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Should your firm be more flexible about flextime?

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There’s a worrisome shortage of talent in our profession.

Take a look around: More advisers are retiring, there’s a lack of new planners yet there’s growth in demand for financial advice. The consulting firm Moss Adams has estimated that the industry could face a shortfall of more than 200,000 advisers by 2022. Now, more than ever, attracting and retaining talent is essential to an advisory firm’s success.

One strategy I don’t see used nearly enough in advisory firms is offering flexible work options. When I interview employees and ask them what they would change about their firms, I frequently hear the theme of providing more flexibility. But when I report this employee feedback, I often get pushback from firm owners. There is a mindset that because this is a client-focused business, employees have to physically be at their desks from 8 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday

“Baby boomers and Gen Xers are leading most advisory firms,” says Caleb Brown, a partner at New Planner Recruiting. “And they are managing — as they were managed — by walking around and observing employees.”

Flexible work arrangements encompass both work hours and work locations. Demographic trends indicate that demand for flexibility will continue to rise among both young and old workers.

For example, many members of the millennial generation — now in their late 20s and early 30s — put off marriage and child bearing during the Great Recession. Now that things have recovered, they’re looking to start their own families. Meanwhile, baby boomers may be seeking flexibility to take care of an aging parent or relative.

These and other trends are likely to continue to fuel the demand for flexible work options. In a 2016 study by the Society for Human Resource Management, the top three benefits that employees rated as very important to their job satisfaction were paid time off (63%), health care and medical benefits (62%) and flexibility to balance life and work issues (53%).

One trend that has created a need to think outside the box about work is the growing use of technology. The client base has grown more tech savvy and is able to access email and files 24/7, and as a result clients are expecting real time responses from their adviser. As Yonhee Gordon, COO & partner at Chicago-bsed JMG Financial Group puts it, “getting technology in the hands of our employees so they can respond to clients in a timely manner is a priority for our firm.”

This, in turn, has created a need to become more flexible about how work gets done and where. Flexibility is extremely important for staff members who work remotely. JMG provides laptops or notebooks to all staff to ensure they can be available for clients. For the support employees who work in the office, the firm uses staggered work hours to ensure coverage for the core work hours of 8:30 to 5:30.

The idea of being able to respond 24/7 is echoed by Wallace Williams, the CFO at the Trust Company of the South in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Advisers will work remotely from home at night in exchange for taking work off early to attend their child’s soccer game or ballet recital,” she says.

The most common flexible work arrangements are:

  • Flexible hours. For example, an employee works from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. rather than from 8 to 4.
  • Compressed workweeks. This arrangement allows an employee to work 40 hours over a shorter span than the usual five-day workweek — for example, four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days.
  • Part-time work. This allows an individual to work as few as 21 hours a week while retaining some or all benefits.
  • Job sharing. This is a structured form of part-time work, with various models. A 50/50 split is common, but this is not the only option. For several smaller firms, this option works really well with the financial planner role or the paraplanner role. I have also seen this arrangement employed effectively with operational roles like client service administrator or receptionist/administrative assistant.

The major benefits of flexible schedule arrangements for the employees include avoiding rush-hour commutes, being able to schedule work during quiet times to increase productivity, gaining more control over their time off to take care of a sick child or to schedule doctor or dentist appointments, and ultimately creating a better work-life balance.

Two keys to success in using workplace flexibility are having trust in your employees and creating standardized workflow procedures to ensure that tasks are completed accurately and that deadlines are met. Ensuring you have documented goals and objectives for each employee and providing ongoing feedback are best practices of successful firms.

If your management mindset is “if I can see them, I know they are working,” then chances are you are not a candidate for flexible work arrangements. It is important to focus on the quality of your employees' work results rather than number of hours worked.

There are other ways firms are increasing flexibility for their employees that improve work-life balance. Summer hours from Memorial Day through Labor Day are becoming more commonplace practices in our industry. One increasingly popular approach is to have the Friday workday ends at 3 p.m. for a majority of the firm while a skeleton crew remains until the official closing time.

Two keys to success in using workplace flexibility are having trust in your employees and creating standardized workflow procedures to ensure that tasks are getting completed accurately and that deadlines are met.

Admittedly, your firm may not be large enough to make this work, but some variation of this practice could be very engaging for your team.

I am also starting to see more firms incorporate sabbaticals into their benefits and rewards system. The definition of a sabbatical is any extended period of leave from one’s customary work, for rest or to acquire new skills and training. The leave period can range from four to eight weeks and is typically based on years of service as the main criterion for eligibility.

One advantage for the firm is that the employee returns refreshed and renewed, In addition, tenured-based sabbaticals encourage loyalty and increase employee retention.

Further, several firms are starting to use this time off vehicle as a succession-planning tool. Younger employees have the opportunity to grow in their roles when senior advisers or partners are on a sabbatical. This may also help to motivate those nearing retirement who may be reluctant to start to transition their clients to others on the advisory team.

I highly recommend taking a step back and reassessing how flexible your current work environment is and to start making plans to incorporate more flexibility into your human capital plan. Your business model is built on client retention, which in turn means it is built on employee retention as well.

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