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Editorial: Is there really no place like working at home?

Editorial: Is there really no place like working at home? | Insurance Business

Editorial: Is there really no place like working at home?

Measured against picnics and holidays and leaving haircuts to the professionals – where does going back to the office fit into your agenda for a post-COVID-19 world, if it does at all?

After the initial turmoil of moving to a remote working environment and fielding all its physical, mental and emotional challenges, it was common to hear people say they had no intention of returning to their old way of working. Some 340 days later, the UK government has unveiled its roadmap for a return to normality turning the future of work from an abstract consideration to a decision that needs to be made.

In many respects, COVID has provided a testing ground for concepts and ideas which had previously been theorised but not yet explored. How would employees respond to the demand for extraordinary adaptability? Would customer care waiver under the weight of the personal concerns of staff in a time of crisis? Could remote communication channels ever truly weigh up to the unique appeal of a face-to-face conversation?

Well, the last 12 months have gone a long way in providing insight into these questions and, where possible, answers. But the question that remains is whether the current remote working environment is both serviceable and valuable in the long term?

What has worked well about remote working?

There can be little denying that remote working has worked better than many of us could have anticipated. This is highlighted by both the elevated net promoter scores recorded by many insurance companies, as well as the decision of several businesses to introduce a permanent work from home switch.

From a practical viewpoint, people have generally adapted well and with speed. However, the core metric of the success of remote working has been how well businesses have managed to communicate with their clients and with their people - digital communication channels have been the key to this and, while navigating the mute button still takes some effort, these tools have proven to be something of a godsend.

Saying that people are the heart of a business can sound like an easy soundbite, but it is a truth that COVID has proven beyond a doubt. For many, the ongoing adjustment to their working conditions, such as the lack of a daily commute or the opportunity to spend more time with family, has been a positive change.

Linked to this, the past year has also been an opportunity for forward-thinking insurance companies to evaluate and improve the proposition they offer staff. From flexible work hours to paid emergency parental leave to deploying smart working strategies, businesses have found new ways to encourage engagement and will likely see the fruits of this labour repaid in staff retention rates going forward.

What has remote working been unable to capture?

Perhaps it is simply a knee-jerk reaction to the elastic length of the lockdown but, between industry discussions and social media posts, there seems to be a growing enthusiasm for returning to a more traditional work environment. Social media, in particular, has highlighted how people’s experiences of lockdown have varied.

When we think about working from home, it’s all too easy to think of a home office that’s fit for purpose, of a garden in which to catch a breath of fresh air and of the company of family or friends. This is not the case for those working through lockdown in one-bedroomed flats on their own, or who have spent the last year working at their kitchen table. A lot can and has been done by insurance companies to make conditions more palatable but there is only so far this can feasibly reach.

And, while it is a wonderful thing that wellbeing conversations have found a new place on the insurance agenda, it cannot be ignored that the current crisis has created this enhanced demand. For too many in the insurance profession, remote working has blurred the line between life and work and created conditions that are not conducive to simply “switching off” at the end of a day.  

While remote onboarding has been a success story for many insurance businesses, HR and senior leaders have highlighted the difficulty of communicating the culture of their businesses through digital channels. Concerns have also been voiced over how training for a role has been over-complicated by the inability to simply reach out to somebody sitting beside you and informally ask for their advice or assistance.

The future of work

It feels misplaced to make even a guess as to what the future of work might look like when the last 12 months have only shown that nobody knows what will happen next. But while remote communication tools are undeniably impressive, there is a strong consensus that they simply don’t capture the same buzz of speaking with colleagues, peers and clients in person. This is not to say they won’t be utilised going forward but rather, that they might replace other channels such as telephone or email.

From my perspective, the insurance profession has a unique insight and understanding into the need for a personal touch when it comes to financial services. Even a year of remote working hasn’t dampened that, and I don’t expect the next several months will either.