Up to a third of UBS employees may work from home post-coronavirus: CEO

UBS branch and logo with fountain July 2020
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Could the UBS branch office of the future look a lot like advisors’ homes?

As much as a third of UBS employees may regularly work from home after the coronavirus threat ends, down from about 80% today, says Chief Executive Officer Sergio Ermotti.

Like many companies, UBS pivoted to a remote work policy for the majority of its staff in light of the coronavirus health threat. As they’ve worked from home, advisors and clients have substantially boosted their technology adoption. At the same time, UBS has instituted operational changes. All this means the firm can, and probably will, adopt a flexible approach to work in the future, Ermotti told analysts July 21.

Clients are getting used to the firm’s “digital channels and different ways to interact with us,” Ermotti said. “And therefore our branch and physical presence also in the way we serve clients will be reshaped.”

The firm says it has been pumping out more digital content, including 50 live streams created by its chief investment office during the quarter. Nearly 45,000 clients and prospects watched them. The firm’s U.S. hybrid digital advice product — UBS Advice Advantage — recently passed $1 billion in assets.

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But the future won’t be entirely digital and it won’t necessarily arrive in short order. Face-to-face interaction between advisors and clients remains critical.

Ermotti cautioned that the wealth management business necessitates having employees in the office when it is safe to do so because they will need to interact face-to-face with clients.

“We're not going have 80% like today... you can't have everybody working from home. You're going to have to have social interactions,” he said.

But for now, in-person communication is difficult to do in the U.S. given the surging number of coronavirus cases. Sending advisors, many of whom are older, back to the office may require a vaccine.

“We are still learning about the virus, but this is clear: If you have a lot of people in a closed space, that’s a problem,” says a person familiar with UBS’ thinking and who asked for anonymity to discuss the matter.

The company has more than 60,000 employees globally and fields 6,410 advisors in its Americas business as of June 30. That figure, which includes Canada and Latin America, is down from 6,689 for the year-ago period, according to the company’s earnings report.

Ermotti suggested that if and when UBS moves to a more permanent work-from-home policy it could involve rotating who works remotely and who works in the office. That would create a situation where some employees share desks and alter the layout of the office.

In the meantime, UBS and other firms will continue to contend with the coronavirus pandemic and economic turmoil. UBS’ Americas unit reported pretax profit dropped by $135 million to $227 million, mirroring declines at rival wealth managers Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo. The firm reported just $100 million in net new money and invested assets, at $1.369 trillion, were up $48 billion from the year-ago period.

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