COVID-19’s implications to financial advisory activities

Alessandro Viviani, Symphonia SGR Investment Advisory Manager of Symphonia SGR, explains how COVID-19 has impacted the financial advisory services and which change will continue to be implemented in the future.
Alessandro Viviani
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The pandemic has radically changed all sectors of society and, in particular, the world of work, which has experienced a fast acceleration towards digitisation and the spread of agile working in 2020. However, the advisory activities have been barely affected by the anti-Covid-19 restrictive measures, thanks to new technologies, and in any case, they were far less hit than they would have been even ten years ago when many commonly used devices did not even exist.

While for some companies, especially in UK and US, smart working has been an established practice for a number of years, most companies have had to equip their employees overnight with the necessary devices for remote working. This disruptive event has radically changed the relationship between companies and their employees as well as between consultants and clients.

Therefore, it was crucial to quickly set up some rules to guarantee the work continuity, as well as both the quality and level of service provided to our clients. The first rule, particularly important at a time of high psychological stress caused by the health, economic and social emergency, was about the introduction of the so-called organisational flexibility” to achieve a proper work-life balance. This is a basic prerequisite in order to avoid burnout and distress, which have a direct impact on the company as well. Therefore, while working from home, we have tried to stick to the same working hours and rhythms we have at the office, still giving our employees the flexibility to organise their working day in a wider time range than standard working hours.

Smart working has also changed daily activities towards a “work by objectives” model, which makes it possible to monitor, schedule and evaluate employees’ work even remotely. While companies are faced with the challenge of building smart working methods aimed at employee productivity and wellbeing, staff have been called upon to embrace change through the principle of “responsibility” in pursuing the common goal.

During the lockdown’s second phase, when it was possible to combine work from home with regular working activities at the office, we focused on the tasks that required the most dialogue and involvement of the whole team during the days we were in the office, setting goals and scheduling priorities and execution times for the rest of the week.

Social distancing has also greatly altered interpersonal relationships, limiting the opportunities to meet and the trustworthy relationship that only a handshake can instill. The new communication systems, however, have allowed us to arrange more virtual meetings, thanks to which we are able to more frequently get updates from our research providers and hold webinars for our clients, aimed at a wider audience compared to that of physical events.

However, the video conferences’ soaring has also made it necessary to introduce new rules on communication, in order to keep the audience’s interest level high. We have indeed paid the utmost attention to “discipline” in respecting meeting times and to the “succinctness” of our video interventions, as today we find ourselves in a scenario in which communication is increasingly fast and impactful. The written communication format has also been restyled, with the introduction of different levels of communication involving headlines and abstracts in addition to the main text of the article, aiming to increase effectiveness and stimulate readers’ interest.

The pandemic has also established new investment approach paradigms. In particular, 2020 taught us “not to be guided by short-term emotions” and stay focused on research and analysis. This is a generally sound rule for most financial crises and proved to be the right approach last year. In the first quarter, there was the heaviest slump in the financial markets since World War II, confirming the “black swans” and “fat tails” theory of Taleb and Mandelbrot, two modern finance authors who argue that unforeseeable events govern our lives. In order to deal with these extreme events, every advisor must always have a plan B answer the “What if?” question.

Just as uncertainty generates volatility in financial markets, the lack of strategy at the ready to cope with crisis situations will inevitably increase the state of anxiety and insecurity towards clients. Method and strategy was the mantra that allowed us to quite easily overcome the most acute peak of uncertainty last year, while the use of our “historical experience” was a useful and objective guideline to find arguments that were easy to understand and reassuring for clients.

To name just one example, the average annual performance of the US S&P 500 index over the last ten years was +15%; in the first quarter of last year, with the pandemic outbreak, the index lost as much as 30%, but it was up over +16% by year’s end, even above the average of the last ten years. In such cases – more than ever – our advisory services play a key role in holding back the client’s emotions”, “extending the time horizon from the short-term perspective.

The Covid-19 crisis’ effects will linger on through 2021 and probably beyond, but the rules introduced and the experience gained during this challenging time provide us with the strength to cope with the new challenges that the market will pose, knowing that we can provide a structured and reliable advisory service for our clients.

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COVID-19’s implications to financial advisory activities