Since the outbreak of COVID-19, financial counselors to retirement plan participants have been working in overdrive.
Just look at CAPTRUST Financial Advisors LLC. In June, the firm held a record 190 "client days" helping participants enrolled in specific institutional clients' retirement plans, up from the average 120 client days it typically holds a month. The record client days in June translated into 1,900 to 2,000 virtual one-on-one and phone counseling sessions with participants, according to Phyllis Klein, CAPTRUST's Raleigh, N.C.-based senior director of retirement services.
"We are seeing a larger demand from plan sponsor clients," Ms. Klein said, referring to plan sponsors' increased need for participant advice services. "There's more desire for meetings that can be held via the phone and virtually via videoconference call."
Francis Investment Counsel LLC also saw a similar spike in activity with phone and web-based advice sessions more than doubling through the first half of the year from the first half in 2019, said Kelli Send, senior vice president of participant services in Brookfield, Wis.
"We have seen a large uptick in education and financial coaching demand from current financial wellness clients," Ms. Send said.
With high levels of uncertainty in the market, plan sponsors are leaning on their financial wellness providers to help participants navigate the financial decisions they need to make during an especially murky and turbulent time.
"The COVID experience has underscored that much of the American population is not prepared for the kind of unexpected financial shock that occurred this year," said Amy Reynolds, a Richmond, Va.-based partner in Mercer LLC's wealth management business. "Recognizing that, we've seen a number of organizations start to think about how they can help their employees to deal with that."
As demand for participant advice services has escalated, so too have the issues of delivering them in a socially distanced environment. Many plan sponsors were forced to shift to web-based communications almost overnight as most employees started working from home en masse, a challenge that not all plan sponsors were able to meet. Companies that struggled to pivot to web-based delivery were those that have not engaged their employees using technology, according to Ms. Send. Manufacturers and other companies that tend to communicate with employees via traditional channels — posters, flyers and other paper communications coupled with on-site events — sometimes do not have email addresses for their employees, she said.
Such employers tend to balk at web-based financial education, with many opting to "wait and see" how the year plays out in terms of possible looser rules and guidelines regarding social interaction, she said.
Ms. Send estimates that some 15% of the firm's plan sponsor clients have pushed their financial education into the fall. Some employers prefer on-site education and advice, while others are concerned about remote communications, fearing issues with technology and connectivity, Ms. Send said.
Still, some companies unaccustomed to reaching employers via email and the internet decided to go with remote workarounds. Some employers with a high percentage of factory, warehouse and other on-site workers implemented on-site virtual one-on-one counseling whereby workers meet individually with a remote financial counselor in a conference room.
Workers "file into the conference room at their scheduled time" and meet with the adviser through a computer screen that allows for screen sharing and even the viewing of accounts online, Ms. Send said. At the end of the meeting, employees "wipe down everything and the next person comes in," she said.