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Home in on business

Financial firms that set up small flexible offices or have staff working from home can benefit from lower costs and higher productivity but not all advisers are in favour of this working model. Helen Pow reports.

Wireless internet and laptops are everywhere, no one leaves home without their mobile phone, or Blackberry if they are important enough, and webcams and tele-conferences make interviews with faraway clients or colleagues easy. So do IFA firms really need advisers to put in the traditional nine to five at the office any more? More and more companies think not.

Financial planning firms, big and small, are taking advantage of new technologies and are encouraging advisers to work from “home offices” around the country. Evolve Financial Planning and Positive Solutions are two companies which think this method is more efficient and offers better service.

Positive Solutions has 1,500 advisers in 13 offices around the UK and 60 administrative staff who take care of regulatory, recruit-ment, training and com-pliance. This works to a ratio of 25 earners to each of the support staff. The office set-up is designed to make the most of this resource There are no set desks or fixed-line phones and advisers are free to come and go as they please.

Positive Solutions marketing manager Daniel Harrison says: “Our model aims to let advisers do what they do best – advise. We aim to take as much of the administrative burden away from the adviser as possible to give them the time to spend on client matters.

“This focus makes life as easy as possible for the adviser and gives them a huge amount of flexibility. They can work from home, their own office or use the facilities provided by us. In London, some advisers are based at the office while others just use it as a base for client meetings when they need to.”

Evolve Financial Planning works in a similar way, albeit on a smaller scale, it only has five advisers. The company has a small office in London, primarily used as a postal address and a place to meet client,s but all advisers work from home offices outside the city.

Evolve director Jason Witcombe says: “We can work at our Liverpool Street office with our laptops if we want to but most of us think we can be more efficient working from our home offices and this primarily saves money.”

Harrison says that new technology allows Positive Solutions to be more efficient and is central to its success.

He says: “Our advisers all use tablet PCs that allow a better adviser-customer experience, with information entered automatically from a fact-find prepopulating policy document that can then be dealt with electronically.

“In many cases, we do not even require a signature. The customer gets access to a full online service giving a breakdown of their financial situation.”

But some companies believe they can focus and meet client needs better when advisers are based in a communal office.

Others say that it is a good model but it would be too difficult to switch after years of building up client files in a traditional office.

Highclere Financial Services Alan Lakey says: “If someone starts a business today, they start with a clean slate. If I started today, I could do away with filing cabinets and have it all on a database but I have been in business 22 years and have 11 filing cabinets. It would probably take me two years and a lot of money to scan everything on to the computer.”

Lakey believes some people can be unproductive when working from home but he says some advisers thrive when given this freedom.

He says: “People who work in any sales environment do not like to be pinned down to working certain hours and there is a tendency for managers to push people to do things they do not want to do and anyone working from home will not have this problem. Many people like the freedom and could make more money by working harder and want to be judged on their results, not the hours they put in or whether they suck up to the boss.”

Anand Associates managing director Bhupinder Anand considers remote working would not work for his business but he believes they can be successful as long as the clients’ interests are put first.

He says: “If it is expanding the market and allowing advisers to stay in business, then that is a good thing because the cost of running a business is rising exponentially. If companies have a model that works and is in the interest of the client, then I think that is great.”

But Anand is unsure whether the model lends itself to creative, holistic financial planning.

He says: “It works for certain types of advisers who prefer to work alone and have efficient technological tools and support but who do not necessarily want to be at the cutting edge of alternative products, ideas or planning techniques.”

Anand is also concerned that advisers may suffer from not having a team around them to bounce ideas off.

He claims there is better communication among staff in a permanent office and believes they are motivated by working in a team environment.

Witcombe says that clients appreciate that Evolve’s home-office model allows the company to be more financially efficient.

He says: “Having a flexible working environment is very useful and clients like the idea that it keeps costs down and therefore their fees down.”

But Lakey says: “Some clients would appreciate a company cutting costs but most would not give a hoot.”

He feels having a permanent base comforts clients because they know where to find him. Lakey also enjoys the fact that he can make his office his own and influence how he comes across to the client.

He says: “An advantage of working from the office is that you are able to dictate the impression you give a client. You can make your office reflect your personality. I think a client likes to feel comfortable in an office and some meeting rooms are too clinical and cold.”

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