As you will know, last night’s news from the Prime Minister, that England is once again entering a period of lockdown, means that we’re all advised to stay at home.
Having made a very cautious and modest attempt to reopen our Manchester office, as local restrictions were initially eased, we had been forced to close it again last week, as the Greater Manchester region moved into Tier Four. This decision has now been vindicated by the PM’s more recent announcement and our office is, once again, completely closed.
Like many of our clients, we feel we have become almost old hands at remote forms of communication and social interaction now. We had our first virtual Christmas Party and various ‘team drinks’ before we finished for the Christmas break. Some may have spotted that we decided to donate the cost of what would have been our physical Christmas Party to the Manchester Community Foundation, a.k.a. Forever Manchester. By sponsoring their ‘Big Christmas Quiz’ they were able to channel the money we and others donated quickly and efficiently to where the need was greatest. This added a poignancy to our own event, at a time of year where the contrast between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ can be at its starkest.
How does this latest move impact on our service to clients? As has been the case since the first lockdown in March 2020, we continue to try and maintain ‘business as usual’ as best we can. We hope that most clients, like us, will now have adjusted to a necessary paperless environment. At the risk of repeating much of what was said by way of our June 2020 update (see below for a refresh of what was said), the key points remain:
- We have no access at all to physical paper documents;
- We can’t accept cheques as a means of payment – whether you wish to add to your investments or pay our fees; and
- Never email information of a confidential and/or personal nature to us (or anyone else)
Notwithstanding the continuing frustration of sometimes having to deal with third parties whose own systems have remained stubbornly paper-based, generally we and our clients have coped with the new world order very well. We’re confident that the range of options we offer for communication and transferring of funds between us will cope with most scenarios, so please do speak to your usual contact if you need to send us anything or wish us to send something to you. By way of examples, we have a digital helpdesk if you’re not familiar with modern forms of communication and need some practical help with using our systems. We also now have a means for accepting card payments over the phone. We also have a secure portal, to allow us to pass documents to and from clients securely.
What of the future? The good news is that the UK seems to have ample access to at least two effective vaccines which are in the process of being rolled out. Assuming that the pace of vaccination can be sufficiently high, we’re faced with the prospect of things starting to return to more like normal some time during the Spring. In order to reach that point, it seems like this period of lockdown will need to continue for at least two more months, if not more. We intend to use this period first, to continue to be as responsive as we can to the needs of our clients and second, to plan for what comes next. Our objective will be to take what we’ve learned from the past few months to inform us about the best future structure for our business, with the aim of interacting with our clients in the most efficient and life-enhancing way. That is our challenge and we thank all of our clients once again for bearing with us during what has been a very challenging time for all of us.
We confirm that we have complied with the government's guidance on managing the risk of COVID-19.
It seems only a short while since our last update. In fact, at the time of posting this version, it’s been 12 weeks since our last communication.
The world has certainly changed since we completely vacated our Manchester office, just before the nation’s official lock-down on 23rd March. As the Government struggles with the unenviable task of deciding how and at what pace to release us from our various forms of enforced isolation, you may well be wondering what we propose to do next and how this will affect the delivery of our service to you. In short, whilst we keep things under constant review, we don’t expect to make any fundamental changes to the ‘new normal’ for some time yet. We consider it our duty to abide by the Government’s current guidelines. Where businesses and their employees can function whilst working from home we’re advised that they should continue to do so. That’s what we aim to do, whilst planning as best we can for a return to the office, when the green light is finally given. There are still plenty of unknowns but our main imperative remains keeping all colleagues and clients as safe as possible. That means not meeting face-to-face but continuing to make best use of the technology at our disposal. We hear stories from clients and friends of keeping in touch with friends and family via video conferencing, more regularly and with perhaps even with more enthusiasm than when it was previously possible to meet face-to-face. An example perhaps of how things have changed and in doing so thrown the focus onto what’s truly important.
If not much has changed from our end, then why the update?
We just want to make sure that all our clients appreciate that we continue to look after their interests during this extended lockdown period. As we’ve previously highlighted, we still have no access at all to physical paper documents (whether they would normally enter or leave our business). Also, we can’t accept cheques representing fresh investments or as a means of paying our fees. If you’ve sent us anything in the post over the last 12 weeks or so and you were expecting a reply or some action as a result, it’s worth giving us a call or sending us an email. We’ll have to make arrangements to deal with each other electronically. We know that a very small number of clients simply haven’t previously felt the need to move beyond using physical cheques, so being asked now to change a habit of a lifetime can be unsettling. That said, we know that all mainstream banks will be able to make arrangements for their customers to make payments electronically, through phone banking services at the very least. If you’re keen to send money to us to invest or to settle an invoice, please do look into the options available to you, via your bank, for electronic payments.
It's probably worth just reminding you that you should never email information of a personal nature to us. We have a secure client portal for the use of clients, to keep your personal data safe. It’s a sad fact that, even as the world’s attention is turned towards fighting a global pandemic, some are focused on increasing their cyber-crime activities. It’s best not to make the criminals’ job any easier by treating unprotected email as if it’s secure. If you’re unfamiliar with how a portal might work, please do get in touch and we’ll be happy to help you get started.
We know that not all attempts at completing and signing documents electronically have been without their challenges. Present circumstances have revealed some surprising glitches with mainstream software applications. Even now, a number of major financial services businesses we deal with on behalf of some clients insist on a physical, ‘wet’ signature on their forms. These are perhaps the businesses whose best years are behind them. If you’re a client who’s struggled to adapt to the necessary changes to our processes forced upon us – perhaps using some forms of technology for the first time - we promise to do our best to find answers to your particular practical problems. Please do get in touch. Chances are that you’re not suffering alone and we may well have already found a solution to your problem for another client.
On a personal level, we hope that you will appreciate that many of our co-owners have family caring responsibilities as well as business-focused ones. This may mean that someone you typically deal with is working amended hours to accommodate a range of obligations. A colleague may be working reduced hours, or hours outside the formal working day or, in extremis, may even need to take an agreed sabbatical to accommodate their particular family circumstances. Rest assured, we’ll do our best to make sure that your needs, as our client, are not compromised during this unusual time. If any of these arrangements are likely to have an impact on you we’ll make sure we get in touch.
In the meantime, we hope that you’re keeping safe and well and that the next time we need to get in touch in this way will be to share some positive news about returning to more normal working conditions. Thank you for your continuing support as our client. My fellow co-owners and I are acutely aware that the continued success of our business is entirely reliant on continuing to meet your expectations.
Since our first announcement about our preparations for dealing with the challenges of the Coronavirus situation, our Executive Committee has continued to meet virtually to discuss each development in this emerging national situation. As I hope we’ve illustrated to date, we’ve not hesitated to take the action we believe has been best able to protect our co-owners and their families, whilst also recognising fully the very important role we perform for each of our clients.
Our last update (please see below) indicated that we had been quick to reduce the density of people working in our Manchester office and had already moved to home-working in the case of most of our people. Prior to the Prime Minister’s announcement last night (23/3/20), that the UK economy is effectively being put on hold, with the movement of everyone to be restricted severely for at least three weeks, we had already decided to mothball our office and move to complete home-working for all of our co-owners. Since we were fairly early in recognising how serious this situation could become, we’ve had time to settle into the new way of working and to make sure that all connections function as they should.
At the time of writing, I’m pleased to say that we seem to be able to carry on as we would have hoped. Home offices are now well and truly up and running and each of us is adjusted to the idea of working physically remotely from our colleagues for what will probably be a period of many weeks, if not months.
We’re fortunate in that we have a business which can be operated in this way, albeit that the ‘personal touch’ can be more challenging when the option of a face-to-face meeting has been completely removed. In order to make this way of operating a complete success we need to ask our clients to play their part. In particular:
- Please don’t send us any physical post. There won’t be anyone in the office to receive it. If you have sent post to us recently and are unsure whether we might have received it, please get in touch and we’ll check;
- Please do use email and the telephone to make contact with us. We’ll do the same with you. All our usual phone numbers and email addresses remain operational. As previously mentioned, if there’s more than one of you and you need to speak to one or more of us, we have plenty of conference call lines to make available for the purpose. If you still prefer to see the whites of the eyes of the people you’re discussing money with, we have options for video calling too;
- If you have something containing sensitive personal information to send to us please make use of our secure client portal. You can even sign documents electronically this way, so there really is no need for paper. To be clear, never send details you wouldn’t ordinarily want to share with a stranger via a simple email – it’s not secure;
- Please don’t send us a cheque. Most of our clients don’t send cheques these days anyway, but the option to pay by cheque now needs to be revoked. We’ll let you have bank account details to make electronic payments;
I hope it goes without saying that all of the co-owners at Castlefield are extremely focused on making sure that we keep doing what you expect of us. We can’t influence directly investment markets or government policy but we can do our utmost to react speedily and professionally to events as they emerge. We believe very much that this is what we’re doing. We know that this is a worrying time for everyone so if you feel that a chat with your usual Castlefield contact would help to settle any concerns you have then please do get in touch. Afterall, our (virtual) door remains very much open.
Here’s what we’re doing about Coronavirus (Covid-19).
Our Executive Committee, made up of senior people from across each of our three businesses, has been meeting regularly (more recently ‘virtually’) for some time now. At each meeting we’ve analysed and discussed the latest information available about the present and likely impact of what’s now a global pandemic. This information has come from the Government and its own expert advisers and also from other prominent authorities and from those other firms with whom we interact closely on a daily basis. At a fairly early stage, we took steps to mitigate the risk of infection amongst our co-owners and clients by raising awareness and being vigilant in terms of our own actions. We have been operating a form of ‘social distancing’ within our office for a while now; providing every means to allow for improved hygiene and reduced risk of infection. This means that we’ve already reduced the density of people in the office and moved most people to homeworking. We’re a business which relies a lot on technology day-to-day so we already had a plan to deal with this sort of unusual set of circumstances and we’ve tested it to make sure it works. Face-to-face meetings with clients have now ceased.
By far the majority of our clients are already happy to interact with us electronically, via a combination of email and secure portal. One or two have remained keen to receive paper. If you’re a paper-lover we’ll continue to do our best to persuade you of the benefits of joining the IT revolution. The present global emergency illustrates why it’s a good idea. We do need to contact you from time to time and sometimes that’s because we have a regulatory obligation to do so. We may need to ask for your permission to do something and time may be of the essence. We’re not convinced that the UK postal services will remain willing or able to maintain a normal level of deliveries – either from you to us or vice versa. We’ll do our very best to contact you where we need to, using the various media available to us, but please make it as easy as you can in return. Please don’t send us a cheque in the post. We can easily arrange for payments to be received electronically.
As of now, our office in Manchester is operating with a very small skeleton staff of local heroes. As long as we continue to have access to our shared building they’ll make sure that they check for incoming post and pass it on to fellow co-owners for action. Most of us are now working remotely and will continue to remain available to clients via email and phone. All our phone lines and email accounts continue to act as normal. We’re adding extra conference call lines for holding virtual client meetings and we’re encouraging those with access to the likes of FaceTime not to be shy and give them a go. Whatever service you currently ask us to provide will continue, albeit that face-to-face contact won’t be possible for the time being.
In short, we hope that you can see that in extremely uncertain times we’ve done everything we think you might reasonably have expected us to do. It’s not quite ‘business as per usual’ but rather ‘business as per the new-normal’.
Please get in touch in the way you would normally do if you feel you need any further reassurance. In the meantime, please keep an eye on the news section of our web-site. We’ll let you know if anything significant changes.