Remote work is now an accepted practice for both agencies and insurers whether by necessity due to the pandemic or a growing workforce preference for working at home. Even considering the advantages of remote work such as flexible work schedules, greater autonomy, and fewer office interruptions, what is being lost in team building, collaboration, and shared purpose? How do the challenges of working apart affect productivity between agencies and insurers? Most importantly, are there steps agents can take to better adapt to this new normal? Unfortunately, the report card on remote work remains incomplete, however clues are everywhere.
“It’s too early to determine any final opinions on the pros and cons of remote work post-COVID,” says Mike Becker, CEO, National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA). “At the same time, though, the pace of change has accelerated to such a degree that it’s clear we need to find the right balance between virtual and in-person interactions.”
On the agency side, a Vertafore survey last March reported that nearly two-thirds of agency employees prefer a mixture of working at home and the office. Only 15% of those surveyed said they want to go back to the office full-time. Going forward, remote work will be a permanent employee perk to keep valued staff and attract the best and brightest of the next generation.
“You have to meet people where they want to be met,” says Becker. “That’s certainly true for the agent/client relationship, but it is also true for agency staff.”
Agencies have employed many techniques to maintain a sense of team by rotating staff working from home and holding regular virtual meetings. Becker adds that “remote work and the related digital tools are just that – tools to broaden your abilities and efficiencies but shouldn’t replace the in-person experience entirely.”
The challenge for insurers to build teamwork and optimum service to agencies is harder given their greater size, many office locations as well as teams working from home. Two recent Generation Z (under age 25) hires from specialty insurers shared their thoughts on how to better understand and build cohesive teams remotely. Ben Lopez, an underwriting support specialist for Markel, says he was hired in April 2020 just before the lockdown and has worked from home almost exclusively.
“There is no question that one-on-one training would have helped,” Lopez says. “I had hiccups under pressure in my first year and it was a tough adjustment.”
Even so, mentorship still occurred and continues today. While Lopez works with 18 underwriters on his team, he’s only met two in person. Building relationships can be challenging under those circumstances. “But our supervisors showed a lot of patience and we have kept in constant touch including virtual happy hours,” he said. “Patience goes a long way no matter what your role is.”
Sam Gohn, an underwriter for Distinguished Programs, was also hired last year and started training in the office once a week for a short time before working exclusively from home.
“Our team has come up with after-hours activities to stay connected,” says Gohn.
Both men were fortunate to have family members and friends in the industry. That helped. “A support system has been a critical ingredient in my development,” says Lopez.
“There’s a risk of undermining team culture if you eliminate in-office altogether,” says PIA’s Becker. “In-person collaboration is tough to match on camera and it’s critical to avoid developing two cultures: in-office and remote.”