Head of Membership Engagement James Walsh is embracing the challenges of remote working.
It was when the pneumatic drilling started right outside my house that I thought perhaps it was time to get out on the road again.
Don’t get me wrong; working at home has its plus points. It’s been much easier for the PLSA’s Membership Engagement team to contact members we’d normally struggle to reach. With geography no longer an issue, we engaged directly with 166 of our members last year – more than double the 2019 total. And by ‘engage’ I mean a proper structured conversation about their challenges and what more the PLSA can do to help.
A Teams or Zoom call never quite replaces a face-to-face sit-down, but the quality of these discussions is still excellent (our members see to that) and the quantity has been transformed. The downside is that we now have to contend with the kind of interruptions you would never get in the office – like the water company setting about the pavement with a heavy-duty drill outside my house, just as I was calling one of our largest members. It’s difficult to talk ESG and small pots when the whole building is shaking – and it turned out there was no leak anyway.
So, what have we been finding out from conversations with members – and also from the many other formats in which we meet them, such as our Local Groups and the ‘CEO Breakfasts’ we hold with leaders of our largest schemes?
Covid-19 inevitably featured in every conversation, but most members are still reporting that their schemes have weathered the crisis quite well – both in terms of investments and administration. Many say they will ‘never go back’ to the ‘old’ ways of working.
A significant minority of schemes have seen their sponsoring employers encounter major problems – for example those in the automotive and aviation sectors. This is bound to have a negative impact on sponsor covenant. A smaller number of schemes report the opposite, such as those in the food and household cleaning products sectors.
Top of the ‘to do’ list
DB funding, valuations and reviews of investment strategy top the ‘to do’ list for a large proportion of PLSA members – not surprising given that many have significant DB schemes. Meanwhile GMPs and associated data challenges remain perennial regulatory concerns.
ESG and climate-related investment have been rising up the pensions agenda, and it has been very impressive to hear how many schemes are driving ahead on this. With the COP26 summit due to be held in Glasgow in November, climate change is going to become even more salient. Some schemes are concerned that multiple reporting requirements could lead to this important work becoming a tick-box exercise; and there is strong demand for simple, practical guidance. The PLSA’s own website is a good place to start.
Two issues have been cropping up with increasing frequency in recent weeks. The first is that more schemes are focusing on helping members with their decisions at retirement – perhaps through free or subsidised access to financial advice. The PLSA has been very busy in this area, releasing a comprehensive set of recommendations last year for a new framework for DC decumulation (see page 42).
The second issue is the shift to master trusts. More of our members are telling us that transferring their members (usually DC) to a master trust is a priority project for this year, or that they’ve already got it under way. It’s one more step towards the more consolidated pensions landscape that we can expect in the future.
This year we’re adding new ways of engaging with our members, including a series of ‘Peer-to-Peer’ discussions – small meetings where five or six members from similar types of scheme swap notes. The first was a group of scheme managers running closed DB, and they found plenty of meaty issues to discuss (GMPs and past transfers – heavy stuff).
We want to engage with as many members as possible, so please let me know if you’d like to take part in one of these meetings or have a one-to-one update with the PLSA team. Perhaps we’ll be able to do so face-to-face again at some point later this year? Until then we’ll make the best of Zoom and Teams – and we promise to keep the drilling on mute.