Return-To-Office and Vaccine Mandates Stir Dissension, Debates, and Job Hunting Among Advisors
As pandemic restrictions have lifted and Covid-19 vaccines have become widely available, financial advisors and executives are now left to wrestle over return-to-office policies.
At one fee-only firm, South Carolina-based Abacus Planning Group, founder Cheryl Holland mandated vaccines for her 30-person team and required office returns by June 10. She made the decision because, prior to the pandemic, a staff member accidentally exposed a 93-year-old client to the flu and Holland never wanted to risk any similar outcome with Covid, she said.
But Holland, whose firm has more than $1.4 billion in client assets, conceded her mandates led initially to some dissension and indirectness among team members.
“People were getting vaccinated and didn’t want to tell because they weren’t ready to return to the office,” Holland said.
The mandate prompted one angry email and scowls from another employee, but almost all staff are vaccinated and back in the office, she said. She has granted exemptions for a pregnant woman and another team member whose doctor has warned her against getting a vaccine, and neither are client facing, Holland said.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the size scale, chief executives at the parent banks for the four wirehouses all have sent signals about the end of work-from-home across their companies. The mandates for brokers at those firms–and whether brokers will comply with return mandates–is less clear.
“If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office,” Morgan Stanley Chief Executive James Gorman said at an industry conference earlier this month.
Morgan Stanley has opened its branches but told some of its roughly 16,000 brokers that effective July 1, they will need a negative Covid test within three days prior to entering a Morgan Stanley branch if they are not vaccinated, according to an internal memo provided by a broker in the Southwest.
However, another broker in Texas, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that it will be politically difficult to get some to disclose vaccine status and that they may use the vaccine mandate as an excuse not to go into the office.
“We answer with not coming back,” the broker said. “Gorman wants us back. I want world peace.”
The comments were echoed by other veteran wirehouse brokers, who portray work-from-home as a rainmaker perk.
“I like this—working from home in shorts and a t-shirt. I will be returning to mentor, but not full time, as I have been doing this almost 40 years,” a senior Merrill Lynch broker in Florida wrote in a text message thread that also included a video from the deck of his boat floating near the Bahamas.
The remainder of the Merrill broker’s team is returning June 30.
Merrill, which banned brokers from branch offices for much of last year, has in recent weeks launched a back-to-office marketing campaign for vaccinated employees and encouraged branch and market managers to share photos of team members returning on internal sites and LinkedIn. Merrill President Andy Sieg has also been traveling to various offices as they reopen.
“Great to be back in-person at our offices in Jonesboro, AR and Mobile, AL!” Sieg wrote in a LinkedIn post. “Energy, enthusiasm, optimism. Like a homecoming or family reunion!”
Merrill, as guided by its Bank of America parent, is giving employees 30 days’ notice before they will be returning to their office. Some brokers, however, are frustrated at the prospect of having to contend with mask mandates, social distancing and additional training on post-pandemic office safety.
“You come back but have to wear a mask around the office, to the men’s room, to the break room and while standing at your desk?” one Merrill broker in the New York area said. “Let me know when all those rules are gone, and I will make a cameo.”
Bank of America and Merrill, which have around 20,000 brokers, private bankers and bank-branch based advisors, have asked employees to report vaccine status to avoid testing requirements, according to a frequently-asked-questions summary sent internally to brokers and bank employees.
It’s not just senior advisors resisting returns. Some Merrill financial advisor trainees who have gotten used to the remote work environment balked when they were told they need to start working in bank branches July 1, and recruiters have said they have heard support staff industry-wide are facing the most pressure to get back to their desks.
“I think people realize they don’t want to go back into the office fulltime and they are more interested in more remote financial advising opportunities,” said one Merrill trainee, who asked that his name not be used, and is also looking for a new job.
Swiss Bank UBS AG said that globally it believes two-thirds of its employees can work from home and apply to remain out of the office. The company did not specifically address its U.S. advisor force of around 6,000 brokers.
Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf said they expect a return to normal operations around Labor Day. A manager at the firm’s private client group said that no official guidance has been given but that they expect additional rules to be communicated around September.
Bill Willis, an advisor recruiter in Los Angeles, and other headhunters have noted remote work options both make employers more attractive to recruits and have the potential to pare companies’ real estate expenses. During the pandemic, not being tied to an office also made it easier for some brokers to consider independence, he said.
In one example, Raymond James Financial Private Client Group President Scott Curtis said in February that the firm is considering letting advisors work from home long-term as pandemic-related restrictions subside.
In their own category are those advisory teams who never left the office. Joe Birkofer, a senior executive at fee-only RIA Legacy Asset Management, said his team continued to come into their Houston office during the pandemic.
“We’ve had no coming back to work issue because no one ever left,” said Birkofer, whose firm manages $419 million.
Birkofer recently instituted half days in the office each Friday as “a recognition” of his team’s endurance during the pandemic, he said.