We had already started to change the way we work at Henwood Court Financial Planning in light of the coronavirus pandemic when Boris Johnson’s announcement came to work from home.
The week before we moved to a skeleton staff, with a rota for three people out of a team of 22 to go in the office with everyone else working from home.
We also provided group training on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, recognising that a lockdown might be imminent.
When the announcement was made, we completely shut down the office, with just one member of staff going in every other day to process the post. That's what continues now.
We were very lucky that our practice manager Anna Kavanagh joined us at the beginning of March. She's been an absolute godsend in taking on stuff that either would have fallen on my plate or, frankly, not have got done.
One of the things she did was quickly put together a health and safety working from home document, which was then forwarded to everyone.
Last year, thank goodness, we adopted cloud-based technology, so everyone can securely access our server and work from home.
We also got everyone a laptop around the same time as well. I think someone must have been looking down on me. So the move from office to home went very smoothly.
Being there for clients
We're blessed with having wonderful clients – 'professional friends' as one client described it.
Perhaps this is down to a good initial filter, where we work with clients we like and want to help – and care for them as best we can, with the delivery of great advice backed by an efficient service.
As you might expect, there's been a flurry of telephone calls and emails going to clients, initially letting them know we’d moved to a skeleton staff and then about the office closure.
We sent out all relevant contact numbers as well as Zoom guides, and provided a Zoom workshop for clients who wanted extra training on how to use it.
Client reviews and new client meetings have carried on as usual, just virtually.
Clients have adapted very well. A couple of clients were worried about security with Zoom, so in some cases we’ve used Microsoft Teams.
I prefer Zoom to Teams, so we've password protected video calls now, and we only allow admission on acceptance by the host. Hopefully that should prevent any 'Zoom bombing' or any information being captured.
We must have sent about nine or 10 e-shots in the first week, especially given the major movements in the stockmarket.
We’ve worked to keep up the regular client communication, particularly with our business owners.
One of the things we’ve put together for our business owner clients is a Covid-19 document which explains the support that's available to them and their employees, with links to all the relevant government websites.
In early April, we hosted our first client webinar to talk about furloughing and the various hardship grants available to businesses.
We had the chief executive of the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce Paul Faulkner, as well other influential people, such as business mentors and non-executives.
We had 105 register and over 80 attendees, which was great for our first ever one. We realised we needed to do something and with the help of Phil Bray at The Yardstick Agency, we got the webinar set up and marketed it to our clients and via social media.
It was quite a daunting prospect as we'd never hosted a webinar before, and the trial run was a bit of a disaster! But once we’d sorted the technology issues we were able to get it right on the day.
It was one of those things we just had to do - it wasn't going to be perfect and polished, but it was a timing issue. We couldn't have done it now, as it would've been too late. We had to get it out there and get it done, so that's what we did.
In terms of our clients, there are some businesses that are in a pretty desperate state, like the restaurants and bars.
There are a few clients who've had to furlough all their workers. Obviously the longer the lockdown goes on, the more uncertain businesses are about their future.
How we’re coping and adapting
We have regular check-ins with the team. At Henwood Court we have an administration team, a paraplanning and technical team and the advising team.
All three teams typically speak to each other at least once a week, and the whole firm comes together for a weekly group meeting. We’ve also set up a What's App group for staff, which has gone down really well.
Our practice manager Anna speaks to people individually from a wellbeing perspective as well, just to check everyone's okay.
In terms of illness, some of the team have had what we've classed as minor symptoms, but nothing serious thankfully. We haven't had any one have to go off sick yet, touch wood.
Personally, I had a week where I was knocked for six, feeling completely fatigued with a tight chest and difficulty breathing. Luckily, I’ve recovered now.
I think I clocked up 60-hour weeks in the first four weeks of lockdown, though I did take some time out at Easter, which I know is important to do.
One of the key things I'm trying to drive home within our business is that whenever this lockdown ends, I’m keen for us to come back in a better shape than when we went into it.
We're on a growth path here, and we still are. That continues. What has perhaps worked for us in the past, will not get us to where we need to be in the future.
Over recent weeks we've been trying to embrace more technology to make our systems more efficient. We've been looking at our fact-find process and improving the usability of that and how clients interact with it.
Crazily enough, we still use a paper-based fact-find. We had been waiting for a provider to create an online one, but now we’ve decided to develop our own.
You rarely get the luxury of working on the business, so that's what we're trying to do.
The other thing we’re working on is a slight restructure within the business to make us more efficient in terms of our operations.
This includes looking at our suitability reports and the templates we use. We're looking at all of that to try and streamline the business as much as we can so we can focus on what clients value.
In all of this, and this is something clients have frequently reminded me of, our USP is the highly personalised service we deliver, and as we grow this has to be maintained.
This hasn't been lost on me, hence the need for efficiency and improvements to technology that will enhance our proposition and indeed the client experience.
What we’re doing differently
As a result of this environment, we've had to revisit our business plan.
We were planning on spending about £70,000 on refurbishing the office downstairs. But it wouldn't be right or fair to do that now, so that's been deferred.
We were actually planning to purchase another premise which fell through at the start of the year. But we probably don't need it to be frank.
The refurb on our existing office will likely happen next year now, and we probably don't need the additional space, particularly if we can work more flexibly.
As many owner managers will understand, in these situations it tends to be the business owner that takes the hit.
I've cut my income by 60 per cent, and the hope is to retain all staff, and not have to furlough. We're extremely busy dealing with ongoing client needs and improving the business and expect this to continue.
The issue we have is we added several people to the team last year as well as investing in infrastructure and support.
We added a lot of costs, on the basis that we were going to grow the turnover. New business has been hit the most, and obviously recurring fee revenue has been reduced as well.
But we continue to recruit and look for good people. We know there’ll be opportunities for recruitment, with good people looking around.
We're fortunate in that we have a very strong balance sheet with money in the bank, and we still expect tobe a profitable business this year and going forward. So we’re continuing to improve and to grow.
After the lockdown
I'm lucky in that I have a study here at home, and I’m conscious that some of the team are working at their dining table with their partners, children and pets in the background.
That said, we’d certainly be open to more flexible working after this.
For clients who we work with at a distance, I think they'll continue to be open to having Zoom meetings.
It removes any geographical barriers for clients and potential clients to have to come to the office.
We could have clients in the Shetland Islands now we could quite easily service. Of course, a lot of that will depend on the platforms and the providers being accommodating in relation to wet signatures and things like that.
We may look at diversification of the business, but that’s not something I’ve decided on yet.
It may be that we move into more of a family office environment, with ‘Henwood Court Tax’ and ‘Henwood Court Legal’ for example. Our clients and prospective clients all have these kinds of needs, so it makes sense to look at this.
What this period has certainly done for us is bring us closer together as a team. A family business has effectively become a business family.
We've always had very good and close relationships with our clients, and those have probably got stronger as well.
What it's reinforced to me is the importance of having not just good people, but great people. It's enabled us to get on with things and take personal responsibility for getting things done.
I was born in the seventies and grew up in the eighties, and the philosophy then was that in order to get on you have to work hard. What this is teaching me to a certain degree is you have to work hard, but you also have to work smart.
Some staff might be working into the evening, because they’re home schooling in the day. For one of our advisers, his wife's a GP, so he can't work for four days of the week because he's looking after his young daughter.
Ultimately, working in this way is about trust. Clearly, that trust has to be earned, but there has to be that flexibility as well. For me, it's about output rather than input.
A version of this article was first published on the PFS Power website, the Personal Finance Society's initiative to promote financial planning and share best practice among financial advisers.