NAVIGATING THE HYBRID WORKPLACE
Six components to help increase your chances of overall success
Many agencies did not have operational consistency
pre-COVID; this can be exacerbated by throwing
remote employees into the mix.
By Mary M. Belka, CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC, CPIW
Remote work is nothing new—it has been evolving for years. The pandemic has simply reshaped it and brought it into sharper focus, all at warp speed.
Most agencies with employees working remotely pre-COVID put their proverbial toes in the water slowly and carefully, generally on a case-by-case basis, if at all. Originally it was about accommodating employees’ particular needs—they had to be at home for some reason yet were willing to work either part- or full-time without coming into the office. For instance, they might have been temporarily at home following surgery or the birth of a child, experienced transportation- or weather-related challenges, or needed to relocate to another area of the country, to name just a few examples.
For the past decade or so, the struggle to find seasoned account managers has become very real. Outsourcing options brought remote employees into the mix, generally on a long-term temporary basis, filling in for “regular” employees and working as independent contractors either as individuals or through organizations specializing in providing service employees for our industry. Some became permanent employees. Before COVID (or “BC,” as I like to call it), remote service employees were the exception—not the norm.
Literally overnight in some agencies, the old rules and assumptions were suspended while we worked our way through lockdowns, vaccines, masks, Zoom™, and more. Intermittent home-schooling, childcare and elder care responsibilities were suddenly on the shoulders of owners and employees alike, as we balanced a new way of working—and living. Outsourced care and support for loved ones was nonexistent. Most of us knew someone who became ill, or worse. Yet, our clients needed us more than ever; we did our best to provide for them, while our own challenges seemed, at times, insurmountable. And … it continued for years, not weeks or months!
Roadmap for hybrid workplace success
There are many lessons to be gleaned from the forced remote workplaces of the past two years that can help create intentionally designed hybrid options that meet each agency’s particular needs. There are some threads that run through the successful models we are seeing—and the evolution will continue over time. Trends generally do not reverse themselves once established.
Remote work options are here to stay, but what are the primary considerations? The following six components can help increase your chances for success overall, while navigating your evolving workplace.
Clarity. No surprise at all—a clear strategy is critical. What is the agency trying to accomplish? Who is the target client? What is the experience the agency wants to give its clients? How will it be achieved regardless of who works where?
“Remote” is simply a space where someone is working on behalf of the agency’s clients—the expectation is that the work product and client experience should be the same regardless of where the employee is physically located.
The importance of providing clarity of purpose and expectations cannot be overstated.
Now that COVID is nearly in the rear-view mirror, it is important to reinstate some pre-COVID remote-workplace structural components. For instance:
- It is not possible to be a productive employee and provide childcare or elder care simultaneously. Those working remotely cannot be both caregiver and office worker. Employees must make arrangements for outsourced or insourced care, just as “regular” office employees do. The agency may benefit from thinking creatively about this issue; workers who are confident their loved ones are being taken care of are more productive.
- Each remote employee handles his/her share of incoming calls; clients should not necessarily be aware that the individual is working remotely. The phone should simply be another extension that happens to ring outside of the home office.
- Working remotely is not in and of itself “flex time”; non-exempt employees are subject to wage and hour laws, and the use of time clock software applies whether the employee works from home or in the agency’s physical office. After-hours work, including emails and/or cell phone use, must be monitored—a subject for another column.
Consistency. Many agencies did not have operational consistency pre-COVID; this can be exacerbated by throwing remote employees into the mix. Procedures, standards, and metrics should be established, and all employees must adhere to them regardless of where they work.
The more automated your agency, the more potential you have to establish consistency in the way your employees operate. As a result, they can provide a more consistent experience to all of your clients.
Operational oversight is critical; consistency will not happen without an intentional approach, complete with auditing. Employee onboarding and training requires planning and mentoring for the best result.
Communication. This is perhaps the most important component—and it starts with communication from agency leaders to engage and encourage employees by providing clear direction and support.
As we are all aware, web meetings have been a help during the pandemic, but they are not the same as in-person meetings with co-workers or clients. Zoom, phone, email, and text “conversations” are incomplete—we are missing some of the nuances on which relationships are built.
Some studies are showing that remote employees are not promoted at the same rate as those who work in the office. Service employees tend to be female across many industries, including insurance. It will be important to find ways to provide interaction at all levels within the organization to be certain that all employees have the opportunity to demonstrate their value, even though they are not always present.
Intentional, consistent communication will help keep your hybrid environment interconnected. Daily, brief, stand-up web meetings (10 minutes max) help employees “reset” and connect each morning regardless of where they might be located.
Using tools for quick, internal communication between employees in different locations, such as Slack™, is a convenient way to ask quick questions and bring all team members into the types of conversations where learning and bonding occur.
Schedules should be developed that make sense. Ideally, remote employees should come into the office on a regular basis. This requires that the agency be set up for remote employees to work seamlessly in either environment, without losing productivity.
Ultimately, communication is the thread that connects you to all your employees, your employees to each other, and all of you to your clients.
Culture. Culture is that critical component that can be hard to describe. How would you define your agency’s culture? Driven or laid-back? Sales focused? What are its strongest characteristics? How do you think it will be affected if all employees are no longer connecting in person on a daily basis? Will that hurt or help? How? If you have a learning environment, how might you enhance it by creating a hybrid workplace?
It can be challenging for remote employees to remain engaged and feel connected to the organization when they are not directly participating with associates. Onboarding new remote employees will be challenging for some. Finding innovative ways for team members to interact helps organizations preserve the positive aspects of their culture, even while transitioning to a hybrid approach to operating.
Communication—especially internal messaging—is critical to keeping co-workers connected. Connection underpins culture; as the ways in which employees connect evolve, so will agencies’ cultures be transformed moving forward.
Check results. Operational oversight has always been needed; with the management of remote employees, it is essential. Employees need structure, metrics, and feedback regarding their performance, to feel engaged and empowered—there is no substitute for leadership.
Client experience. Isn’t this the goal? Ultimately, regardless of whether agency employees work remotely, in the office, or a hybrid of both, in the final analysis the question is, “Was the client experience the best it could be?” Leaders must find ways to help employees have meaningful connections with clients. If working remotely increases the potential for some employees to work more effectively and connect with clients, it makes sense to explore how best to accomplish that goal.
If the agency can be better staffed by having some employees work remotely when it is not possible to fill positions locally, and it can be done in such a way that the client experience is enhanced, the return on the investment can be significant.
It’s not about where the work is done, it’s about how it’s done. Change happens. If it’s not evolution, it’s revolution—or something in between. Agency owners dithered for years about employees wanting to work remotely. Suddenly, it became the way many had to operate on a moment’s notice. It wasn’t pretty—and it wasn’t exactly the remote experience many were seeking.
Some are grateful to return to the traditional workplace. Others want a hybrid work experience. What we do know is that sudden change pushes the limits of what is possible—and it is up to us to shape it after it’s begun to shape us.
There will always be challenges. How we anticipate, prepare, and deal with them makes all the difference. n
Mary M. Belka is owner and CEO of Eisenhart Consulting Group, Inc., providing management and operations consulting to the insurance industry. She also is an endorsed agency E&O auditor for Swiss Re/Westport. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Mary holds the CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC, and CPIW designations.