Over the next few days we are publishing interviews with team leaders about running their operations in the current crisis, how they are dealing with issues of isolation, motivation and morale and the potential effect of the current situation on their businesses and the industry.
We begin with a discussion with Aram Kupelian, paraplanning manager at Holden & Partners.
Holden & Partners has been encouraging working from home for over a year, with the four members of the paraplanning team able to spend 1-2 days a week working remotely, so the transition to home working caused by the recent UK Government imposed lock down has not been as acute as for some businesses, Aram explains.
“We all have work laptops (no-one is allowed to use personal computers) and two screens at home, to replicate the way we are set up in the office, as well as using the office software via remote secure server.”
With the lock down occurring in the immediate run up to the end of the tax year, Aram says initially, “with the hard deadlines, I probably over-compensated for not being able to have face-to-face conversations in the office.
“I’m not a micro-manager, I put a lot of trust in my team, and we were always on top of things but being detached I probably sent more emails and set up more Microsoft Teams calls than I needed to, in order to keep the communication going and to reassure myself that things were working as they should.
“For the time of the year things were a bit more frantic – especially with the suspension of property funds at the same time – so the adrenaline was up a bit more, but we got through it.”
Managing the team
During the lock down the paraplanning team has a central pipeline of work, which Aram oversees, keeping an eye on workflow and who is doing what, and the paraplanners have weekly virtual meetings with the advisers they serve and the administrators, “as usual”.
“It definitely has helped that we were set up for remote working before the crisis,” Aram says. Nevertheless, the firm has re-emphasised good working practices for remote working, such as having a comfortable work space set up, natural light where possible, putting a structure in place which ensures people take regular breaks, getting in a walk if possible, and so on.*
One of the most challenging aspects of going into lock down, Aram says, has been the loss of face-to-face communication.
“When you are in the office together, even if you’re not having formal meetings, you can gauge how people are working or how they are feeling that day, often through small talk or body language. “Consequently, having video chat facilities, via Microsoft Teams, has been a Godsend.
“We normally have weekly paraplanner meetings and now we are having them every two days. Even if there is nothing much to talk about from a work perspective, it’s good for all the team to catch-up on screen and chat about things. I think it’s good when we are all working from home to talk to other people about what’s going on and how we are tackling and coping with the situation. It’s a good way of keeping in touch and keeping up morale.”
Aram is also having one to one catch-ups with his team. “Again, we may not have much to discuss about the work itself but we will talk about how they are doing and what’s going on in their lives, because whole families are together now and all under different pressures. One of the consequences of the lock down is that people have childcare issues or are shopping for elderly relatives, which means there has to be a degree of flexibility around how people are working and balancing home needs with the work that needs to be done.
“For example, three-days a week my wife is working in the mornings, which has meant some days I am working afternoons and evenings rather than during the day, in order to look after the children. So, I am restructuring my days to be there for the team if and when they need me and ensuring that is communicated.”
To add to the situation, Aram has been inducting a new starter to the team while on lock down. “It’s been a challenge. I rang him the week before he was due to start to reassure him everything was going ahead but, obviously, I have had to rejig my usual plan where the person would sit next to me in the office, to one using Teams and screen sharing.”
How has the team responded?
Aram says the paraplanning team has responded well to home working. “The paraplanning role lends itself well to remote working,” Aram says, “especially where you have a piece of technical work you want to get stuck into. And we’re using short-term goals to focus energy where it is needed.
“We’ve also started working on some of the projects which end-of-year pressures forced down the priority list. Now, with less distractions, people are moving things forward. These are things like improvements to processes we’ve highlighted for action and checklists that are coming up for review.”
The biggest challenge has definitely not been the operational side, Aram says, “But rather it’s been more the emotional and psychological effect of the lock down. With just 24 people in the office we are a close knit team and quite social.
“Human beings are social animals and I think the mental health issues nationally once we come out of this could be quite stark.”
To compensate in some way for not being able to organise social gatherings, one of the firm’s investment analysts has started a Friday night quiz night. “Everyone pays five pounds which goes to charity and we take part virtually. We’ve also started a beard growing competition, and we’re sharing pictures of our progress. All things to keep us in touch and keep up the team spirit.”
Ensuring there is a balance that takes into consideration the unusual pressures that people are dealing with, such as home schooling, taking care of elderly relatives, and any other personal issues, is another of the challenges being thrown up and which requires team leaders to be flexible in their approach.
“Getting the level of communication right, regularly keeping in touch without overdoing it, is key,” Aram says. “In these times, the small talk can be more important than the work talk.”
Potential effect on the business
Aram believes there will be changes to working practices once the world returns to ‘normal’.
“I think the current crisis could have a long term impact on the way people work in the UK. There has been a stigma about working from home which has been reducing over time but I think we will see a lot more firms implement remote working as part of their working practices now. This could be the catalyst that accelerates change.”
He adds: “Holden & Partners has grown over the past 15 years from 6 people to 24 now, so we have outgrown the office – which is why we encouraged working from home. It was also popular with paraplanners as they could get their head down and work on technical reports. So, depending on how effective remote working is over this period, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be successful, I can see an argument for staying in the building we are now, saving hundreds of thousands of pounds in moving costs, but using hot desking and more remote working.”
Another benefit for financial advice firms is likely to be new business inflows, as DIY investors realise they need professional help including not just investment advice but financial planning. Aram says the firm has already seen new enquiries of this nature.
* See also Working from home – the two week reset