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No longer a vision: The electronic workplace has arrived

Futurists in the 1970s famously predicted that offices would become completely paperless with the widespread use of computers, but for a variety of reasons, the prognostication never came to pass.

Advisers have been slow to welcome the paperless office, even with the increased sophistication of tablet computers and e-signatures. Their objections to digital solutions range from security concerns to questions about return on investment.

Yet the need to integrate these tools is obvious, as clients become ever-more reliant on digital platforms and applications.

Firm leaders are especially eager to integrate the new technologies in order to automate tasks, lower costs and bring added value to clients. So why have advisers been slow to adopt digital solutions, and how can they help bring about changes at their firms?

For many advisers, the chief obstacles relate as much to perceptions as to reality. In order to move the process along, firm leaders should be ready to counteract some common misperceptions and offer proactive strategies that can help smooth a transition to the paperless office.

Misperception No. 1: “The tools available today can’t do everything I need, so I don’t see the value in trying to use a partial solution.”

It is true that there isn’t a one-box solution that provides everything all clients need. Express to the firm’s advisers that they may be working with both digital and non-digital processes for a while, but there are a number of ways to move ahead in delivering enhanced capabilities and services.

In making the transition to digital processes, present it not as one switch to flip on but as various dials that gradually get turned up or down. Start by identifying paperless initiatives that offer the easiest and biggest positive impacts and encourage advisers to start with those.

Subsequent rollouts can build on earlier successes.

A valuable first step is to ask advisers to examine their workflows or daily tasks to determine what they can automate or digitize. Then look for high-impact, low-effort changes that can help reduce the use of paper and the number of touches that each piece of paper requires.

For example, e-signature capabilities can be a significant time-saver when processing forms, helping to ensure a more seamless transition for new clients joining the firm.

Being able to offer remote check deposit provides another attractive introduction to digital capabilities. Clients often want to trade soon after depositing a check, and remote check deposit helps get their funds into an account as quickly and securely as possible.

These types of quick wins can ease the firm’s way into the digital workplace.

Misperception No. 2: “I just don’t have time for more training, and there are already so many regulatory requirements to adopt; won’t this create more?”

No one expects a firm to go straight to all-digital all the time. It will be a continuing process with some bumps along the way.

Often the best solution lies in breaking the initiative’s roll-out and training into small steps. Identify what the barriers are to training and consider offering shorter sessions more frequently.

Similarly, a phased roll-out lets the firm evaluate and adjust as it goes along.

When it comes to training, best practices include providing the team with multiple methods of learning in multiple sessions, as people absorb new information in different ways. A combination of techniques, such as face-to-face training sessions and WebEx sessions, can address individual learning styles.

In addition to introducing smaller chunks of information when training advisers, it is important to conduct plenty of testing before a full roll-out to make sure that bugs are detected and fixed.

Consider assessing the new paperless capability in a controlled environment, with a team observing the process to identify any needed changes. From there, introduce the technology to a small pilot group before going firm-wide.

A gradual adoption allows advisers, as well as the compliance and legal departments, to grow comfortable with the new processes. Seeing the e-solutions work well on a smaller scale can go a long way to reducing concerns about a firm-wide adoption.

Identify power users early, as they can be advocates to their peers to influence adoption. And if there are advisers who aren’t using the new tools, approach them and try to identify the source of the problem.

Misperception No. 3: “My business is thriving, and my clients aren’t asking for all these new apps and platforms. Why rock the boat?”

Times are good, and it is harder to justify change in an up market. The firm’s advisers may be doing fine without a paperless office, but where will they be in five or 10 years?

Tomorrow’s investors may not be asking for the platform, but they will expect the faster service. They certainly won’t have patience to fill out multi-page paper forms.

Commitment to the digital workplace needs to be clearly expressed by the firm’s leadership right from the beginning.

Articulate the firm’s vision to key stakeholders to generate a shared sense of purpose and accountability. Take steps to obtain buy-in, not just from senior leaders but from a cross-section of interested parties, providing an opportunity for everyone to weigh in.

Frame the transition as short-term pain for long-term gain. Clients can be eased into the new tools with messaging that highlights greater security, 24-hour account access and green solutions.

When advisers see a positive impact on the client experience, they become more open to using electronic documents and workflows.

It is clear that the electronic workplace once envisioned is here, now. Investors are turning to sophisticated tools in other areas of their lives and are increasingly expecting the same speed and efficiency in their finances.

This means that if advisers want to be in the game tomorrow, they are going to have to start today.

Advisers can no longer wait for high-net-worth millennials or the perfect e-solution to arrive before making the transition to a digital experience. And firm leaders must do their part to spur action by addressing advisers’ reasonable concerns.

This story is part of a 30-30 series on ways to upgrade your practice. It was originally published on Dec. 23, 2015.

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