Advice practices were in the forefront of Australian businesses to quickly adapt to the covid enforced lockdowns of the last two years and adjust to working from home. Meetings were able to be held virtually, IT networks were quickly adapted to enable the back office to function, many staff loved the flexibility and work/life balance offered and clients were understanding (and mostly happy to accommodate their adviser). A win/win/win outcome for sure.

But we’ve begun to move out of the pandemic mandated work environment and, in our discussions with practice principals, it’s becoming very clear that their ‘where to from here’ will incorporate the best of their pre-covid and in-covid experiences. A mix will be struck, and the evolution of advice practices will continue – albeit somewhat hurried along by the pandemic!

“It is not the strongest of the species that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

So, it should come as no huge surprise that findings from Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index reported that 46% of the workforce is relocating because they can now work from home. And, when backed up by Qualtrics research which confirmed that 35% of employees would be more likely to search for a new job if they were required to return to the office full-time – the message is loud and clear. Working from home (or perhaps more precisely – not working in a head office location, 5 days a week) is here to stay. It is set to become a permanent feature of the business of advice.

This will, in turn, ensure that virtual (not in-person) communications, meetings, events and the like will also remain as part of the practice’s modus operandi. As shown by our own mid-pandemic 2020 research (‘When the going gets tough’, Insights into BDM engagement during covid 19); well over half of all advisers and BDM/PDMs expected far less in-person meetings than pre-pandemic levels once we emerged from lockdowns and limitations on travel and gatherings were lifted. Both adviser and manager groups also expected less in-person interaction through group workshops and forums.

If virtual communication enables practices to continue to serve their clients in a viable (and profitable) manner, it surely is a good thing, but I fear that relying on virtuality alone could be putting at risk one of the key supporting structures of advice practices, that being the ‘community’ in which they operate, where owners, advisers and staff meet with colleagues and peers to share, learn, offer suggestions and encouragement – all traditionally experienced in-person at PD days, training, industry events, conferences etc.

Zoom calls, videos, webinars and podcasts can address almost every aspect of these interactions except one – the person-to-person experience where ‘how’s things’ conversations, encouraging acknowledgement and a general sense of belonging and reassurance prevail.

The following are some of the factors which have led me to ask – are we putting the ‘community of advice’ at risk? (Aka, reasons why I think ‘in-person’ needs to remain integral to our advice model):

  1. 70% of Australian practices are single principal or sole owner businesses. They’re already operating in a very small community.
  2. Our recently released Future Ready IX whitepaper reports that the percentage of Australian advisers actively participating in a peer or study group has halved over the last two years – to now stand at just 9%.* In 2020, 18% were actively participating in a peer or study group, while another 20% had expressed their interest in joining one.
  3. The number of practices opting to self license continues to increase in Australia – without any overarching structure (usually provided by the licensee), will these practices be able and willing to re-create their community? It certainly won’t be as easy for them and will, to some extent, add to their workload.
  4. Our 2020 research also offered a glimpse into the mentality of virtual – it revealed that BDM/PDMs will have far less “airtime” in which to deliver on their commitments and fulfil the expectations of their advisers. Over 50% of advisers surveyed thought the ideal length of a video call with their manager was between 15-30 minutes, while one in four felt that less than 15 minutes was the appropriate duration. This will make building and maintaining a relationship (leading to a sense of community) challenging to say the least!
  5. ‘Relationship with adviser’, ‘trust in adviser’ and ‘interactions with staff’ are the three KPIs rated most highly by advice clients, and this trend is reflected in every country in which we conduct our adviser-client satisfaction survey (CATScan). Creating and maintaining meaningful and lasting client relationships may prove to be more challenging in a virtual world.
  6. Over our 20+ years in practice management we have conducted a great many workshops/programs and we’ve observed on many occasions that the adviser peer group, initially set up as part of a one- or two-year development program, continued long after the program’s sponsor ceased its involvement. Our takeout: advisers appreciate the opportunity for a ‘community of peers’ and were prepared to organize and fund these gatherings themselves.

How active are you in your community?

For your consideration,

Terry Bell, Business Health Pty Ltd.

 *Future Ready IX Report – Insights into the Australian Advisory Profession, by Business Health Pty Ltd, Jan 2022, sponsored by Midwinter Financial Services.