Supporting advisor-client relationships will be the foremost consideration in developing the office of the future, according to industry executives.

“When we think about the branch of the future, our guiding principle is really about keeping the relationship between an advisor and the client at the center of any changes that we might make,” according to Caitlin Ulmer-Long, director of private client group administration at Janney Montgomery Scott.

The changes will “ensure that the time that an advisor and client are spending together is focused much more on meaningful conversations rather than on transactional tasks,” she said last week at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association Private Client Virtual Conference.

Firms are conducting research, often with the help of third parties, to determine advisor and client preferences for branch redesigns, according to the executives.

Raymond James has taken a “bottom-up” approach involving interviews and workshops with advisors and branch associates, according to Tash Elwyn, president and CEO of its private client group.

Based on the feedback, the branches must allow for “both virtual and physical collaboration,” which “is more important than ever now,” he said.

Baird has taken a similar approach, according to Michael Schroeder, the firm’s president of private wealth management. The firm used an external marketing organization to conduct interviews with current and prospective clients “to determine what their needs might be as we look toward the future,” he said.

About 12 of the firm’s 165 offices are running pilot programs around changing real estate, crafting new client experiences and implementing new technology, according to Schroeder.

“We’re going to learn a lot from these trial balloons, and eventually strike the right balance between what works for the clients, the business and all of our associates; and flexibility is woven throughout all of that,” he said.

Linda Erickson, head of investor center infrastructure for personal investing at Fidelity Investments, said the firm’s branches are focused on being close to where its clients live and work.

Flexible work arrangements have allowed Fidelity to “build smaller” and “go deeper into different communities to make sure that we’re where our clients need us to be,” she said. Fidelity has leveraged data from third parties to understand where its clients are and which markets to enter, she added.

Technology has been the driving force behind branch office evolution.

Platforms such as Cisco's WebEx, Zoom and Microsoft Teams “are here to stay,” said John Towey, client service executive for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

“Tech is front and center in enabling these changes and our ability to now think differently about the footprint and how and where we work,” he added.

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