working from home / illustration

Branch-based advisors surveyed for Investment Executive’s (IE) 2021 Report Card on Banks gave their firms an average rating of 8.8 for pandemic support last year, and many said they appreciated flexible work schedules.

Bank services were declared essential at the start of the pandemic, allowing branches to remain open. But some banks gave advisors greater flexibility to work from home, such as Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) — the only bank that said it switched entirely to remote work for much of last year.

TD, which received a pandemic support rating of 8.5., was already focused on technological innovation when the pandemic struck, said David Terry, vice-president and head, TD Wealth Financial Planning.

“By March 2020, we had actually enabled all of our financial planners and advisors across the wealth advice channel to work off of [Cisco] WebEx using e-signatures,” Terry said.

Prior to the pandemic, only 20% of TD Wealth Financial Planning’s advisors were able to work remotely. But from March to October of last year, the bank moved to a completely remote setup, Terry said. TD also introduced a tech purchase program for employees’ home offices.

TD was rated 7.4 in the “Mobile technology support” category. Although that rating was below average, it rose from 7.0 in 2019. “[Technology has] for sure improved,” said a TD advisor in Ontario. “They switched to [Microsoft] Outlook and it’s much easier than the last system.”

Bank of Nova Scotia, meanwhile, chose to keep the majority of its branches open over the past year.

“We’re extremely proud to have been able to keep more than 95% of the branch network open to continue serving our customers with their needs, while at the same time keeping our employees healthy, safe and supported,” said Sloane Muldoon, senior vice-president, retail performance, with Scotiabank.

Scotiabank advisors gave the bank an 8.2 rating for pandemic support and a 7.4 rating for mobile support. “Part of the problem is that our technology isn’t good enough to work from home,” said a Scotiabank advisor in B.C.

Muldoon acknowledged the bank’s technology is “desktop-centric,” but said Scotiabank was able to accommodate working from home. “When the pandemic forced a branch closure, we were able to implement work-from-home capabilities” via e-signature tools and Microsoft Teams, she said.

To help advisors through the pandemic, Scotiabank provided additional pay and personal days, and expanded existing benefits. Measures such as a $500 well-being account, $3,000 a year for mental health benefits, an employee food budget in every branch and expanded childcare support were pandemic-related but “remain in place today,” she said.

For the most part, advisors with Bank of Montreal (BMO), which received the lowest rating of 7.9 in the pandemic support category, also worked from bank branches — a fact that didn’t sit well with some.

“Those of us who worked in the branch were frustrated that our senior leaders [could] work from home,” said a BMO advisor in the Prairies. “[Senior management] calls in to work from their dens while we are busy dealing with clients [face-to-face] as usual.”

While some advisors would have preferred more flexibility, others said they understood and appreciated the bank’s choices.

“I think we got lots of support from the bank. At the branch level, we do lots of cleaning. My boss has always been there to give emotional support when needed,” said a BMO advisor in Alberta.

In an emailed statement to IE, BMO said remote work was supported “where it made sense” for advisors. “The health, safety and well-being of our employees and clients has always been a top priority throughout the pandemic,” the statement read. The bank said it implemented enhanced cleaning and safety protocols, as well as reduced hours, virtual client meetings and e-signatures.

The other banks surveyed, each of which offered flexible work arrangements, also focused on using technology to preserve the advisor-client connection during the pandemic.

Royal Bank of Canada received the highest pandemic support rating of 9.6. Their existing digital platform, MyAdvisor, gave advisors working remotely access to video conferencing and digital signatures.

Advisors with National Bank of Canada, which was rated 9.0 for pandemic support, used a platform called The Box that allowed clients to share documents securely.

Meanwhile, many advisors with CIBC, which had a 9.4 rating for pandemic support, said they appreciated the new laptops and improved mobile access they received.

“Everyone adapted [to the pandemic] really quickly and clients were surprised about how easy it was to connect,” said a CIBC advisor in Ontario.

Peter Lee, executive vice-president, banking centres with CIBC, said the bank rolled out various updates and provided new tools such as CIBC GoalPlanner in November 2020, which allowed advisors to view and create financial plans virtually with their clients.