TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT IN A POST-COVID WORLD
Empower your employees and they’ll help your clients—and your agency—achieve success
By Matt Masiello
If your main takeaway from the way work changed for independent agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic was Zoom fatigue, it’s time for a reality check. Like it or not, many of the changes that shook the foundation of independent agencies in 2020 will be with us for a long time to come.
The crisis profoundly impacted revenue and operations. It also created a rapid transition to remote or virtual work, all designed to help agencies protect the health of their employees and support their clients. With it came challenges to our existing thoughts about hot-button topics like hiring, training and employee engagement.
Even as offices open up and employees begin returning to the physical office, independent agencies remain under intense pressure. For one, they must compete against direct writers. According to the 2020 Agency Universe Study from the Big “I” and Future One, 35% of respondents believe personal lines direct purchase through insurers will significantly impact their agencies over the next two years, and 27% believe the same issue will emerge with non-insurance website purchases.
At the same time, agencies must continue to find younger and more diverse talent. According to the Agency Universe Study, the average age of agency principals is 55. Seventeen percent of principals are age 66 or older.
COVID-19 showed us all that the digital age is here. We’ve clearly entered the Fourth Industrial Revolution—the marriage of traditional business practices with modern smart technology. For independent agencies to thrive they must improve employee engagement by: revamping their training and professional development to meet the changing times of the evolving consumer, transition to be more focused on business development, and build a more agile insurance agency business model.
Preparing workers to succeed post-COVID
When it comes to workforce training, the need for industry-specific instruction remains strong. In its September 2018 report on preparing tomorrow’s workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Deloitte shared results of its worldwide survey of 531 youth ages 15 to 29. Nearly eight in 10 respondents (79) said they had to go outside of formal school to get the skills they wanted for a job. One-third said their college or university didn’t prepare them well enough. Generalized training goes only so far.
Today’s employees rely on their employer to help them get the specialized, job-specific training they need. Another 2018 Deloitte survey found that eight in 10 Millennials said the three most important things they’ll need from their employers so they can do their best are on-the-job training, continuous professional development, and formal training led by employers.
Independent agencies must rise to the occasion. We must deliver industry-specific training and training on the technologies that can help our employees do their jobs better and faster. Don’t assume that younger, digital-native generations already know all about the latest technology solutions. The Deloitte Millennials survey showed that young professionals don’t feel prepared for the next generation of technology. That’s where training comes into play.
Younger employees want technology to help them achieve a better work/life balance. The more independent agencies can empower their employees with the digital tools to help them achieve those goals, the more your employees will be willing to help your clients and your agency leverage that same technology to help you achieve business success.
Independent agencies with agile and cloud-based technologies are the best suited to adapt and provide this new level of professional development. According to the 2019 Applied Digital Agency Annual Report, agencies that completely transform into a digital business experience 158% higher revenue per employee than those that don’t.
Training in a remote or hybrid work environment
In an industry that has lagged behind in diversity and inclusion, moving to a remote or hybrid model permanently will be a necessity for independent agencies that want to keep pace with the times.
Earlier this year, Vertafore released the results of its survey of 1,000-plusinsurance professionals—most of them women ages 40 to 55—to learn about their work expectations post-COVID-19. Results showed that two-thirds of respondents wanted a mix of home and office, 20% wanted to work remotely full-time, and only 15% wanted to return to the office full-time. A 2020 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org estimated that one in four women were considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19.
If you don’t have the right tools to support remote or hybrid employees, you may already be losing the race for talent. Seventy percent of Vertafore survey respondents said they had the tools they needed to work from home, including web-enabled agency management systems, digital communication tools, e-signatures and digital payments. And make no mistake, younger talent and more diverse talent want to be in insurance. According to Vertafore, 90% of respondents under age 40 would recommend a career in insurance, five points above the average across age groups.
Clearly, the time is now for independent agencies to bring people, processes and technology together, optimize them all for efficiency, and create a solid business model for the future.
But investing in technology isn’t enough. Independent agencies must now use those technologies to deliver training and professional development in new and exciting ways. Also, if you are allowing some form of remote work, be prepared to adjust your employee engagement with digital tools, establishing and measuring expectations and most of all, understand the challenges and interactions with managing remote staff. Here are a couple of recommendations:
- Combine live and online learning opportunities. Do away with the one-size-fits-all approach of offering only in-person training. That doesn’t mean saying farewell to in-person learning altogether. But it does mean personalizing training to meet each employee’s educational preferences. One group of employees may appreciate in-person classes. Others might prefer more bite-sized learning conducted remotely. By meeting your employees where they work, asking them how they want to learn and listening to their responses, agencies will create a more engaged workforce.
- Integrate on-demand and self-paced digital learning. Many younger generations already expect this of the companies for which they work. According to Deloitte, 61% of youth have already participated in self-guided training, and 40% had participated in online training—and those were pre-pandemic numbers. Investing in on-demand training technology is a good idea. Another potentially more cost-effective method is asking employees where they go to learn more about their careers and jobs. You may be able to point them toward LinkedIn Learning courses and other free resources that will be helpful for them and potentially for others within your agency.
At SIAA, for example, we saw the power of on-demand learning in action more than a decade ago. That’s when we started our online Training & Learning Center. It’s grown in scope and content over the past 10 years, offering on-demand courses and training for everything from developing an agency’s small commercial book of business to target marketing or time management.
We also took a big leap of faith in 2019, prior to the pandemic, when we hosted IA Evolve, one of the industry’s first virtual conferences. Our goal was to give our agency partners a place to learn more about cutting-edge technologies and solutions that could benefit them, without requiring them to book an expensive airline flight, pay admission fees or spend time out of the office.
Our first IA Evolve event included speakers, presenters, panels, vendors, workshops and even a virtual trade show. We attracted almost 2,400 registrants and more than 25 exhibitors, along with nearly 24,000 content views of our sessions. We’re using lessons learned from that event to create a bigger and better IA Evolve conference this September.
People, processes, and technology
As the pandemic hit, I saw that the world had changed. I had to adapt. Our organization had to adapt. The “in the office” approach works best for us, and we’re returning now, but I learned that it’s important to see things with a fresh set of eyes. Talk with your employees and review your business plans. Consider whether hybrid and remote work options are best for them and your clients, and in what situations remote or hybrid work models might be most beneficial. Consider some of the potential benefits, including the ability to recruit the best workers regardless of geography, reduce real estate expenses, and remove past limitations.
Then, when it comes to developing remote and hybrid staff—and all workers—be sure to choose the right technology. Invest in video, chat and other tools that will help you maintain a high level of employee engagement. If you don’t know which tools to select, ask your employees. Digital-native team members will point you toward the right solutions. When they do, don’t forget to reward and celebrate those employees who helped you find and implement those digital tools.
Clearly, the time is now for independent agencies to bring people, processes and technology together, optimize them all for efficiency, and create a solid business model for the future. Agencies won’t be able to win new business and compete against direct writers effectively without constantly evolving.
Many have already stepped up to the plate. They’ve found new ways to connect with clients who want to chat on text, mobile apps and digital media. Now it’s time to answer the call of your employees. They want personalized training on insurance and technology, delivered in a way that works best for them. The more you listen to your employees, the greater your reward in terms of building a diverse and engaged workforce that reflects the communities you serve and drives business success.
Matt Masiello is CEO of SIAA, the largest alliance of independent insurance agencies in the country. He’s also the author of the book, Insurance Agency 4.0, a guide to help agencies develop and implement their digital strategies. He can be reached at email@example.com.