Return to Work with Sanlam’s Alice Farrer: ‘If travel is not necessary, why do it?’

Sanlam's Alice Ferrer says lockdown has helped sway her bosses on the benefits for staff and business of remote working

Lockdown rules in the UK and Europe have been relaxing in recent weeks and many investment professionals are looking at how their future working lives may look like. Following on from our popular Working from Home series, we ask female members of the ESG community about lockdown habits, the prospect of returning to the office environment and adapted attitudes towards remote working

In this article, speak to Alice Farrer, portfolio manager at Sanlam.

How has the coronavirus affected your day-to-day work – from both a portfolio and workplace perspective?

My day-to-day work has continued and still involves the same key elements of portfolio management and client relationships management. However, my work ‘place’ totally changed overnight from being in a busy office of six in Chichester to working alone in our spare room at home. Although the physical shift of moving to work from home was a big one, I found that as a team we found new ways of keeping in touch and keeping that collaboration going while being physically separate. New online communication methods such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and the traditional telephone, have been key to us all staying in touch very regularly.  

I continue to communicate with clients as I did in the past although there have been more calls about coronavirus and the impact it has had on the stock market, and therefore on their portfolios. We have not been able to have face-to-face client meetings so that has made things harder for clients, especially new clients, and where I would typically have arranged a face-to-face meeting I have either spoken with them on the phone or over Zoom/Teams with the promise of a meeting when things start to return to normal.

I continue to oversee portfolios and as Covid-19 impacted our working environment it also impacted investments and so there was a period of time when we were adjusting portfolios in response to the changing circumstances.  The global panic in markets brought up some good investment opportunities and we increased our daily Zoom calls with our investment team to daily (from three times a week) to maintain communication channels and to be able to discuss the rapidly changing environment. 

What have you enjoyed and disliked about remote working? 

I explored the idea of working remotely with my head of office towards the end of 2019, as for my family it gave me more flexibility to balance everything. He was tentatively in agreement to me starting to work from home once every few weeks as a starting point.  This obviously increased significantly and for me working from home is amazing. I enjoy the greater flexibility it offers – not having to travel 40 mins to the office and back every day allows me more time with my young children, and it is better for the environment (which is particularly appealing as I spend a lot of my time talking about ethical investments), and my purse.  It makes me feel a better mother, a better citizen. I also find it easier to concentrate working in the quiet of home as opposed to a bustling office where there are many distractions.

As everything changed very quickly, I am still to work out my working from home desk set-up and unfortunately don’t have an office I can use.  I find this hard and the lack of stationery, a printer etc would be my dislikes.

Are you making plans to return to work in the office? Or are you planning to work remotely permanently?

At the moment I am starting to go into the office a little more – perhaps once every two weeks – which I like. The change in environment is healthy.  At the moment, I think this will continue – so nine days at home and one in the office with us reviewing things as a team in September.  I hope to be able to continue to work from home as much as possible.

How have you found returning to the office?  

I have enjoyed going back to the office and enjoyed popping into Chichester city at lunchtime.  The first time back in felt a little strange, but only that once. I am now used to it and we have masks, hand wash etc if we feel we need it.

Have you thought about changing how you commute?

My attitude to travel has become – if it’s not necessary, then why do it.  I fully appreciate that there are times when it is necessary, and that’s fine with me, but I don’t see the need to travel up to London for internal meetings, for example, when they can be done as efficiently online.

Has your employer’s attitude towards remote working changed? How?

Yes, it has changed incredible.  From my head of office being tentatively pro the idea, he has now confirmed that he will be looking at how those who want to can work from home in the future.  It will be dependent on our team and the plans for the week.

If remote working is adopted more permanently, what do you think are the benefits for the wider investment industry?

I hope it will increase the number of women who are able to continue a career in the investment industry while raising a family. Throughout my career I have always noticed that there are many women in the younger years, but much fewer in senior roles and I think flexibility in working will help to rectify that.

Share some good news you have heard recently about companies’ reactions to Covid-19 crisis? 

My CEO confirming that he has been surprised at our productivity when working from home, and that after this experience he supports the idea.  The news that he has changed his opinions on working from home is enormously positive.

How have you managed home schooling? 

I have been very lucky and my children have gone to school as key worker children.

How do you find working remotely during volatile markets?

It has been fine although perhaps initially quite stressful as I got to grips with logging into our trading platform remotely.  Once I got over the hurdle, it has been just the same as in the office.  I have been able to share debate on our investment ideas in our morning meetings remotely, and I have had our regular team meetings to bring up anything I further wanted to talk through with my team.

Do you have a ‘top tip’ to share on working remotely?

This is one I find hard to follow myself, but I think having a definite start time and finish time for each day, and having a ritual that helps you identify that (eg making a drink and then turning on your computer in the morning).  It is ending the working day that I find particularly hard.

What do you do for fun when you take a break from working at home?

Walking my dog, going out into the garden with my children.

The full Return to Work series is below:

Return to work with Hawksmoor’s Bridget Gaskell: WFH stigma has been completely eradicated during lockdown

Return to Work with BNY Mellon’s Suzanne Hutchins: ‘It has been stressful but manageable’

Return to Work with CGWM’s Leetal Stark: ‘The City is so quiet’

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Natalie Kenway

Natalie is global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist for 16 years. She won Editor of the Year at the Aviva Investors Sustainability Media Awards 2021, and was Winner...