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Many advisors have begun making upgrades to their office space to address the spectrum of client preferences for meeting in person and with adequate distancing.

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As COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift and businesses resume in-person gatherings and events, financial advisors will have to gauge their clients’ desires and comfort levels with meetings. While some will be ready to go back to shaking hands and meeting in person as soon as possible, others will want to remain remote for the foreseeable future. How are advisors to prepare?

“The notion of flexibility will be paramount [for advisors],” says Sylvain Brisebois, senior vice-president and managing director, head, national sales strategy and programs, BMO Private Wealth in Ottawa. “Client preferences will continue to evolve over the next 12 months, 18 months, or the next five years. … We don’t ever want to make assumptions for what those could be.”

As advisors consider how to open their offices to clients, newsletters are an effective way to start gauging client interest in meeting physically, says Linda Allan, a business etiquette expert in Toronto who consults financial services firms across North America.

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“You’ll want to let them know you are going back to the office and what measures will be taken to make the place safe, from there you can ask them to respond for what their meeting preferences are, in-person or remote,” she says.

One approach that Ted Rechtshaffen, president and CEO of TriDelta Financial Inc. in Toronto, has recommended to his firm’s financial advisors is that they should begin asking clients if they would like to meet outdoors on a patio or go for a walk.

“Indoor meetings are still a bit out there, and it’s more meaningful to your clients if you are one of the first people they meet with face to face,” he says.

To address the spectrum of client preferences for meeting in person and with adequate distancing, many advisors have begun making upgrades to their office space, says Greg Pollock, president and CEO of Advocis.

A common trend is rearranging the traditional office set up – a desk facing client chairs – to resemble a living room, with couches facing each other and a large-screen television. This setup enables advisors to meet seamlessly with one client in person and accommodate a virtual attendee simultaneously.

“Instead of staring at a small screen on a laptop an advisor was once sharing, you now have three people who can share a large screen,” Mr. Pollock says. “It’s leveraging technology and the room set up in a way that allows for a productive roundtable conversation for both physical and virtual attendees.”

As remote and hybrid meetings continue, advisors should also expect clients will prefer to see their advisors in professional attire once again, Mr. Brisebois says. “During the pandemic, there was a lot of forgiveness, but the longer virtual meetings last, the less forgiveness of unprofessional backgrounds or attire will be … the bar will be elevated again.”

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If a client does opt to meet in person, one grey area in this new normal is the handshake – is it still a standard greeting or a faux pas? Mr. Pollock has attended in-person gatherings with Advocis members during which shaking hands was the norm. Meanwhile, Ms. Allan finds many have had hesitancies concerning the handshake and would prefer not to do so.

“To avoid awkwardness, at the onset of seeing their clients, an advisor could ask, ‘Are you comfortable shaking hands?’” Ms. Allan says. “If the advisor is uncomfortable doing so, all [he or she] needs to say is ‘We aren’t shaking hands today, but it is so great to see you.’”

Mask wearing and proof of vaccination are additional areas in which government mandates do not fully address the spectrum of client preferences. Current guidelines state there is no need for a mask indoors if both parties are fully vaccinated. However, an advisor or client’s comfort level could still be different. In addition, it’s unclear whether advisors could request this information from their clients – and vice-versa.

“This is where you don’t want to make assumptions,” Mr. Brisebois says. “It may get to a point at which advisors, depending on their comfort level, asks clients if they would like to meet with masks on or off.”

Beyond the one-on-one client meeting, is preparing for a wider group of people. As such, stock exchange operator TMX Group Ltd. has adopted a “meeting clients where they are” mentality, says Tanya Rowntree, global head of client success, equity capital markets at the company. “Where it doesn’t make sense to travel in-person to an event, having a digital component enables [clients] to be there with greater efficiency.”

To adapt to varying client comfort levels, advisors will likely have to set up live events with a virtual attendance option. To do so successfully, it’s important to have the right equipment and dedicated tech staff support during the event, Mr. Pollock says.

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“Most laptops don’t offer the best visual or audio when it comes to video conferencing. … If you haven’t already done so, it may be a good time to invest in a better [mic or webcam] for a longer-term setup.”

For the audience in the room, there are also additional precautions of notices adhering to safety measures in line with government guidelines and spacing guests apart.

“If the room can hold 100 people, perhaps you are inviting 50, and with the chairs spaced out,” Mr. Allan says, noting that clients can then move chairs together based on who they know and their comfort level.

Food and beverages are another consideration of in-person events that will likely continue to evolve as the pandemic winds down and with changing client preferences.

For example, TMX Group has focused on going to caterers that offer individually packaged items that are both environmentally friendly and keep attendees distanced, Ms. Rowntree says. “With individually packaged flavoured water, we can now offer a variety of flavours that don’t require people touching a communal water stand or pouring from a jug.”

With all these new safety considerations, does this mean the days of shaking hands or the event days of swarming around a waiter carrying a tray of sliders are over? Not really, Mr. Brisebois says.

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“Not that long ago, we experienced [Sept. 11] and we said we would never fly again until we did; the key is to remember that all behaviour evolves over time,” he says.

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