A living room is more conducive to successful financial planning than an office.
So says psychologist and wealth consultant James Grubman, who recommends that financial advisers eliminate the business feel of their offices and install comfortable chairs and a sofa — just as he has done with his elegant, living-room-like office.
“A great client meeting room is a place for conversations about personal and family issues, where the family sits around the room,” said Mr. Grubman, principal of FamilyWealth Consulting in Turners Falls, Mass.
Over the years, he has applied the principles of physician-patient communications to financial planning and has developed what he thinks is an ideal client-friendly design for meeting spaces.
“You will be amazed at how the conversation changes,” said Mr. Grubman, who has counseled other advisers about how to design their work space.
Although it goes against the way most advisers think, a conservative conference room or office setting is not conducive to the wide-ranging conversations that advisers should be having with their clients, he said.
Researchers at Kansas State University, who have conducted studies of client stress in financial planning meetings, agree and make similar design recommendations.
Swapping the office décor for couches and easy chairs measurably reduces client stress and makes it easier to communicate, the re-searchers concluded.
Two advisers who followed Mr. Grubman's advice are believers.
J. Richard Joyner, a managing director of the private wealth management group at Tolleson Wealth Management in Dallas, redesigned a large client meeting room two months ago so that it includes large, comfortable chairs that can be arranged around a circular coffee table.
“If you are going to work with families, and have conversations that go beyond quarterly performance, the physical surroundings can make it easier or harder,” he said.
Clients love the new design, said Mr. Joyner, adding that he has seen a big difference in the quality of his conversations with clients, particularly with regard to difficult issues.
“The ambience encourages conversation, particularly about things other than finance that affect a family's well-being,” he said.
In research on how meeting room design influences a client's stress level, Sonya L. Britt and John E. Grable, professors at Kansas State, fitted study participants with small sensors on their fingers that measured skin temperature (a reliable indicator of stress) while they met with a financial planner. One setting was a conventional office and the other had easy chairs and couches.
According to the researchers, stress causes temperature at the skin surface to fall from its normal 92 degrees as the body diverts blood flow to internal organs as part of the fight-or-flight reflex.
By measuring differences in skin temperature, the researchers found that participants in the office setting became more stressed during an eight-minute scripted presentation by a planner, while those in the more casual setting exhibited lower stress levels as they listened to the same presentation.
The results were a bit of a surprise for Mr. Grable, who worked as a planner for 10 years before joining the university and working on research projects.
“My initial thought was one of skepticism,” he said. “It seemed too weird to attribute the change to comfortable chairs and a softer sofa.”
But to Ms. Britt, whose background is in marriage counseling, it was no surprise at all.
“I am used to the [casual] therapy setting, with a couch and armchair, and I got to thinking why financial planners aren't doing this,” she said.
Although changing the furniture it a good first start, it isn't quite as simple as installing a couch and recliner in an adviser's office, Mr. Grable said.
The research that they conducted found nuances that either can increase or diminish clients' stress response.
For example, because conference-type tables are perceived as barriers, no table should be higher than a coffee table.
Mr. Grubman recommends placing good quality, comfortable living-room furniture around such a table and putting chairs on casters to make them easier to move around.
Ms. Britt and Mr. Grable also found that neutral colors and plants reinforce the relaxing effect, as does serving light snacks.
These experts said that advisers should invite clients to choose their chair and then sit facing them, rather than next to them — but not too far away.
Art on the walls should be abstract and unobtrusive. It is also crucial that the room have at least two easy-to-read analog clocks that can be seen with a glance from any point in the room.
“Neither party wants to offend the other by looking at a watch,” Mr. Grubman said. “It is a little thing that makes a huge difference.”
When Cheryl R. Holland, president of Abacus Planning Group Inc., in Columbia, S.C., did a makeover of her office two and a half years ago, she asked Mr. Grubman to design three meeting rooms.
One room was designed based on all his recommendations, one was a traditional conference room, and a third was a hybrid of the two.
Ms. Holland now asks her clients to choose the room to meet in, and she said that about 95% select what she calls her “Grubman room,” a soothing taupe-colored space outfitted in gray velvet and leather living room furniture.
Conversations are more relaxed and much more productive in that room, she said.
Ms. Holland thinks that the redesign of the office has enhanced the overall experience for her clients.
“We went from heads-down meetings to heads-up meetings,” she said.
Ms. Holland said that her experience has made her an enthusiastic supporter of a less formal, more comfortable meeting space.
“There is no doubt about it,” she said.
“If you have two conference rooms, toss the conference table out of one and buy some furniture and try it out. I think you will be flabbergasted,” Ms. Holland said.