Consider what works best for your agency by looking at these critical areas
Nothing beats in-person relationships, but it is possible to create positive results through understanding and addressing the very real challenges of remote work.
By Cheryl Koch, CPCU, ARM, AAI, ACSR, AFIS, and Mary Belka, CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC
If there’s one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic taught us, it’s that agencies can function quite well and continue to serve their clients even when staff members are distributed throughout the country. We’ve actually been aware of that for decades as we have worked with agencies that had remote employees long before remote was cool. Quaintly known as “telecommuting,” it was often more of a situational solution, for instance when employees were ill or experiencing other temporary issues that made it difficult for them to come into the office to work. pcAnywhere was the original miracle that made it possible—as long as you maintained a spare, dedicated PC in the office for each remote user to gain system access.
Fast forward to the “new normal.” Now that many businesses, including insurance agencies, are embracing the reality of hybrid or completely remote employees, it’s time to consider the advantages of such situations but also recognize that there may be some unintended consequences of having employees permanently or partially off-site.
Advantages to employee and employer
- From the perspective of the employee, there are numerous advantages to working remotely, such as:
- No lost time spent commuting to and from the agency’s location.
- Reduced work-related costs usually absorbed by the employee, including fuel, vehicle maintenance, clothing, and eating out.
- Increased work schedule flexibility—hours may be adjusted to accommodate both employee and client needs.
- Increased economic opportunity regardless of geographic location, eliminating the need to relocate to earn more.
- Some employees prefer to work alone, feeling that they can accomplish more without the interruptions associated with working alongside others.
For employers, there are several potential economic benefits that appear on the plus side of the ledger as well, when employees work remotely:
- Less office space needed (for those who are able to renegotiate leases and rental agreements).
- Lower utility bills and fewer general office expenses.
- Increased opportunity to hire qualified staff without being limited to a particular geographic area.
All that said, each person and situation is a little different so, like beauty, the true benefits of remote work might be in the eye of the beholder. While long-term consequences may not be revealed for some time, we are already beginning to see that this new world of work may or may not be for everyone. It is important for agencies and employees to determine what works best.
Some critical areas to consider include:
Maintaining a strong culture. Every independent agency has its own personality and many agencies pride themselves on their family- and community-oriented culture. Cultures are created when people have shared values and experiences, speak the same language and follow many of the same norms and customs.
This does not mean that you must have a homogeneous group to have a culture—in fact, diversity is an important hallmark of a healthy culture. However, as with agencies with multiple locations, it is difficult for agencies to maintain their unique personality when they have many employees who have not even met their colleagues or visited the agency’s office.
Finding specific ways for agency staff to interact on a regular basis, regardless of proximity, is crucial. For instance, getting in the habit of using Microsoft Teams™ or similar tools instead of simply emailing or calling co-workers can do a lot to bridge the distance between them. All department or individual meetings should be web-based, with all team members on camera, engaged, and actively participating—no multi-tasking!
All training and education
components will have to be intentional
and carefully planned and executed, to ensure
a qualified staff—it cannot be left to chance.
Invariable procedures for all. Consistent, written, audited procedures create a unifying force for any agency; they are mission critical when employees do not work in the same venue. This is true for agencies with multiple locations as well as those whose employees work remotely. Agencies have long found excuses to avoid committing to consistent ways of operating; remote employees may become the new excuse agencies need to reverse that trend and operate in sync with procedural clarity at last.
Education and training experience. When employees are initially onboarded, there is much to learn about their new organization—and our industry—even if they have insurance experience they acquired elsewhere.
For many of us, what we learn informally by overhearing conversations, participating in impromptu meetings as issues arise, or being able to quickly ask a question of a co-worker who is sitting next to us will be lost in this new work environment. There will no longer be as much opportunity for “accidental” learning.
It is difficult to train people who work completely remotely—especially from “scratch.” The dwindling pool of experienced account managers over the past 15 to 20 years, for instance, is a well-known challenge. Who will provide new employees with the one-on-one training and the close supervision they need? How will they do it?
All training and education components will have to be intentional and carefully planned and executed, to ensure a qualified staff—it cannot be left to chance. Planning, organizing and implementing training programs have never been particular strengths of the independent agency system. There are few people, other than those in the largest agencies, who even have the title of “trainer.”
Again, what was once a luxury has become a business imperative now and in the future—especially for agencies with staff members working remotely.
We’ve seen agencies have success using an agency-wide FAQ approach, making sure that when learning takes place, it is documented and placed into a format that is available for employees throughout the organization who might have the same questions in the future.
Again, a consistent, disciplined approach with real operations management is needed in order to spread individual knowledge across multiple employees in separate venues. Individual educational career paths are essential to make sure specific training and education components are completed.
Changing opportunities for growth and development. There are signs that the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” may be playing out in businesses all across America that offer employees their choice of workplace. Some service staff have expressed concern that certain opportunities are being offered only to employees who choose to work in the office.
While some employees may be fine flying under management’s radar while working from home, others may be deprived of projects, promotions, and other development opportunities simply because they aren’t being observed in the same way as in-office workers. Those impromptu lunches and celebrations build and cement relationships; remote employees miss out on these opportunities to connect with co-workers and managers alike.
Some studies have indicated that some organizations pay less to those who choose to work remotely.
The trajectory of these developing trends is yet to be seen—but bears watching as workplaces continue to evolve. Employees who are striving for higher positions within the agency hierarchy may want to consider carefully whether or not the benefits of working remotely outweigh possible unintentional consequences for their future earning power if they are out of the office mainstream.
Possible burnout—the temptation to “keep working.” This is a real challenge for some—the ability to compartmentalize one’s work and personal life, when working from home. The temptation is there to check and/or answer emails, make or take calls using personal cell phones, and more.
Consistent, written, audited
procedures create a unifying force for any
agency; they are mission critical when employees
do not work in the same venue.
Unfortunately, a few studies have shown that remote employees are actually working longer hours than their on-site counterparts. If true, this can be a contributing factor to employee burnout. A potential negative consequence for employers could also arise if they are not compensating employees in compliance with applicable wage and hour laws when they work “off the clock.”
Sharing the load. The opposite issue can also arise if remote employees are perceived as not “doing their fair share,” especially when it comes to handling calls and projects.
Agencies with remote employees must have the proper communication tools in place to distribute calls across all team members equally; we like the “primary—next available” approach for routing incoming calls which we’ve described before, as well as equal alpha splits, for the most part, to best serve agency clients. These approaches ensure quality service for clients, as well as eliminating the perception—or reality—that some are not handling their share of the workload.
Leadership matters more than ever. We’ve said it before—real operations management is no longer optional. Younger workers need a great deal of structure; remote employees require structure, guidance, and connection to the “mother ship.”
Two things can be true at once—young, remote employees seek the independence and flexibility that working remotely provides; yet they struggle without structure, detailed training, and clear direction. Ultimately, they can thrive, but a part-time manager wearing many hats will struggle to get them there.
The road ahead
There are myriad remote work combinations—one size does not fit all. We see agencies that make it work well. Most common are hybrid situations—combining scheduled in-office and remote work. Some real-life examples include:
Remote operations management with quarterly in-office visits and daily contact via Microsoft Teams, email, text, and phone.
- Remote CEOs working Tuesday through Thursday in the office.
- Account managers working remotely two or three days per week.
- A combination of team members working in-office and remotely.
- Combinations that include outsourced accounting, human resources, and information technology.
- Periodic situational remote work due to transportation, weather, or other issues.
Each agency has to find its way—as always, intentional planning and implementation yield optimum results. Nothing beats in-person relationships, but it is possible to create positive results through understanding and addressing the very real challenges of remote work.
Cheryl Koch is the owner of Agency Management Resource Group, a California firm providing training, education and consulting to producers, account managers and owners of independent agencies. She has a BA in Economics from UCLA and an MBA from Sacramento State University. She has also earned several insurance professional designations: CPCU, CIC, ARM, AAI, AAI-M, API, AIS, AAM, AIM, ARP, AINS, ACSR, AFIS, and MLIS.
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.