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A recent survey from KPMG LPP found that 54 per cent of Canadians are afraid to return to their workplaces because of concerns about the pandemic and 59 per cent will refuse to go back to the office if they don’t feel safe enough.nito100/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

While concerns about children returning to school amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have been front and centre during the past few weeks, stress about returning to the office has also been simmering. In part, that has been a key reason why financial services firms and their financial advisors are moving ahead very cautiously in their reopening efforts.

A recent survey from KPMG LPP found that 54 per cent of Canadians are afraid to return to their workplaces because of concerns about the pandemic and 59 per cent will refuse to go back to the office if they don’t feel safe enough. It’s in this climate of anxiety that financial services firms and advisors are trying to strike the right balance when reopening their offices up for staff, first, and clients, second.

Although the first of Toronto-based Raymond James Ltd.’s branch offices opened its doors in June, Jamie Coulter, the company’s executive vice-president and head of wealth management, says that returning to the office for advisors and their staff was entirely voluntary.

Deborah Best, vice-president, human resources, at the firm, says the investment dealer has adopted a three-phase approach to reopening, allowing offices to operate progressively at 25 per cent, 35 per cent and 50 per cent capacity, with a minimum of 28 days between each phase. The first two phases don’t include client visits.

“This is much more about teams wanting to come together, and we’re accommodating and supporting them [in doing] so. It’s not a request on our behalf,” Ms. Best says.

When Raymond James surveyed staff in May, it found that getting to the office by public transportation was the biggest concern for more than half (51 per cent). Within the offices themselves, staff were most concerned about whether there would be sufficient cleaning and disinfecting supplies (63 per cent), limited numbers of people in the workplace (60 per cent) and six-feet distances between desks (52 per cent).

That information helped inform the firm’s safety plan, which includes mandatory online training for all staff on safety protocols so everyone understands the measures in place to protect them. The phased approach also has helped address anxiety among staff. The minimum 28-day interval between phases, Ms. Best says, allows staff to turn new safety protocols into habits and the firm to monitor coronavirus activity in the community – and, if necessary, slow down further reopening or step back to a previous phase.

That said, Mr. Coulter says he accepts that some staff won’t want to return to work on-site any time soon.

“I expect we’ll be accommodating those situations for quite some time,” he says. “There’s no benefit that I can see from rushing everyone back or mandating that they have to come back. The business, in general, … has proven to be pretty resilient during this pandemic and has, by and large, been able to pivot pretty well to a work-from-home arrangement.”

Similarly, Mississauga-based Edward Jones started to reopen some advisors' officers – albeit with voluntary attendance – in July. Alongside policies, best practices and a practical safety kit, Ann Felske-Jackman, principal and head of financial advisor talent acquisition, says the firm provided advisors with a branch discussion guide to support conversations about the pros and cons of reopening among branch staff.

Edward Jones has some branches in which the advisor and branch office administrator alternate days at work, others in which one or the other works from home, and still more in which both work from home. The firm is also offering human resources support for branches that can’t agree about reopening.

“Clear communication is the key to resolving any type of possible conflict – and that’s not just during COVID-19,” Ms. Felske-Jackman says. “The better we care for our people, the better they’ll be able to care for our clients.”

In addition, some Edward Jones branches have even started seeing clients in person again – by appointment only and with cleaning in between clients.

“Every branch has received hand sanitizer, masks, tape to mark six-foot distancing areas, those types of things, but most importantly they’ve also received communication templates they can share with their clients,” Ms. Felske-Jackman says.

That way, clients understand the new rules and what’s expected of them well before they arrive at the office, which takes some of the burden off staff in the branch.

To help staff who are returning to the office feel more comfortable, Dr. Daniel Lalla, a physician at Montreal-based telemedicine provider Dialogue Technologies Inc., says that while “it’s important to pass messages and directives, but also to listen to concerns from employees because everybody is coming from a different emotional space when it comes to dealing with COVID-19. Some have lost family members – it’s very personal. Some have family members with severely compromised immune systems. Some are young and healthy and have relatively few concerns after having read about the virus. So, people have a different comfort level and a different personal experience with this condition and what it has meant to them.”

Dr. Lalla, who led the development of Dialogue Technologies' “The COVID-19 Return to Work Guide for Canadian Organizations,” says that just as a multilayered approach is essential to prevent and mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in workplaces, it’s also critical in helping to manage anxiety as people head back into the office.

For advisors managing staff, one layer is learning to recognize signs of stress and burnout and accepting that people may not be at peak performance throughout the pandemic. Another is making accommodations where appropriate – including offering additional mental health days, Dr. Lalla suggests. A third is providing access to professional mental health support when needed.

“I’ve seen it from both sides,” he says. “I’ve seen people who had some reticence and personal reasons whereby returning to the workplace was creating distress, [but] I’ve [also] seen several people who are finding the confinement extremely hard and are volunteering to go back into the workplace because they need the social contact and the structure of the workday. It’s important that employers try to stay flexible.”