PANC 2020: Building a Team—and a Culture—in a Virtual Environment

Advisers share tips on how to work effectively from home during the pandemic.

At the “Building a Team—and a Culture—in a Virtual Environment” session held on the first day of the 2020 PLANADVISER National Conference, which, itself, was held virtually for the first time, speakers gave tips on how to create a sense of teamwork during the COVID-19 lockdowns and how to run an engaging videoconference.

The first thing retirement plan advisers need to realize is that with all—or many—advisory practice employees working from home, the casual exchange of ideas doesn’t happen, said Joe DeNoyior, president, retirement and private wealth, Washington Financial Group. “The No. 1 thing is to try different ways to get the exchange of ideas that would have occurred at the water cooler—or with someone popping their head into a colleague’s office—going,” DeNoyior said. In fact, Washington Financial Group made team building such a priority that teams and departments are now meeting more often than they did when they were in the office, DeNoyior said.

He also said it is important to “rotate the agenda to keep people engaged” as well as to give employees an opportunity to interact on topics outside of work.

To that point, every morning, from Tuesday through Friday, for 15 minutes, the practice holds a call where employees can play games or get to know one another a little better by answering a question, such as “What is one thing about your professional and your personal life that your co-workers may not know?”

DeNoyior said that about 80% of the staff participates in these exercises and that they have given “people who probably did not say hello to one another in the office an opportunity to get to know one another.”

In addition, Washington Financial Group holds monthly “all hands” meetings, and supervisors hold periodic one-on-one meetings with their staff members, DeNoyior said.

Steven Dimitriou, managing partner at Mayflower Advisors LLC, said his firm is holding similar meetings but added that asking workers to send in questions about the company or their jobs during team meetings gets them more engaged. “We are really trying very hard to keep the dialogue moving about where the company is headed,” he said, but he added, like DeNoyior, “Don’t keep it strictly about business. You don’t realize how much of your corporate culture has to do with all of the personalities in your office and what is going on in their lives, so find ways to keep that going.” Mayflower Advisors has found to ways kept interactions lighthearted through “virtual happy hours,” he said. “They have given everyone an opportunity to socialize.”

Fortunately, just before COVID-19 hit the U.S. shores, Mayflower Advisors hired a director of strategic communications with the idea of promoting the practice to sponsors and outside partners. With the spread of the coronavirus and the proliferation of working from home, “as it turns out, a significant portion of her job is inwardly focused,” Dimitriou said.

Mayflower Advisors has also been able to keep morale up and build a sense of purpose by getting the whole company involved in charitable and philanthropic events, he said.

Mike Goss, executive vice president, Fiduciary Investment Advisors LLC, noted that one of the challenges of working through a pandemic is the dilemma of how to introduce the staff to new hires. Fiduciary Investment Advisors hired a few partners in Chicago and decided to help the staff get to know one another through weekly trivia happy hours.

Like the other panelists, Goss said it is important for retirement plan advisory practices not to focus all their meetings on work but, rather, to consider the “health and wellness of their employees.”

Goss said the firm’s partners brainstormed on how the company could help its community during the pandemic and decided to offer virtual internships to 130 high school seniors, 70% of whom were people of color or underrepresented groups at advisory practices. Each one had a dedicated mentor, he noted.

As to when retirement plan advisory practices are expecting to return to the office, Goss said right now all of Fiduciary Investment Advisors’ workers are at home and that the plan is to have limited numbers of employees return to the office on January 1. In reality, Goss said, it is more likely that that process of returning will begin in late spring.

DeNoyior said his firm “made the call early to work from home” and has left the decision as to when to return up to each regional office.

At this point, Washington Financial Group is permitting those employees who want to return back into its offices, but the reopening has been on a rotational basis, with only 20% of the staff members in an office at any one time, DeNoyior said.

He said the plan is to return the offices to “semi-normal” capacity on January 1. But, because commuting from the suburbs into Washington, D.C., is so time-consuming, the practice is considering allowing some employees to work from home in the “new normal.”

Because Mayflower Advisors has a private client division that has a cash management function, the business was deemed essential, and the practice never fully shut down, Dimitriou said. That meant that five people out of 30 were in an office. Mayflower has also been careful to restrict workers from traveling to other offices as a way of hedging against the spread of the virus, Dimitriou said. “I think that was a smart move on our part,” he added.

At this point, Mayflower’s offices are permitting 25% to 30% capacity and rotating people, he said. For the foreseeable future, Dimitriou does not expect all the firm’s employees to return to the office.

Goss agreed, saying that he has found he is far more productive working from home and he expects many retirement plan practices to make remote work an option.