Trust companies and family offices, like other businesses across the country, are facing unprecedented challenges as the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold. Aside from the daunting challenge in the preservation of wealth through hostile markets, fiduciary organizations have had to manage the abrupt switch from office environments to employees working from home (WFH).
How are trust companies and family offices overcoming the challenges of accommodating a remote workforce?
Theoretically, information-based companies like trust companies and family offices should be uniquely suited to be able to respond and adapt to this situation, considering that the main challenges of WFH are secure and efficient access to primarily digital information. Unfortunately, the primary technology platforms fiduciaries use—from accounting systems to document management and others—weren’t designed and built to manage the stresses imposed by the entire employee base working remotely. These issues are compounded by the simultaneous changes in management style and practices demanded by a remote workforce.
While we are not going to address the issues in managing WFH, our experience at WealthHub in providing an operating platform for trust administration that is designed for use from any device and any location gives us some unique perspectives into the primary issues fiduciaries should be addressing in adapting to WFH: security; user experience and efficiency; and communications, including reviews, approvals and related documentation.
- Should you provide remote access via VDI software?
To the extent that your organization already employs browser-based SaaS services for all your operations, congratulations! You won’t have most of the security and operational issues involving technology for WFH—although you do need to exercise diligence with the security protocols and processes of your SaaS provider. Unfortunately, very few family offices or trust companies are doing their trust accounting and operational tasks on SaaS platforms, instead they need some form of remote access to systems and documents stored on network servers or hosted by providers. The most common approach to this is using Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) software. There are issues, though, that still have to be managed using VDI, primarily regarding security and user experience/efficiency, as we’ll discuss.
- How can you ensure information security?
The security of data at rest and in transit has to be addressed first, given the highly sensitive financial and personal data handled by trust companies and family offices. If not using a browser-based system, the preferred method would be to use VDI through a VPN installed by IT staff or consultants and used on company-supplied hardware. If updated religiously and used only on those devices, security should be adequately addressed.
Unfortunately, the timeframe in which WFH became a necessity means that many employees are using their own devices, often installing VPNs or VDI by themselves on devices that haven’t been hardened by IT professionals. This presents some serious security issues, such as lowered defense against malware that can spread across the organization or the possibility of other household users introducing security flaws on the accessing device that can be exploited during connected VPN sessions. Apart from VPN/VDI issues, security issues also arise from insecure routers or Wi-Fi networks at home, insufficient authentication protocols for device access, and lack of encryption or security for documents or data being stored on remote devices.
- Is VDI a bearable experience for my remote team?
While VDI software can provide access, it is often frustrating. Especially for operations personnel doing high-frequency, high-interaction tasks like making distributions or payments, onboarding accounts, or setting up assets, latency or lag can often be an issue. This is not always an easy issue to fix, as it can depend on (1) how the software was installed and configured at the host and on the device, (2) memory and processing speed on the remote device, and (3) other software running at any given moment. VPN and VDI configuration and resource utilization can also influence how effectively other software runs on a laptop, notably for audio and video access—which can be especially frustrating in trying to connect to online meetings.
From an organization’s perspective, the most commonly used VDI software is expensive to license and labor intensive to deploy, support, and maintain.
- How is remote operation impacting my operational efficiency? My communications? How about our customer service?
While security is the most pressing concern for such a quick shift to organization-wide WFH, the issues that will have the more profound impact over the long term involve the effects on customer experience and overall operational efficiency. Here, it is clear that an organization that has all the relevant customer, legal entity, related party, and financial information as well as their related documents in one place will be well-positioned to deal with these issues. Once all of your information is in one digital location, common processes can then be communicated and executed digitally with complete management oversight and reporting of status and performance.
Ideally, these digital processes provide effective communication of the underlying facts—the details surrounding a distribution request, the assets and background of a new account, the completion of a trust document review or admin review—while affording a digital feedback mechanism for approval and retention of the evidence that due care was taken in the exercise of these fiduciary activities and decisions.
In the office, that might mean collecting a large pile of unnecessary papers for a distribution committee meeting or someone walking around in person to get signatures on a payment request. In the WFH environment, it likely means sending large volumes of emails, with repetitive efforts to follow up and get scanned signatures. Neither is particularly efficient nor likely to produce much joy in the customer experience.
- What about SaaS instead of VDI—like the approach most CRMs take?
Here at WealthHub, we never envisioned this type of catastrophe spurring fiduciaries to move en masse to employees working from home. Our goal has always been to give trust companies an operational system that organizes all their information and documents into one digital container and then uses that common digital platform to drive automated processes, workflows, and communications. This last aspect—communications—is not always emphasized but feedback from our clients working from home is that the real difficulty in the transition has been in establishing frictionless collaboration.
Our observation was that a CRM platform provides an ideal way to accomplish that goal. In fact, that is why we built our platform, WealthHub, on top of the Salesforce.com CRM—it instantly gave us a completely browser-based system with all the accessibility and security features that made it the CRM platform of choice for leading financial institutions around the world.
We’re thankful that our model has helped offices transition quickly to the WFH environment.
By building WealthHub on top of Salesforce.com, we ended up with a trust administration and ultra-high net worth (UHNW) relationship and asset management system that provides secure access through at-home devices to core data and processes. Through data residency in the cloud, the key vulnerabilities inherent in uncontrolled environments (personal devices over home networks) are significantly mitigated by keeping client data wholly inside a secured environment with professional controls and monitoring.
Our integrations with trust accounting systems, portfolio management systems, and document management systems afford secure browser-based access to these systems through our interfaces, even if the systems themselves would otherwise require some other form of remote access.
In short, it turns out that that the most crucial traits for enabling secure and efficient trust administration in general are also those that facilitate comfortable WFH. Our clients have recognized this, and have shared positive feedback about their experience,
“You have the exact product that I need to be successful each day. It allows me to log into the system from anywhere. This one feature is life changing for me! I am able to work from home solely because of your product. I live two hours from the office… it has completely transformed the way we perform our daily tasks with hidden perks like the ability to work from home.”
Will this remote operation become the ‘new normal’?
The current challenges posed by moving so quickly to remote work can ultimately be understood as a longer-term opportunity. Beyond finding solutions to operate during the current crisis, it can be a time to prepare for a future involving more employees working from home as a matter of corporate and personal preference. The right steps in deploying technology, taken now to address the immediate concern, can ultimately lead to reduced risk, better customer service, and enhanced efficiency from your workforce—wherever that work may be taking place.
We’re all in this together.
COVID-19 has transformed daily life for most of us and has been an unexpected catalyst for change in our business offices requiring new thinking, new technologies, new management and new collaboration. The most important concern, of course, is the health and safety of our families, friends and colleagues. We at WealthHub hope that you and the people around you are staying safe and secure through this ordeal, and that you’re joining us in heeding the advice to stay home to help flatten the curve and inhibit the spread of this dangerous threat.
If your office is struggling with the issues we’ve outlined here, please reach out. We’d welcome an opportunity to share our insight and guidance on how you can respond to changing office conditions and the demands of your newly-remote workforce. We have considerable experience in this are and can offer some helpful guidance for you and your teams.