How Wren Sterling’s Corporate advisers supported their clients affected by Covid-19, lockdown and challenging trading conditions
Paul Mitchell, a Director in Wren Sterling’s Corporate team explains the approach he and his colleagues took as they were forced to adapt quickly in a changing situation.
Money Matters: How did your clients react when lockdown was announced and how did you help them through the early days?
Paul Mitchell: Most of our clients’ immediate concerns were around homeworking and putting their business continuity plans (BCP) into action, as you would expect. As advisers, we see ourselves as an extension of our clients’ businesses, particularly for finance and human resources directors, so we were heavily involved, providing information and taking on an educational role with employees, freeing up our clients’ Finance Directors and Human Resources Directors to complete other vital work.
Their main priorities were ensuring the IT infrastructure was working properly and setting up regular calls with teams to monitor performance and mental wellbeing as employees adjusted to homeworking. Where homeworking was impossible (such as manufacturing clients where people need to be on site) getting around those headaches and implementing COVID secure measures were all important.
At the time there was a lot of unknowns on how the COVID Job Retention Scheme (commonly known as the Furlough Scheme) would work, and how it would interact with Workplace Pension and Salary Sacrifice. We therefore focused our energy on providing our clients with detailed information on how this Scheme worked and helped clients to implement processes to take advantage of government support.
We delivered webinars on how to work from home effectively, keeping a positive mental state and signposting available support
MM: As companies transitioned to remote working, how did you find clients were dealing with the wellbeing of their employees?
PM: Most clients were concerned about how their employees would transition to home working. They set up regular meetings to stay in touch and as their advisers, we delivered webinars and material on how to work from home effectively, keeping a positive mental state and signposting available support.
The strength of our relationships with third parties, such as insurance partners, really supported our clients here. Via our promotion to clients’ employees, these partners held informative webinars on everything from running professional virtual meetings to claiming additional benefits. We also highlighted ways for employees to seek help for anxiety and other issues brought about by lockdown, for example advertising employee assistance programmes (EAP) to employees. EAPs include everything from a counselling service to help and guidance for everyday problems and the more complete packages can include access to doctors via smartphone apps, so very useful during the lockdown period.
We also provided webinars on financial wellbeing to employees. For example, there were concerns around stock market performance and the impact of this on their Workplace Pension, so we worked to allay their concerns and reiterate the fact that a pension is a long-term investment. We encouraged employees to take advantage of their pension provider’s online facilities, to ensure they can keep up to date with their Workplace Pension and by doing so, maybe get more engaged with their retirement planning. We also reminded employees of how to update their beneficiary details on their Workplace Pension, as many employees often forget to do this. Given the seriousness of the situation in the early stages, this was a very timely reminder.
MM: We know that firms were coming under financial pressure during the lockdown period and throughout the summer, especially those in sectors like leisure and hospitality. Did this affect the type of client that you dealt with?
PM: We have many clients in industries badly affected by the restrictions, including high street restaurant chains, retail stores and charities. Understandably, they were concerned with their operating costs as much as their employee welfare. It’s easy to forget just how unsettling that early period was for organisations in the space between the lockdown being announced and the true impact of government support measures being realised.
Interestingly, we are now seeing an increased interest in our services from larger businesses, such as FTSE 250 companies. I believe there are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, we already advise clients from household brands through to small organisations, therefore new larger clients have the reassurance they are dealing with a benefits consultancy with the experience and scope to meet their ever-evolving needs.
Secondly, most organisations are now reviewing their costs across the board and establishing where they can reduce these. As a leaner organisation, our fee levels can be lower than the larger benefit consultancies, but without sacrificing the service and advice they receive, so larger employers are now considering moving from their existing benefit consultants. We provide a bespoke service to every one of our corporate clients with tailored approaches to their employee benefit challenges that has proven particularly effective at this time.
As a leaner organisation, our fee levels can be far lower than the larger benefit consultancies, but without sacrificing the service and advice they receive
MM: What do you think companies will focus on now when it comes to employee benefits and how can Wren Sterling’s corporate team support them?
PM: If employers haven’t done it already, looking at their wellbeing strategy again; not just physical or mental state, but also their financial wellbeing.
Since the lockdown, we’ve agreed 12 month financial education programmes with our corporate clients who would not previously have considered this, covering off a variety of topics to help their employees understand their finances in more detail, leading to more informed decisions and subsequently, happiness and productivity.
Topics include budget planning, saving, protecting your family, looking after mum and dad, planning for retirement, Will planning etc. From a mental wellbeing perspective, this will mean greater signposting to support services in the event that the employees need expert help.
An unfortunate outcome of COVID for some employers has been that they have had to undertake redundancies from their workforce. Being made redundant can be one of life’s most traumatic events and so we provided redundancy counselling workshops (both online and on site) for the affected employees which helped them get to grips with this and help them plan for life outside of their employer.
We may be living through multiple national or local lockdowns or shielding restrictions over the coming months, which will affect everyone differently and employers will have a duty of care to support employees through times like this that test their mental and physical resolve. We’re there to help employers with this duty of care using all our experience and the capability of the partners we work with.