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Physical distancing and personal protective equipment are going to be part of the new normal as advisors begin to meet clients in person at their offices.

andresr/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Stefanie Keller, chief executive officer and certified financial planner at Stellar Wealth & Tax Solutions in Winnipeg, has grown accustomed to meeting clients across a 10-foot-long board room table during the past few months.

While most of the country’s financial services industry pivoted to working exclusively from home in March, she has continued seeing a select handful of clients in person at her office. Ms. Keller takes several stringent precautions when letting clients into her premises. She sanitizes surfaces around her space frequently, keeps her distance from others, wears a face mask and gloves into every meeting and provides clients with the same.

“We all have to be cautious, not going around hugging people, or even shaking hands or any of that,” she says. “I’m very respectful of physical distancing.”

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These extra steps may soon be par for the course in running an advisory practice. As parts of the country reopen in stages, a growing number of advisers are revisiting the idea of heading back into the office – but what that looks like is bound to differ tremendously from anything we’ve seen before.

“[Physical] distancing and [personal protective equipment] are going to be part of our new normal,” says Greg Pollock, president and CEO of Advocis, the Financial Advisors’ Association of Canada, in Toronto.

Mr. Pollock says that Advocis’s 12,000 adviser members across the country have had to adapt to “a difficult situation” under lockdown. And returning to work will require similar flexibility.

“Every business with a physical space will have to change,” he says. “We expect that advisers will be seeing fewer clients in their offices and will continue to interact with many of them virtually. We also expect to see significant changes to the design of office spaces, not only in terms of furniture and equipment but in the technology infrastructure.”

Nevertheless, many advisers aren’t quite ready to move out of their home offices. While parts of British Columbia test the waters of reopening, Alim Dhanji, senior financial planner at Assante Financial Management Ltd. in Vancouver, says he’ll continue to work from home until at least the end of June.

Other advisers in Mr. Dhanji’s practice have started going back to the office part-time and have to work closely with their office manager to co-ordinate their schedules and avoid overcrowding. But Mr. Dhanji says he’s grown comfortable with working remotely over the past few months. In fact, he hopes to bring the new tools he’s mastered under lockdown, such as videoconferencing using Microsoft Teams, with him into the office when the time comes.

“Booking as many in-person meetings is just not necessary,” he says. “There’s a lot that you can save in terms of travel, perhaps office space down the road. It’s just a real eye-opener in terms of what you can achieve through technology.”

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Mr. Dhanji says client feedback on virtual meetings has been almost entirely positive, with most pointing out the time it saves them. A one-hour, in-person meeting might typically take clients three hours in all, factoring in the commute and parking time. But remote meetings don’t take much longer than the time spent loading a website – and Mr. Dhanji predicts the appeal of efficiency will push this habit into the new normal even as office spaces reopen for drop-in visits.

“I would say 80 per cent of the clients have been very receptive,” Mr. Dhanji says. “They appreciate it.”

The remaining 20 per cent of his clients, however, are eager to see this period of online work come to an end. This demographic is the same one Ms. Keller has been serving in person from the end of the board room table: clients who lack technological access or know-how and who rely on face-to-face interaction to feel safe in their advisers’ hands.

For these clients, having the option to meet in-person, even with masks on, has made a huge difference.

“I have never seen so many people express emotion,” Ms. Keller says. “I have people walking in and just bursting into tears because they’re so grateful to be able to come in the door.”

Stefanie Keller, Kylie Wasiuta, John Keller and Peter Moreira of Stellar Wealth & Tax Solutions work around the board room, preparing for client meetings, in their Winnipeg office.

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While offices start to reopen, limitations on space and capacity will likely require that advisers take a dual approach, using virtual meeting tools to serve one portion of their client base while taking stringent measures to keep in-person meetings safe for the other.

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Adjusting to these new practices may come with a learning curve, but it’s one most advisers are prepared for, Mr. Pollock says.

“Advisers are telling us that they can’t wait to start connecting with clients and colleagues in person again, but it’s with an understanding that it won’t be quite the same,” he says. “We have no doubt that we’ll all find ways to adapt when it comes to creating that all-important sense of human connection.”

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