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One of the major topics on insurers’ minds is what returning to work will look like when the COVID-19 pandemic has waned. Most insurers experienced a smooth transition to working from home, accomplishing the move in days, not weeks. This is especially impressive when considering the legacy technology in place at many carriers. Now, as the curve is flattening in many states, insurers face the task of moving part or all of the workforce back to the office smoothly and safely.
I’ve discussed return-to-the-office strategies with dozens of carriers in the last month; I’ve observed patterns and variances based on state, employee dependence on public transportation, school and daycare availability, level of process automation, building layout or size, and company culture.
These strategies tend to be a broad assessment of their overall situation and include revising operating models, technology priorities, and general business plans. Just as each insurer’s organization is unique, return-to-work plans will vary based on the priorities and limitations they are facing.
A Hybrid Future?
Nationwide made headlines recently for announcing that it plans to permanently alter its operating model to a hybrid of working from offices and working from home. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the insurer had about 5,200 employees who worked from home. Going forward, the insurer will consolidate 20 physical locations down to four and add thousands to work-from-home status.
Most insurers I’ve spoken to have reported successes when working from home. Productivity is the same or improved, and the organization has adapted well to virtual collaboration via Zoom, Teams, or other technology. In almost all cases, the trial-by-fire move has created more widespread acceptance across organizations of the feasibility of working from home. One carrier is even halting the acquisition of any new physical properties despite significant hiring. Most insurers expect a larger work-from-home workforce post COVID-19, but they also expect their return-to-the-office effort to begin within the next six months.
Carriers in certain states started their return to the office on June 1, while the most common start date reported is a September timeframe. A few have pushed their return activities to 2021. Some are playing it by ear and assessing the situation every two weeks. Most insurers are returning in phases and allowing the first group to be volunteers only or offering a combination of days in the office and days working from home. Generally, insurers are offering more flexible work situations moving forward.
When they do return to the office, insurers are implementing some combination of the following measures:
- Requiring employees to wear masks when not in their personal workspace, undergo regular temperature checks, and use publicly available hand sanitizer.
- Utilizing shift work to decrease the capacity of the office; employees might work in the office one week and from home the next.
- Social distancing at all times, with no or very limited use of conference rooms, break rooms, or cafeteria tables. Meetings will be held by video conference even if the participants are in the office.
- Limiting in-person visits from any partners or vendors.
- Reconfiguring workspaces to provide distance and physical barriers between employees.
- Continuing efforts to support online collaboration with partners, vendors, and distributors.
- Recognizing that widespread work from home may return as needed.
Looking at this list, one must consider if returning to the office is worth the risk. Digital technology has replaced the need for local computer and phone systems as well as shared spaces like mail rooms. The major value of an office is the in-person collaboration factor, but if social distancing protocol necessitates working with your coworkers over Zoom, why not do so out of the comfort of one’s own home? Companies like Google and Facebook have decided to extend work from home into 2021.
For companies that have accelerated return-to-the-office plans, the most common reason given is to preserve the company culture. Some companies pride themselves on a great company culture, but returning to an office of masks, no communal spaces, and separate schedules won’t likely raise morale any more than virtual happy hours can. Some companies are keeping their corporate culture alive through regular virtual all-hands meetings; increased frequency of recognition programs; fun group projects such as creating videos/websites for employee engagement; and regularly scheduled virtual coffee, lunch, or cocktail hours.
Clearly a new normal is in our future, but what that will be or when we will reach it is unclear. Preparing for the need to be flexible with business plans, operating models, and technology priorities will help insurers remain able to serve their customers while keeping their employees safe.