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Advisors can stay in close contact with their teams during the coronavirus pandemic through remote collaboration tools such as videoconferencing.Rawpixel/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

As Canadians do their best to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, more are working from home than ever before – including financial advisors. That’s proving to be challenging for many advisors and their teams as they grapple with new technologies and unfamiliar practices.

Ali Rayl, vice-president of customer experience at Slack Technologies Inc. in San Francisco, says advisors are facing a double whammy. Communication has become more difficult as colleagues stay at home – just at the time when they need teamwork to navigate volatile financial markets and help fearful clients.

“The way you react to volatility is getting together and talking about the challenges you’re facing,” she says.

Slack is one of several online tools to help with remote collaboration. Cisco Systems Inc., Google LLC, Microsoft Corp. and Zoom Video Communications all offer a mixture of videoconferencing services and online collaboration software that let users message each other online and exchange files.

Lisa Gibson, head of communications at Microsoft Canada, says that usage of Microsoft Teams online collaboration tool is ramping up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In China, Microsoft has seen a 500-per-cent increase in Microsoft Teams meetings and teleconferences and a 200-per-cent increase in usage [of the platform] on mobile devices since Jan. 31,” she says, adding that there has been a 100-per-cent spike in the software’s use in Italy as well.

Darren Coleman, senior vice-president, private client group, and portfolio manager at Coleman Wealth, a division of Raymond James Ltd. in Toronto, is a new Slack user.

His staff use its online chat rooms, known as channels, to maintain informal conversations. He introduced the system when the government called for people to self-isolate, initially using it to keep half of his six-person team in the office while the other half worked from home.

Now that the Ontario government has announced that all non-essential businesses must close their doors, his entire staff is working from home.

“It gave us a bit of a runway, making sure all the remote access worked and introducing these new communication systems for us as a team,” he says. “So, for us, this [measure] isn’t a big disruption.”

These cloud-based tools make it easy for advisors to get up and running quickly. Mr. Coleman found Slack in an online search and, within 15 minutes, he set up an account for his team. The real expertise comes in embracing the different practices involved when working remotely.

Learning how to communicate without an immediate response is one of the most difficult change for some, Ms. Rayl says.

“Thinking about moving away from a world in which everything is done face to face or in a meeting to one in which questions are put out and answered in a more asynchronous fashion is really important,” she says.

But working this way can also have real benefits. Rather than waiting to talk to everyone in a scheduled meeting the following week, an advisor can ask a question in a Slack channel and let the responses trickle in over the next day or two, enabling a quick turnaround.

Mr. Coleman hasn’t abandoned meetings altogether. He still wants a regular daily huddle so that the team can enjoy the immediate feel of a face-to-face conversation, but he does it via his videoconferencing system.

That raises another important tip: always have backups for critical communication services. After he experienced quality issues with his regular videoconferencing system – possibly due to the increased global demand – he brought in a second. He now uses both Zoom’s platform and Citrix Systems Inc.’s GoToMeeting to ensure his team is never caught short.

For advisors, there’s a final issue to consider when working remotely: security. Teams face various cybersecurity risks, including intrusion into their online accounts and eavesdropping on meetings containing sensitive information. The U.S. government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology recently published guidelines to protect virtual meetings.

That security risk extends to hackers who might use workflow disruptions to scam money. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2019 Internet Crime Report shows that businesses lost US$1.7-billion to e-mail compromise or “whaling phishing” attacks in which attackers posing as employees or contractors persuade senior executives to send funds to fraudulent accounts.

That could be easier to do in remote working environments when people aren’t available in real time, Mr. Coleman warns. Thus, it’s even more important to double check sensitive or financially important instructions from colleagues and clients alike.

“We have to go back to old-fashioned ways of confirming instructions the way we’re supposed to, and that means actually picking up the phone and having a dialog,” he says.