Hiding in plain sight: Is your office space an untapped asset?

Key Points

    • How you build out an office has always been important, but the pandemic has created new challenges—and opportunities.
    • With a hybrid work future, square footage is losing out to efficient and thoughtful interior design.
    • Many firms have gotten creative with their offices, but there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
    • Your office is your brand brought to life. Some advisors are using their spaces to set themselves apart.

The word "office" hasn't always inspired a grand vision. White walls, flat fluorescent lighting, and a background noise of fax machines, copiers, and humming computer fans all come to mind.

But that's changing. Today's advisors at Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) firms are rethinking how and why they use their office spaces. And in a postpandemic world, the very need for an office has been called into question. Advisors are connecting with employees and clients remotely, and new technologies will continue to make this easier.

So should you cancel your lease and exit the office for good? Definitely not.

Office visits may become less frequent, but now is the perfect time to start thinking about how those visits can be improved, focusing more on the quality than the quantity. The firms making the most of their spaces today aren't leaving anything on the table, from the floor plan to what's shown on the lobby TV.

Pie chart of business elements, including ‘office environment’ which is highlighted, all surrounding the word ‘identity.’

Breaking down walls

The office is no longer the only place where work gets done, and advisors are realizing it can be much more than a place for doing work. With office visits less of a requirement, your physical space can create a client experience that goes beyond what's simply required.

Think of your office as a manifestation of your brand, a place that brings your identity and values to life. When a prospect walks through the door, they're likely on the final step of a journey that started with your website, social media, and maybe a phone call. Your office is your last opportunity to make a connection and a lasting impression.

Firm differentiation is a key driver of growth, and many advisors are paying closer attention to how their physical office environments can deliver a unique and compelling client experience. Heather Fortner, chief operating officer at Atlanta-based SignatureFD, explains that the approach her practice took toward modifying its physical presence started with understanding the firm's identity and how to express that to investors.

"Our mission statement is to touch the lives of 10,000 families," Fortner says. "Our leadership team is passionate about that idea and about how we can do good things by bringing like-minded people together. We believe we can positively impact our clients—and all the people they touch—by creating inviting spaces where people feel they belong."

Reflecting the firm's ethos, SignatureFD redesigned its offices to create a warm, inclusive space where people could connect as part of a community.

"When you first visit our office, it looks like a café, and it feels like home," Fortner says. "There's a couch, a fireplace, and refrigerators stocked with food and drinks. It's a space where dining tables are set up for people to join in and share meals. We've created a completely open area—there are no offices, only communal meeting spaces."

Fortner believes this approach meets her clients' inherent desire to feel involved in the financial decision-making process and be part of a larger, more purposeful team. "Moreover," she says, "SignatureFD's willingness to use its communal space for local events has helped enhance the firm's exposure and expand its referral opportunities."

"Our whole philosophy is that community is where business happens," she says. "Everyone belongs to some sort of community somewhere. And if they don't, they'll seek out that experience, because having a sense of belonging is a basic human need."

Many advisors expect to see more changes in how they communicate and where teams work as a result of the pandemic. According to the Schwab 2021 Independent Outlook Study, the top three permanent changes predicted are:

  • Regular use of video calls with clients (62%)
  • More staff working remotely (40%)
  • Less need for office space (33%)1

As a result, advisors are waking up to the fact that their office spaces need to be reimagined for tomorrow's needs. They must be inviting, designed in ways that bring their people and clients together. "Upgrading our office environment is helping us develop that sense of community," Fortner says. "We believe that creating inviting spaces where people feel they belong is how we're going to get where we can serve 10,000 families."

"Our leadership team is passionate about that idea and about how we can do good things by bringing like-minded people together. We believe we can positively impact our clients—and all the people they touch—by creating inviting spaces where people feel they belong."


Knowing your audience

Understanding how clients perceive your firm is one thing. Taking the time to appreciate what they want out of working with you is another.

Kristine Porcaro, chief operating officer and cofounder of Lexington Wealth Management in Lexington, Massachusetts, set her firm apart by creating an office environment that helps alleviate client stress and encourages investors to focus on the positives around them. Porcaro has built her firm around the concept of "connecting the head and the heart of wealth management."

"At Lexington, we often find that clients are going through different phases of life and financial well-being, whether it's a divorce, a major inheritance, the sale of a business, or the death of a spouse," she says. "We found that this can be a very emotional time for clients."

Identifying the niche audience segment that the firm was best positioned to serve—in this case, female investors experiencing transition—inspired Porcaro's team to incorporate personal touches within the office space to highlight client passions.

Two colleagues converse in a hallway, with one person showing the other something on a tablet.

"We purposely built our new office space with a very open, airy, bright layout," she says. "We have exposed brick on the wall, very high ceilings, and not many private offices. We intentionally avoid CNN or CNBC on the TV screens. Instead, we have the Travel Channel or the Food Network on because we want clients to understand that they should enjoy the things in life that they want to enjoy, and we'll worry about those things that we need to worry about."

"The result is an interior design that complements the historic qualities and classical architecture of the building, while reflecting the firm's historic roots and its clients' appreciation for tradition."

The leaders at St. Paul, Minnesota-based Mairs & Power took on a similar challenge when redesigning their office, but with different specifics to fit their clients. They wanted to retain the 85-year-old firm's legacy qualities of modesty, stability, and personal service.

"It's always been very important to us that our clients feel welcomed and comfortable," says Andrea Stimmel, the firm's chief operating officer. "And yet, up until we remodeled our space, our office environment was more an afterthought than a key part of the client experience."

With a client base of high-net-worth investors mostly over age 65, the firm takes a high-touch approach to client service. "It was really important to us to have our conference rooms close to the reception area, so our clients don't have far to walk," Stimmel says. "Also, from a confidentiality perspective, creating immediate access from our reception to our conference rooms just makes sense."

The Mairs & Power team kicked off the remodeling project by bringing in employees from multiple departments to provide a comprehensive range of perspectives.

The firm then looked to ensure that its new physical presence aligned with how the brand was represented in other forms.

The result is an interior design that complements the classical architecture of the building, while reflecting the firm's historic roots and its clients' appreciation for tradition. Expansive views of the St. Paul riverfront showcase the city's identity and align with images on the firm's website to create a cohesive brand experience.

"After the remodel, we hosted a party for our clients," Stimmel says. "We received such excellent feedback about the whole experience."

What began as an aesthetic design project resulted in a setting that could help Mairs & Power strengthen relationships and cultivate referrals.

Mairs & Power also had an eye toward the future. Aiming to be on the cutting edge, the firm built out its new space with videoconferencing in every conference room—a move that would prove prescient when the pandemic hit.

 

An exterior view of an office space through floor-to-ceiling windows which shows employees working at desks and tables.

A time of opportunity

Jump-start your aesthetic appeal

Changing your firm's look and feel doesn't have to be a drain on your time—or finances. Review these tips from office design expert Tamara Romeo.

  1. Maximize ambiance. Consider upgrading office lighting or investing in better window blinds to showcase your view. Warm lighting and an open, airy atmosphere can transform your entire space.

  2. Maintain functionality. Strike a balance between furniture and amenities to serve both your business needs and your clients' comfort.

  3. Update your décor. Consider integrating personal touches that will resonate with your clients' interests and reflect your own identity.

  4. Keep meeting spaces flexible. Accommodate different situations and needs by offering a blend of casual, communal spaces and traditional, private meeting rooms.

  5. Look past the physical design. Your team's demeanor, the greeting on your phone, and the reading materials in your reception space all contribute to the continuity of your brand experience.

Tamara Romeo brings 20 years of branding expertise, coupled with deep experience designing office spaces for large and small firms alike. She has been published in HuffPost, Entrepreneur magazine, the American Express OPEN Forum, and the San Diego Business Journal.

It's never a bad time to reexamine the role your office plays in attracting and serving clients, but COVID-19 forced many business owners' hands. While nobody wants a repeat of 2020, the pandemic did provide a unique opportunity to try bold new ideas and reimagine what an office can be.

For some advisors at RIA firms, the obvious course is to downsize or move to a cheaper location. With remote or hybrid work environments expected to continue for the foreseeable future, you may not need all the square footage you currently have. A more focused space could work better and save you money.

On the other hand, there are firms that have opted to go larger. In areas with increased vacancies due to the pandemic, advisors may find they have increased negotiating power with landlords or access to lower-cost real estate.2 A space that was previously out of the question may now be within reach, although the situation in each city is different and can change rapidly.

Whether remodeling or moving, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a space that resonates with your target audience. "Creating an environment that speaks to a wide range of target clientele is a challenge that all businesses face," says Tamara Romeo, an office design expert and CEO of San Diego Office Design. "It's impossible to appeal to all of the demographics and aesthetic tastes of each and every client, and if you tried to do so, your space would end up looking like a hodgepodge of incongruous items just thrown together."

But there are things you can do today to make your office an inviting space for clients and help prospects understand who you are and what you do.

Get a second opinion—or even a third. Consider asking individuals outside of your firm to visit your office and give their candid feedback on your environment. Third-party objectivity can help give you fresh perspective on how your firm's identity is perceived. What impression does your office make? Is it consistent with other client touchpoints (e.g., website, social media, and phone presence)?

Celebrate the people you serve. Think about the values that matter to your current client base and to the audience profile you want to attract. How can you support their passions and elevate the things that matter to them?

For instance, if living a healthy lifestyle is important to a large segment of your clients, consider including healthier snack options or fitness-oriented reading material around the office space. If a number of your clients are interested in art, or create their own, consider integrating a gallery space within the office and offering to display their work. Find ways to help your clients see themselves and their interests reflected in the environment you create.

Keep pace with your evolving audience. An appealing office can help you build inroads with prospects—and reassure them that your business style or approach to things like technology, service, or efficiency is a good fit with their expectations. For example, firms catering to a young investor base might consider replacing traditional mahogany and leather interiors with sleek, high-tech amenities or a casual, fun-meets-functional layout that's also conducive to hosting social events.

Be flexible and versatile. Consider the functionality of your physical office and whether you have opportunities to use different spaces to meet a client's unique needs. Depending on your target demographic, investors may prefer to meet in a traditional, closed conference space, while others may be more comfortable on couches in a quiet corner or around a café table for a more relaxed experience. Look for ways to create the optimal, "natural habitat" experience for your chosen segment.

Remember that small changes can go a long way; you don't have to rush out and remodel the entire office overnight. It's the unique blend of expertise, personality, and the quality of care you provide—as well as your physical presence—that truly differentiates your firm and strengthens your brand.

What you can do next

  • Read Creating Your Own Formula for the Modern Office, our white paper that takes an in-depth look at how advisors are designing their offices for a post-pandemic world.
  • Consider a custodian that invests in your success. If you're thinking about becoming an independent advisor, contact us to learn more about the benefits of a Schwab custodial relationship.

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