The Case For a Return to Office

Written by: Ron Scheese

We share the burden of the safety, security and health of our employees as we work to prevent the spread of this contagious virus through and from our organizations.  The optimism of vaccination indicates that science is gaining traction in the battle against this disruptive disease, but the Delta variant is a reminder that we will be navigating the pandemic for quite some time as originally predicted by epidemiologists.  What might this mean for the insurance and technology workplace later in 2021?

A survey by the commercial real estate firm JLL found that about 25% of office workers expect to return to the office full-time, another 25% expect to work permanently from home and almost half of the respondents indicated a preference for a hybrid mix of in-person and remote work. Andesa’s own survey results, taken earlier in the pandemic cycle, indicated an almost 75% preference for a hybrid career experience.

The ability to connect, interact and conduct business in a digital way offers the opportunity for work in the insurance and technology industries to be significantly different than the pre-COVID-19 era.  Say good-bye to the daily 9-to-5, side-by-side, office cube-farm thinking.  As we plan and deliberate if, how, and when to return to our offices, what lessons can we draw from the COVID navigation experiences over the past eighteen months to inform our future thinking?

  • Take Intentional Steps to Craft Culture:

    The concept of industry and career apprenticeship is challenged in a virtual environment. Technical skills can certainly be absorbed via remote training.  However, the softer, business-savvy norms are missed when one’s day-to-day personal interactions are limited to isolation, family or screen interaction.  Relationships are not fostered when people are in “eyes on the screen, hands on the keyboard, headphones on” mode. The benefits of broader company diversity and cross-functional teams are missed when a new hire’s circle of influence is limited to a smaller circle.  Lack of exposure to others in the firm may hinder the long-term career outlook and development opportunities for younger professionals.  They will not have the daily opportunity to observe and interact with a wide variety of others in the firm.  Intentional steps to craft culture to address these issues should start with on-boarding and be considered at each step of a person’s on-going career development.  The hybrid model offers companies the opportunity to be creative in their response.

  • Understand That One-size Doesn’t Fit All:

    No single plan or solution will work across the organization.  Some production work requires use of capital-intensive equipment that is best centralized in the office.  Other production work is transactional and can be processed from anywhere.  The size of the operation and office location may provide for different conclusions about a return to the office.  Small companies and teams, as well as those located in suburban and rural locations, seem to be taking the lead on a return to  the office.  Some employees have sub-optimal home situations or hardships where permanent office space is preferred or necessary for productivity.  All these issues indicate that each situation will be different, and many organizational policies and procedures will need to be evaluated and modified to accommodate the need for greater flexibility in the future.

  • Involve your employees:

    Employees have been remarkably resilient and discovered new ways to make “work” work under some of the most trying circumstances.  Our challenge is to use this flexibility and resiliency to  increase our industry’s ability to attract and retain talent in the future. Tap into this knowledge resource within you team to better inform and define your operational return to work plans.

  • Transition the Workspace to Encourage Creativity and Collaboration:

    There are quiet moments when individual creativity flourishes  and there are serendipitous, idea-generating, causal conversations around the coffee machine.  Many have discovered collaboration through video sessions to be lacking.  The “cool, new, tool” Zoom excitement of 2020 has already morphed into Zoom fatigue. The delays and interruptions while we wait to “unmute” or try to interject a comment  limit the free-flowing team conversations we are used to in person.  I’ve heard teams remark, “if we could just get in a conference room for an afternoon, we could bang this out instead of all this back and forth e-mail and video thing.”  COVID has taught us that, through technology, most professional office employees can accomplish a large part of their responsibilities from anywhere.  But, in an environment where team interdependence is important and in-person collaboration is valued, the flexibility in a hybrid approach will better optimize performance.  The transition of the office asset from permanent workspaces to collaborative, activity-based seats can provide an environment for group collaboration and promote high-performing team coordination opportunities.

In summary,  return to work will require successful companies and leaders to strike the right balance between a flexible-schedule, location-independent, personalized experience with an onsite culture that encourages creativity, collaboration and career development.  Those firms that can best balance employee-preference with the maximization of productivity and efficiency will have better results in talent acquisition and employee retention as well as a competitive advantage for the long-term.

How are you preparing for your return to the office?

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