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Many firms have announced that hybrid work — spending some days at the office and some days at home — will continue long term. But, as a new normal emerges post-pandemic, what hybrid work looks like now may not be what it looks like in a few months. That means firms may need to be flexible about being flexible.

Don’t expect Canada’s financial sector to make big, bold announcements detailing their hybrid work arrangements, said Jennifer Reynolds, CEO with Toronto Finance International, a public-private partnership between the country’s biggest financial institutions and government.

As industry firms consider hybrid work, “many are running or intending to run test pilots of different types of models,” Reynolds said. Pilots may vary depending on such things as job type or team. “It’s being approached with a lot of flexibility [and] creativity,” she said, allowing for the best approaches to evolve. “No one knows if they have the perfect model yet.”

Sun Life Financial went with a big and bold statement: full-on flexibility. In a release last week, the insurer said most of its employees will choose where they work at any given time, so long as client and business needs are top of mind. No minimum days at the office required.

RBC said this week that flexibility will be permanent but that the details are still being worked out.

“We believe that flexible and hybrid work models are here to stay, and that the role of the office has forever changed,” CEO Dave McKay wrote in a LinkedIn post.

RBC won’t adopt a one-size-fits-all mandate, and leaders and teams are developing arrangements “that best match their diverse everyday experiences and the needs of the clients they support,” he said. The bank will test, learn and adjust its approach over the the next few months.

The other big banks, when asked about hybrid work in wealth management, said arrangements were still in the works, but confirmed that hybrid work is being embraced.

During the pandemic, flexible work, along with digital innovation, “delivered added value to our colleagues and their clients’ experiences,” a TD spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We are finalizing our return-to-office program that will include office, hybrid and other agile working arrangements.”

Steve Galimi, vice-president of strategy and performance with National Bank Financial — Wealth Management, said in an emailed statement that the firm’s hybrid work model “will enable advisors to alternate days at the office and days working remotely and will account for the needs of our clients and employees.”

ScotiaMcLeod said it plans on “a flexible model that will allow us to customize our service delivery based on client and colleague preferences, circumstances and many other considerations.” And a CIBC spokesperson said future work “will blend the best of both on-site and remote work.”

(BMO didn’t respond before press time.)

Remote work likely isn’t new to many advisors who spend time out of the office meeting clients or prospects. What’s changed is an increased leverage of tech — even for relationship building.

Ann Felske-Jackman, principal with Edward Jones, said that while the firm has always valued face-to-face contact, the pandemic showed that such contact can be technology-enabled. More than 70% of the firm’s advisors say they’ll continue to leverage tech to serve clients — depending on the client.

“The ultimate test is what is best for the client,” Felske-Jackman said. “We need to set up a system where we offer the clients choice.”

Shaun Hauser, president of Wellington-Altus Private Wealth, said the firm’s advisors had flexibility before the pandemic to work in a way that fit them personally, including remotely. The firm, founded in 2017, built its technological infrastructure to accommodate flexibility and growth. The only mandate is that the end client be taken care of, he said.

Jamie Coulter, executive vice-president of wealth management with Raymond James, said flexible work arrangements at the firm will be a bigger change for employees in areas such as sales support and operations than for advisors, who were probably out of the office a couple days a week before the pandemic. The firm is gathering employee feedback and analyzing work styles across departments as it considers a more defined policy for managing remote teams, he said.

While research suggests working from home can improve productivity, hybrid work isn’t without its challenges, which firms will have to address.

To be successful, hybrid work may require new management skills and new ways to build team culture, Reynolds said.

Felske-Jackman said corporate leaders “probably need greater empathy and understanding of what our associates and leaders are trying to accomplish both personally and professionally,” as they work remotely. Skills are also needed for tasks such as holding remote meetings and brainstorming, she said.

Coulter said technology has supported firm culture by enabling Raymond James to reinforce its messages to more employees through virtual townhalls and conferences, and to connect with more clients through webinars. At the same time, management must be intentional about creating informal in-person interactions among remote teams.

“The glue that pulls us together is social capital,” he said.

Firm culture may be a particular concern for the relatively new Wellington-Altus. “Culture doesn’t get built over Zoom,” Hauser said.

That concern may ease, however, as hybrid work comes into effect. Advisors and corporate staff are starting to migrate back to the office for social and mental health reasons, Hauser said.

One area where in-office work may prevail is the capital markets business.

Wall Street’s push to return to the office has been touted as reflective of a corporate culture that prioritizes face-to-face meetings for deal making. Deals and transactions are just as important to Canadian firms, Reynolds said, so Wall Street work choices may affect Bay Street. “What happens in the U.S. always influences Canada,” she said.

At the same time, many industry firms operate globally so will have to be flexible and consider their work policies on a country-by-country basis. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for an international organization,” Reynolds said.

As workers in wealth management start returning to the office, Coulter said he foresees two phases. First, during the fall, workers will go through a settling-in stage as they acclimatize to their in-office workdays.

The second phase is so far undefined but it will depend on the first. Toward the year’s end, he expects he’ll be asking himself: “What did you learn from the fall experience and how is that going to influence your thinking as an organization for the next year?”

“That could be a really interesting conversation,” Coulter said.