Like millions of other people, those in the retirement plan industry continue to work largely from home. However, as distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine ramps up, some advisers are asking how practices can safely return to work, and what those new office arrangements will look like.
During a recent PLANADVISER webinar, “When, How (and Whether) to Return to the Office,” Matthew Eickman, national retirement practice leader, Qualifed Plan Advisors, said his practice only has 10% of its employees in the office at any given time, and that 10% rotates. Even with the vaccine at hand, since it is still not widely available to many Americans, it is important for people to maintain a six-foot distance between themselves, he said.
He added that it is also important for advisers to be sensitive to how their plan sponsor clients want them to respond to the virus, whether that’s continuing to wear masks or holding virtual rather than in-person meetings. Eickman said advisers should make it a point to ask their clients about their safety preferences.
David Hinderstein, senior vice president, OneDigital Retirement + Wealth, says he does not expect retirement plan advisers or their clients to return to their offices any time soon, because the majority of Americans will need to be vaccinated before that can happen.
Allie Rivera, senior consultant and director of investment consulting, Strategic Retirement Group, adds that while all the firm’s meetings are being held virtually via Zoom right now, in-person client meetings are critical, and she looks forward to these being reinstated.
In the past year, HUB International has been able to attract a record number of new clients through virtual meetings because clients have become used to this type of interaction, says Joe DeNoyior, the leader of HUB International’s retirement and private wealth group. Executives hold multiple planning sessions via Zoom before their pitch meetings, which have helped team members prepare for those critical meetings, DeNoyior explains. He says he is optimistic about growth continuing at a brisk pace for HUB this year through these continued virtual meetings.
He also notes that while retirement plan practices continue to work primarily from home, it is important for them to maintain a sense of camaraderie. He says HUB works on engaging employees every morning just before 9 a.m. in 10-minute sessions, when team members play games. Practice leaders have also encouraged team members to phone each other occasionally, rather than rely solely on videoconference calls and email.
DeNoyior adds that HUB increased its outreach to clients last year and it will be critical for the advisory firm to continue those efforts in 2021, as a replacement for in-person meetings.
Jason Chepenik, managing partner, Chepenik Financial, says he welcomed not having to travel to see clients two or three times a week last year because it allowed him to have more meaningful conversations with them. He hopes virtual meetings continue to some degree once people return to their offices, because the reduction in travel has improved his work/life balance.
How to Handle the Vaccine
In a blog, attorneys from Reed Smith said many employers may be tempted to require their employees to be vaccinated to protect themselves from COVID-19, but that could raise questions of job discrimination. Employers may then turn to incentives—such as paid time off (PTO), gift cards and even cash bonuses. But, the attorneys add, if these are deemed to be too valuable, the policy could be construed to be a de facto mandatory policy.
To mitigate against this, they say, “Any attempt to implement a voluntary program should be accompanied by clear instruction to supervisors that employees should not be pressured to participate. If supervisors pressure or even strongly encourage employees to get the vaccine, their efforts could be viewed as suggesting that failure to secure a vaccine will result in adverse impacts on the terms and conditions of their employment. … Offering incentives to employees to encourage them to get the vaccine could also raise discrimination-related issues. Specifically, risks may arise when employees who are unable to receive a vaccine for legally protected reasons—e.g., due to a disability or a sincerely held religious belief—claim that they are being treated less favorably than other employees who are able to get the vaccine and related incentive.”
Rather than any cash bonus, the attorneys say a safer bet is modest gift cards. They also encourage employers to implement COVID-19 safety training.