Sometimes, it’s a case of physician, heal thyself. The insurance industry has stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, showing remarkable business agility as it recalibrates its approach to risk and protection for the benefit of customers and policyholders.

But it also needs to get a grip on what the pandemic means for the future of its own workforce, its workplaces and the very nature of insurance work itself. Whereas the response to previous crises – from Y2K to the Global Financial Crash – centred on the security and financial functions of organisations, this time it is very much the people themselves.

Our received wisdom about work and the workplace have been profoundly shaken by the impact of the pandemic. The idea that insurance work has to be labour intensive, paper-based and undertaken in an office has been well and truly destroyed. Escaping from the constraints of the bricks and mortar workplace is allowing the industry to take a fresh look at what it does and to fundamentally re-examine its ingrained practices.

That new-found feeling of dynamism and novelty can translate into new types of team empowerment, collaboration, cross-discipline engagement, faster decision-making and implementation. In essence, work will move from fixed locations and on-premises at our individual workstations to dynamic and collaborative remote-working from anywhere. Goodbye hierarchies and hello digital democracy.

With this impetus, the future insurance workplace looks set to combine the best of the physical and virtual: platforms and collaboration tools will take over from desks and offices with adaptability being prized above procedure and hierarchy. Technology with a human face will be the gold standard. 

Even the most historic sectors of insurance, traditionally driven through face to face interaction, are moving to the virtual world.  No longer are brokers wandering Lime Street searching out underwriters to place unique risks.  Lloyd’s will be trailing their Virtual Room in due course, enabling brokers and underwriters to better connect, and last week PPL reported that the volume of risks placed “virtually” through their platform doubled compared to a year ago.   The market is showing us that it is ready and happy to adopt a digital and a new virtual way of working. 

Work will be automated and digitised, bionic in nature, blending the best of human and machine by using robotics, telematics, and artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things – all enabled by cloud. This is not about some sci-fi dystopia of humanity versus robots. It’s about augmenting and supporting humans in the insurance environment, freeing them up to do what they do best which is interacting, serving customers and solving their problems, innovating and creating.

Happily, looking after your people in this way leads inexorably to a more agile, faster, more scalable, cost-effective and more satisfying business model, whilst enhancing employee and customer experience

The insurance workforce has shown its resilience and capabilities by adapting to the huge disruption caused by the virus. Developing those traits further will reap rewards for all. The pivot to digital will require the workforce to continue to adapt and evolve with continuous learning of new skills and organisation will need to continue to provide personal support around new flexible and remote ways of working.

Crises follow a pattern of accelerating the pace of change and the adoption of new ideas. What was incremental and tentative before becomes exponential and whole-hearted as the industry goes all-in with radical transformation. This is made all the more urgent as insurers handle enormous spikes and surges in customer claims and inquiries, exposing the shortcomings of current processes and technology.

As we look forward to the new normal, reinvigorating the workforce and reimagining work become paramount. The physical and mental well-being of staff has been a major concern during the pandemic but as we re-emerge, these considerations will remain important as new ways of working take hold.

The latest Deloitte CFO survey shows that 98% of respondents expect to increase the amount of flexible and home working in their organisations. That applies to everyone from actuaries and sales teams to underwriters and claims managers.

Lockdown was effectively a massive human-resources experiment on a scale never seen before. We’re still analysing the results, but it is clear that a profound change to flexible, remote, adaptive and agile ways of working is both positive and necessary.

Suddenly we’ve all discovered the benefits of collaborative working on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, G-Suite and the rest. We’ve discovered that it’s actually easy, fast, frictionless and effective. Remote did not necessarily mean isolated.

With social distancing likely to be a requirement for some time yet, insurance companies are looking at how to adapt: de-densified office floor-plans, staggered shifts, work-from-home rotas; virus testing; deep cleaning; sanitisers, PPE and compulsory hand-washing could all become as familiar in the office as water coolers. Who knows? Dilbert’s fabled cubicle may make a return.

But these are the initial response and recovery phase actions that good employers are taking. Looking beyond to thriving in the post-COVID-19 world of insurance, there are great opportunities.

It’s not a question of making a few tweaks to the existing old-style workforce and organisation design. This is a chance for a complete reboot. There is a risk that if we leap into remote working too fast then we’re basically just using technology to recreate what we knew in the physical office instead of harnessing digital to find new and better ways.

The big experiment has shown that new working and operating models are not only achievable but desirable and even critical. The new normal has no time for the old acceptable.

Of course, the move to the new normal is the embracing of an operational opportunity; it’s not joining a cult. We have to acknowledge the potential pitfalls and put guardrails in place to prevent any downside.

As with any revolution there is a need to look out for the counter revolutionaries; the antibodies and pushbacks that can derail the enterprise.

New and robust strategies will be needed that reflect pros and cons of remote working will be required. Punching the time-clock and being supervised by the foreman sound like relics of that Victorian, analogue and mechanical age.  But in the digital age the equivalent tools are gaining in popularity: employers can avail themselves of software products to monitor employees’ key-strokes, access their webcams, remotely screenshot their work, check their internet and social media usage and even check their physical location.  We know from a plethora of “future of work” research on Gen Z and the gig economy that individuals will want to work on their terms, at their pace, in their chosen environment. Creating a thriving workforce will require trust and employers will have to measure outcomes not just inputs increasingly.

 Well-meaning strategies, such as providing employees with fit-bits and bio-tracking apps so that both they and the employer can monitor their health could backfire if they are seen as intrusive. Support but not surveillance is the key.

While the office had its limitations it also had boundaries, marked by getting the train, the bus or the car to and from work. With a shift to remote working from home there is a danger of creating an always-on, 24/7 environment from which employees can’t switch off and which leads to 16-hour days. The best insurance employers will seek to maintain employee’s work-life balance and encourage disengagement at the end of the day, tapping into the key moments that matter for that employee

Emotional as well as operational intelligence is a vital part of the new social contract. Some people thrive in the realm of virtual engagement, finding it easier to build rapport and relationships with colleagues and customers than in the traditional environment, whilst others have struggled. Creating an inclusive environment is key.

Team leader capability needs to be built in a way that can effectively manage increased hybrid and virtual teams, ensuring that their colleagues have clarity over their roles and objective when working remotely. Regular check-ins are a good idea so that any issues and pain points can be dealt with as they arise rather than festering and causing greater problems down the line. Looking after colleague’s mental health, motivation, understanding and job satisfaction should be monitored closely as remote working becomes normalised.

New ways of effectively resolving conflicts and misunderstandings will be necessary as we adapt to this new environment. This will depend on timely, open and consistent communication from leaders. Initially, it’s much better to over-communicate than to assume everything is fine.

CEOs in insurance have reported increased customer contact, improved customer relationships and enhanced productivity as a result of the new way of working. When agents work from home the customer connection becomes more of a social connection, so they take more interest. That results in empathy faster and deeper.

But others find it artificial and no substitute for face-to-face interaction, lamenting the fatigue that online engagement can induce and the loss of decompression time. There is a danger of losing spontaneity of the shared, communal office environment - the random but vital engagement that happens when chatting at a desk, in the corridor or in the lifts. Life can become demarcated into 30-minute conference call segments, requiring more time to do the same amount of work and often more exhausting.

There is a significant difference between sustaining existing relationships in a digital environment and forging new ones purely in an online context.

Cut off from the day-to-day contact with colleagues and managers, employees need to feel supported and know how to get support if they are facing challenges.

The most effective and engaged workforces will be those that deploy new technologies in smart ways. Freeing up the employees to focus on value-add customer facing activities – such as SME clients – while automating the repetitive, drudge work.

Simplifying and standardising, via robotics and automation tools, will result in the workforce having to ask fewer questions less often. Removing the functional frustration and costs by classic gripes like constantly retyping and being unable to access policy information will reinvigorate teams.

In a data- and analysis-driven industry like insurance, easy, instant and secure access to files is critical to the smooth running of the business. The adoption of Cloud tools enable that.

Agents will also likely be feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of claims and inquiries received since the lockdown began. Ability to be agile and scale rapidly to deal with spikes can be greatly enhanced by automation rapidly deployed through cloud. As we mentioned above, a hybrid bionic approach combining the best of humans and machines will likely prevail as the optimum solution.

At its core, from its earliest days, insurance has always been about processing data. But that data skillset can be applied internally to the benefit of the employees. Cloud’s huge data-processing and analytical capabilities can allow us to garner better insights on key business decisions but also into team health, wellbeing, performance, productivity resilience and satisfaction.

Agile insurance companies that embrace the digital world will thrive. They will exploit data-driven insights and AI-powered automation enabled by cloud capability to achieve better, more flexible, more secure and more efficient working environments and cultures.  That means using the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to migrate from inflexible and clunky legacy systems housed in on-premises data centres.

Every aspect of the insurance model will benefit, from underwriting quality to efficiency of claims processing. Insurance-as-a-service becomes a reality. But, vitally, the new normal in workplaces and working practices will greatly benefit and reinvigorate the insurance workforce.

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