with Insight Wealth, said in an interview.
In one instance, a client sent Hargrove a screenshot over text regarding a pension distribution and asked a question about it. “Any time a client randomly sends me a text or an email that I know hasn’t been encrypted, I always have to take a moment to remind them we have tech tools in place to securely engage and exchange information with each other,” he said.
For Atlanta-based Gratus Capital, providing its employees a cloud-based network where they could “just plug in anywhere,” was top priority as well, Todd Jones, director of investments, said in an interview.
The RIA has 15 advisers with about $2 billion in client assets under management, according to its latest Form ADV. With its new cloud-based software, the firm will permanently operate in a hybrid work environment as client demand for digital processes increases, Jones said.
“What advisers and clients are finding is processes had too much human intervention,” BNY Mellon Pershing’s director of technology client engagement Michelle Feinstein said in an interview. “An adviser can be on video with a client walking them step by step through an online application, which is so much better than scheduling a meeting a week from now to work on paper.”
On the West Coast, Private Ocean — which boasts $2.2 billion in client assets under management and has 24 advisers — uses Amazon WorkSpaces and requires all client-related information be shared through the portal, adviser Steve Branton said in an interview.
“We are also using Zoom, which runs outside of the remote desktop server,” Branton said. “But we require that no client-related information be shared in the chat functionality — only screen sharing.”
The San Francisco-based firm developed its technology to promote remote work dynamics following the California wildfires last year, which turned out to be advantageous for the firm when COVID-19 hit, Branton said. “We were able to just immediately start working from home.”
As firms of all sizes accept that technology is a business imperative, tech providers, moving forward, can accelerate the conversation beyond the adoption of simple tools like eSignature, Pershing’s Feinstein said.
“Advisers have reevaluated their business models and are now looking for other ways technology can enhance efficiency and scale,” she said. “That’s the silver lining in all of this.”
CYBERSECURITY RAISES CONCERNS
But with greater technology adoption comes greater risk. Every firm — from a wirehouse to a small RIA — has become dependent on an expanding digital infrastructure. That, in turn, has made advisers vulnerable to cybercriminals and foreign adversaries.
According to an IBM Security study released in June, 80% of 2,000 respondents either rarely worked from home or not at all prior to the pandemic, and, in turn, more than half are now doing so with no new security policies to help guide them.
This shift to working from home has exposed new security risks and has left nearly half of those employees worried about impending cyber threats in their new home office settings, according to the study.
Financial advisers may be more susceptible to phishing attacks, which are malicious emails that could look like new business or a client request, said Schwab Advisor Services senior consultant Page Adlington during a June 16 webinar.
For emails, a great rule of thumb is to avoid clicking on links that direct you to any website outside your network, Adlington said. Instead, get into the habit of opening a browser window then typing in the address. “That’s a great way to keep from falling victim to what may be links to malicious websites,” she said.
Moreover, ramping up cybersecurity measures is no time for advisers to be cheap. “I would stay away from free versions of applications and free trial periods,” Adlington said. “In other words, this is the one place where you do want to spend money and have license versions of applications.”
WiFi connection is the next order of business for advisers. Every firm should have a virtual private network or VPN because every computer is a target for attacks equally. “A VPN is really your first defense,” Adlington said. “Have an extremely robust password on that network and a very robust password on your computer — those are actually much more advantageous avenues of protecting yourself at home.”