How office fire prepared firm for COVID-19 crisis

MD Financial was forced to go remote seven years ago, meaning a pandemic contingency plan was already in place

How office fire prepared firm for COVID-19 crisis

Little did staff at MD Financial Management know but a fire at its Ottawa HQ seven years ago was a heavily camouflaged blessing in disguise.

Instead of rushing the repairs, the wealth management firm – which caters exclusively for physicians – took a year to redesign the building. Many staff worked remotely, learning to be collaborative and flexible away from the office.

CEO Daniel Labonté told WP this turned out to be instrumental in getting the company ready to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. “We can't take credit for having planned that but it was very helpful. We knew, through the learnings about working remotely and how we would be able to do that, that it would be very easy.”

When the pandemic hit, it took MD just one day to put its contingency plan into action. Critical to this was the knowledge that the service level to clients and internal clients would not go down. After the fire, Labonté said staff were able to maintain good productivity and engagement was strong.

He added: “We had our business contingency plan ready to roll out. We currently have 99% of our employees working from home. The 1% that comes in is not at the office on an ongoing basis but that’s to do essential work that actually requires physical presence. Other than that, we’re operating from the virtual space and it's served us well.”

With his now extensive experience of managing remote working, Labonté believes there are three do’s and three don’ts the firm has recognised through its seven-year journey.

The three do’s are: pay attention to organizational infrastructure and technology; be present with your people and be supportive about work-home boundaries; and have a very clear sense of focus around being there for clients. Labonté said the don’ts are: micromanagement, which in this environment is detrimental; a lack of trust toward your employees; and panicked responses.

Approach it right and staff rise to the challenge and thrive on the extra flexibility while realising the need to meet goals. Being deliberate with social interaction is also crucial, Labonté said.

“In an office setting, those contacts are going to happen just by coincidence or accident. In a remote setting, you need to be very deliberate about it. So very early on, we set up routines with each of the team. They would get together, connect and we just built on it so it was not just about the work routine.”

The biggest challenge initially, however, was managing the leader-employee relationship. How do you actually manage and work with people that you can’t see. Are they working? Are they doing what they're supposed to do? Labonté told WP it comes down to having very clear expectations on outcomes, and managing these.

“There’s a trust level that needs to be there – a trust in the leadership, that people will do the right thing and that the leaders will support them and recognize what they need. We had this phrase at the time that we still use, which is about the freedom within the frame.

“The frame is clearly setting the expectations as to what's supposed to happen. But in terms of how the things happen within the frame, that's where you're able to build in the flexibility, allow the employees to drive work-life aspirations and let them figure out what's best for them to get to those outcomes. But you have to make sure those are really clear from the get-go.”

A silver lining from the current situation is a realisation that remote working and virtual meetings have value for clients, and Labonté predicts a hybrid working model will emerge. Client satisfaction levels – qualitative and quantitative – have not moved during COVID-19.

He said: “That's a pretty loud signal. A lot of the feedback we've received from physicians is they appreciate the fact that by [going remote], we're recognizing their need for safety and our people's need for safety. There's a strong recognition of the time saved and, in many cases, it also facilitated the ability for multiple people to be part of the conversation. For example, the fact we went virtual allows for more spouses to be included in meetings because the logistics were easier to organize.

“So, looking at the conversations we're having, I think there will continue to be a space for face-to-face conversations, I just think the balance between those and virtual will change.”