The office of the future?

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The conversation started innocently enough on an advisory group community board. Casey Sullivan of Ashworth Sullivan Wealth Management posted: "We have a lease expiring next year. Will our physical offices change as a result of the virus experience? I'd hate to be the last guy with a seven-year lease on something obsolete! Appreciate all your thoughts.”

There followed a spirited discussion. While this is admittedly a small sampling of the overall advisor population, I think the key takeaways suggest a way forward for planning offices around the country.

Reimagined offices

The concept of smaller, more intimate client offices kept coming up in the chatroom. It is clear advisors are rethinking how they communicate with clients. As anxiety and uncertainty are rife, the conversations are deeper, more emotional and more meaningful. It is likely planners will look back at this as the time they made lifelong relationships.

This will affect future office space. Its main function will likely become a place to interact with the client, rather than being geared to operating a business. This means wirehouse and RIA offices of old — mahogany-paneled suites in the best parts of town — will likely move to locations that are physically near to the key clients, with easy parking.

After the coronavirus pandemic it will be difficult for an advisor firm to insist on everyone always being at the office.

The offices will probably become smaller as staff models will change. Some employees will always stay at home, some will want to work in the office and some will want to choose when they come in. After the coronavirus pandemic it will be difficult for an advisor firm to insist on everyone always being at the office.

The brick-and-mortar client room

The spaces in which advisors interact with clients are going to become more intimate and casual but will be technically enabled. They will have easy, comfortable chairs facilitating direct eye contact for some conversations. Devices, such as tablets, will be given to clients with advisors running the content. You might also see large-screen monitors driven by planners from their laptops.

One room could contain both styles: comfortable chairs at one end for the start of a conversation, and a table and screen at the other end for the details and the conclusion.

These conversations would be catered with drinks and snacks geared to the tastes of specific clients. In some cases that could be a type of coffee or an alcoholic drink. Snacks could be health bars or pastries, depending on the client. There could be a Starbucks vibe. Whatever would encourage a relaxed conversation.

The virtual room

The virtual or video room is set up to allow a consistent video conferencing experience and/or to develop videos for marketing and social media.

For video conferencing, the following elements are key:

Camera: Advisors can use the cameras in their laptops, or inexpensive standalone cameras can be positioned separately.

Microphone: A USB headset, AirPods or a standalone microphone.

A backdrop: Decide what you want to project and set it up behind you. A lot of advisors choose a bookcase. This can be changed over time with different books interspersed with your life paraphernalia.

In the office of the future, small cameras will be integral for remote conferences.

Adjustable height desk: This can either be a desk that moves up and down or something on top of your desk that moves your laptop up and down. This allows you to adjust your environment so that the camera is slightly looking down on you and so you can access your keyboard easily.

A light ring: The light ring goes behind your laptop and lights up your face. You can change settings to warm or natural light. You will get extra points with your teen children as this is also what is used for creating TikToks!

All of the above can be done inexpensively. To step it up for creating your own videos, you can use a more expensive video blog, or vlog, camera and a better microphone.

Some advisors will set up the virtual room at their home, but situating it at the office will provide the most flexibility.

Flexible staffing support

The working from home (online acronym: WFH) genie is out of the bottle. After the coronavirus pandemic subsides, it is going to be very difficult to insist that everyone must be in the office at all times when most advisor offices have successfully operated in a remote distributed fashion. Advisor firms will have to come up with their own WFH policies. These will range from must-be-at-work policies to a permanently distributed office staff, many of which already successfully exist. The most common approach will probably be in the middle, with staff working at home for some days and physically at work on others.

What does this do to the physical office space? The idea of each staff member having their own office will probably wane. A more open-office layout, where the fewer staff members can more easily see each other and talk allows more flexibility. So does the idea of so-called hotel desks, where staff reserve spaces to set up their laptops on their days in the office. Less space is needed with this configuration.

So let’s get back to Casey and see what he is thinking. Before the quarantine, his firm was researching new, larger office space. He was debating a seven-year lease so that the landlord could put in the improvements that he wanted. Now, Casey is considering reducing his space by about 25%. The length of the lease will definitely be up for negotiation.

Historically, clients came to the firm’s office to meet in person. Now he is asking clients if this is still important to them. At the same time, the firm is researching a possible configuration for a virtual room, and how they might create a green screen backdrop — the ultimate in flexibility.

Casey is assessing video-conferencing technology Zoom. The pandemic has also pushed him to reconsider his digital marketing presence, so his technical overhaul will include a new website revamp. He is recommitted to making the most of the eMoney screen-sharing functions.

It is fascinating to see the ingenuity of advisors at work. The pandemic is a tough time to go through, but there are opportunities and learnings as well. When COVID-19 has been restrained, the future advisor office is going to look and operate differently.

Author's note: The following advisors contributed insights to the discussion referenced: Casey Sullivan, Ann Alsina, Patrick Tucker and Lisa Kirchenbauer.

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