MAKING WORK-FROM-HOME WORK
Why it’s time for agency principals to give remote work a second look
By Dana Coates
As insurance agencies continue to assess the viability of work-from-home arrangements, it’s important to keep in mind that remote work isn’t going away. As the Pew Research Center pointed out, the majority of workers with jobs that could be done from home were teleworking last year, even as offices reopened.
And though many agency principals are eager to get their employees back in the office, an analysis by McKinsey & Company concluded that insurance is one of a handful of industries that stands to benefit the most from remote work. McKinsey looked at 800 occupations and 2,000 activities and determined that insurance would reap the biggest rewards from teleworking. It noted that many insurance functions can be per-formed remotely without any loss in productivity.
At my own agency, we’ve continued to let our staff work from home. The results we’ve seen include higher productivity, happier employees, reduced turnover and a younger, more digitally proficient workforce.
Based on our experience, agencies that are willing to embrace the new realities of post-pandemic work are the most likely to find success in these new arrangements. For agencies still grappling with remote work, here are a few key starting points:
- Develop a telework plan for your agency, one that addresses your perceived shortcomings with working remotely. Some of these may simply be fears you have as a manager, and some may be legitimate concerns. All can be dealt with if you approach them positively and have a plan.
- Get the right technology to meet your telework goals and make sure your employees are using that technology to its fullest.
- Address specific telecommunication challenges, such as how to conduct face-to-face meetings, training, on-boarding and collaboration.
- Be proactive and creative in maintaining your agency’s culture. There are some very good ways to build teamwork using technology.
- Set expectations for work-from-home arrangements, including space and equipment requirements, internet connectivity, login security and periodic check-ins.
- Communicate often, but have a purpose and allow for feedback.
The technology tools you need
What are the tools that agencies are using to implement remote work? In a survey conducted last year, NetVu found that most agencies combine several soft-ware solutions to facilitate communication, team building and collaboration.
To begin with, nearly every agency uses an agency management system (AMS) that can be accessed remotely. As you might expect, NetVu members are primarily using AMS360, Vertafore’s AMS solution.
Most agencies are on a Microsoft Windows platform, and 85% said they use Microsoft 365. Nearly eight in 10 (78%) said they use Microsoft Teams or Slack for instant messaging and team collaboration.
With competition for good talent keener than ever, remote work gives agencies
the flexibility to hire the brightest employees … .
Interestingly, 81% said they use voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) telephones, but only 31% have eliminated traditional phone sets and only 29% are using their soft phone’s capability to text and fax. About half (49%) allow employees to have a VoIP app on their cell phone.
At our agency, each employee has a dedicated laptop that we provide for access to our cloud-based systems. Employees can work remotely in our AMS, and we use Microsoft 365, Teams and VoIP.
Using technology to its fullest
If one good thing has come out of the pandemic, it’s that technology has dramatically improved in just a few short years. Many of the promises we’ve heard about—ease of use, simplicity, connectivity and integration—are finally coming true.
Of course, the first challenge is getting agencies to adopt these new technologies. The second is implementing all of the features that come with a solution. Many agencies haven’t deploy-ed the technology they already have. Full adoption of technology is key to gaining both financial ROI and the intangible ROI derived from elevated client care.
Small changes in behavior, magnified by technology improvements, can greatly increase agency productivity. For example, we’ve instituted a single, secure password system for the daily login to our management system. The system generates all of the passwords our employees need to log into other websites and systems. It saves our staff valuable time that can be devoted to servicing clients.
A lot of agencies are missing out on this time saving aspect of technology. A minute here, a minute there—pretty soon it adds up to an hour saved each day.
Cultivating culture in a remote environment
Prior to the pandemic, our employees had many opportunities for a face-to-face interaction. When the pandemic hit, we had a real challenge in maintaining our organizational culture. Indeed, as agencies scrambled to acquire the technology to work remotely, their teams began to suffer.
Before the pandemic, we began experimenting with a culture-building tool called TINYpulse. The service allows us to take anonymous “pulse” surveys of our team. When COVID-19 hit, we began “pulsing” employees weekly to make sure they were okay and to identify any potential morale problems. We found it tremendously helpful, and we continue to use it. In fact, all of the agencies I’ve talked to that do something similar have report-ed greater employee satisfaction, lower turnover and a healthier culture.
It may seem counterintuitive, but agencies that gave their employees the freedom to be independent in their remote work excelled during the pandemic. Those that viewed remote work with distrust and installed software to monitor their employees’ work were more likely to see a breakdown in their culture.
At our own firm, we felt we needed a tool that could give us confidence that our employees were both well cared for and understood their role as remote employees. We established a monthly remote worker certification process, which we continue to follow. We ask our employees a few simple questions such as: Are you being paid for all of the time you work, including preapproved overtime and breaks? Have you sustain-ed any injuries in your remote-work area? Is it ergonomically comfortable? What’s your mood on a scale of 1 to 10?
Our system provides a documented record that our employees are healthy and safe, have good working conditions and are getting paid for the time they put in. It’s a tool that a lot of our clients have adopted and that we’ve shared with other agencies.
[A]gencies that gave their employees the freedom to be independent in their remote work excelled
during the pandemic. Those that viewed remote work with distrust … were more likely to see
a breakdown in their culture.
It’s understandable that agency managers might question whether working from home can engender the kind of idea sharing that occurs in an office. We found that there are positive activities agencies can engage in to promote team building and collaboration.
Tools like Teams and Slack allow users to instant message one another and to video chat. Many offices, including ours, also have used Zoom to create a virtual coffee break or hold face-to-face meetings.
During the pandemic, we learned that not everyone is social or processes information in the same way. Those who wanted to participate in our twice-weekly Zoom coffee breaks enjoyed sharing stories about what was happening in their lives. But our more introverted employees often opted not to participate. Rather than force the introverts to attend, we touched base with them individually by email or a quick chat.
We also developed a mentoring system to help train our new employees. The Teams software allows users to share each other’s computer screens. We now have a person dedicated to on-boarding who schedules time with our employees to guide them through a job task. They can take over an employee’s screen and walk them through the process.
We can also put more seasoned employees on a call with a new employee to practice how they would respond to a client, present a proposal or close a sale.
Our AMS dashboard also helps our employees see what tasks need to be done that day and to prioritize their work.
Moving forward, post pandemic
While many agency principals were anxious to get their people back in the office, we took a different approach. We asked our staff whether they wanted to come into the office, work from home or have a hybrid arrangement. All of them said they wanted to continue to work from home.
To make that happen, we decided every employee must have a working webcam and have it turned on when we have virtual meetings. We also have home office requirements. We physically inspect their location to make sure it’s appropriate. The desk has to be the right height, the chair ergonomically correct. They need to have two monitors, a keyboard, the webcam, and a laptop that we provide. We also will pay for their internet connection and cell phone bill.
How has work changed at your agency? As McKinsey notes, the pandemic “has shown that insurers can successfully form virtual agile teams, provide remote insurance advice, and handle policy sales and routine claims management remotely.”
With competition for good talent keener than ever, remote work gives agencies the flexibility to hire the brightest employees, regardless of where they live. Work-from-home arrangements make it easier to attract and retain employees, especially younger ones. It also makes it easier for professionals who are raising families to work for your agency.
While not all jobs can be performed remotely, most agency jobs can. Rather than go back to the “old ways,” why not explore what remote work can do for your firm?
Dana Coates is CEO of United Western Insurance Brokers, a women-and-minority-owned brokerage providing commercial, personal, and health and benefit insurance services from offices in Nashville, Tennessee; Los Angeles and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. An enthusiastic supporter of insurance technology, he is on the board of the Network of Vertafore Users (NetVU). NetVU provides education, advocacy and peer networking to its members. Coates can be reached at email@example.com.