This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.
As Covid-19 threw the world into chaos, firms scrambled to figure out how to get advisors the support they needed to work from home. The pandemic is ongoing, but advisors and their firms have done their best to adapt.
Advisors surveyed for Investment Executive’s 2021 Brokerage Report Card were asked this supplementary question: “On a scale of zero to 10, how well did your firm support you during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020?” (Research for the 2020 Report Card took place prior to the first lockdown in March of last year.)
Overall, advisors were happy with the help they received last year and granted their firms an average rating of 9.1 for their pandemic response. Respondents at firms that got it right — such as Wellington-Altus Private Wealth Inc., which came out on top with a perfect rating of 10.0 for its response to the pandemic — typically praised the investments their firms made in new technologies, including e-signatures.
“They spent so much money on tech,” said a Wellington-Altus advisor in the Prairies. “There wasn’t once that we weren’t able to fully perform at our best.”
Shaun Hauser, the firm’s president and founder, said Wellington-Altus had been prepared even before the pandemic to offer advisors the flexibility to work from home.
“Ironically and fortuitously, we didn’t have to make any impromptu and on-the-spot investments to allow us to take care of our clients and have our company work virtually,” Hauser said. “No one could have predicted the pandemic, but we did plan appropriately for having to work remotely.”
Conversely, firms that struggled to respond to the pandemic — such as BMO Private Wealth Canada and Asia, which received a 6.7 for pandemic response — were criticized for not doing enough to improve technology. As one BMO advisor from Quebec put it, “We did not have much support because the firm had so many computer problems.”
Andrew Auerbach, head of BMO Private Wealth, said the firm has made significant improvements in technology.
“We launched Microsoft Teams across the enterprise, which has been very, very well received,” Auerbach said. “We’re in the process of deploying top-of-the-line laptops to all the professionals in the firm.” He said BMO expects to have those laptops fully deployed by the end of June.
New tech and an extended work-from-home order have changed corporate culture and the habits of many advisors — for better or worse, depending on who you ask. Many advisors said they would prefer a hybrid work model in which they work from the office only a few days a week.
“I don’t think we’re ever going back to a time where everyone is in the office five days a week. It makes you think that a lot of what you were doing before was not necessary,” said an advisor in Alberta with Canaccord Genuity Wealth Management (Canada). Canaccord advisors gave their firm’s pandemic support a 9.4 rating.
On the topic of corporate culture during the pandemic, a CIBC Wood Gundy advisor in B.C. said, “I’m working from home and the social aspect is missing, but I don’t think I’m missing anything going on at the branch because we have weekly meetings to keep us updated.” That advisor, who would prefer a hybrid work model going forward, noted that there are fewer distractions at home and you “don’t have to dress up, so that’s great.”
Wood Gundy was rated 8.9 for its pandemic support and 8.3 in the “Corporate culture” category. Other advisors at the firm said they simply wouldn’t return to the office. “I have a great setup at home and I don’t care about the office at this point,” said another Wood Gundy advisor in B.C. “I at least put on my pants, though — not sweatpants or [pyjamas].”
An advisor in the Prairies with RBC Dominion Securities Inc. (RBC DS), which had a pandemic support rating of 9.2 and corporate culture rating of 9.1, said they would also prefer to remain at home. “I like being at home way more than the office.”
But other respondents said they looked forward to a return to normalcy. “Being in my basement is not a lot of fun for me. I’m literally in my sweatpants now, but I’d rather be in the office,” said an RBC DS advisor in Ontario.
For some executives, nothing beats face-to-face communication. David Agnew, CEO of RBC Wealth Management Canada, said his firm will need to allow for flexible work arrangements in the future, but he resisted the idea of most advisors working from home indefinitely.
“I know one thing: we’re in the people business and a lot of our staff enjoy being around each other,” Agnew said. “I think [with] collaboration, you learn more. You probably innovate more. And I do think clients are served in a better fashion when people are in the office.”