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No 'big rush' by insurance companies to send employees back to offices

The largest U.S. insurers are not likely to send employees back to their offices for several more months, and even then only a fraction of their workforces will be allowed to return.

Industry executives in human resource divisions are reporting that the shift to a virtual environment spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic has been successful for many companies, leading them to explore ways to expand collaboration and innovation as remote working becomes a permanent reality for some. Life insurance executives report that the sector has been able to prioritize the digitization of tools and processes that allows it to continue selling its products.

Tina Witney, a managing director at Deloitte's Insurance Consulting practice, recently co-authored a report that covers the challenges and uncertainties that financial services companies face as they deliberate if and when to resume operations in workplaces around the world.

"What we're seeing, by and large, is that there's not a big rush to return back to the office," Witney said. "Organizations are really focused on figuring out what the right timing is."

Given that the timing for returns is variable across companies and geographies, Witney does not expect an "all or nothing" approach. Insurers with many employees in large office buildings are still trying to figure out how to deal with issues such as public transportation and elevators in skyscrapers, where a limit on the number of people using them at one time may cause significant delays in getting personnel from one floor to another.

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"There's no silver bullet on this one," Witney said. "You need to do some analytics around the roles themselves and then ... you need to factor in that personal side to it as well as to who should come back in and who should remain remote and for what period of time."

Some insurers are prepared to put more energy into plans to move toward a virtual work environment as a sustainable model for the future.

Nationwide, for example, announced April 29 that it would be moving to a permanent "hybrid operating model" where employees will primarily work from home. The company will retain four corporate campus locations and aims to exit buildings outside of the main campuses by November, with a few exceptions.

Genworth Financial Inc.'s executive vice president of human resources, Pam Harrison, said management has told employees that they will not come back "any sooner than the first week of September." If they do come back, fewer than 10% of employees will be allowed into the office. The company will also implement temperature scans and elevator capacity restrictions, require face coverings and create one-way traffic flow staircases.

The company is essentially sending a message that it does not want employees to be back in the office because "our priority is your health," Harrison said.

A spokesperson for MetLife Inc. said in an email that the company has a team "considering all aspects of return to office from employee protection and site readiness to peer benchmarking and official guidance."

Lisa Buckingham, Lincoln National Corp.'s executive vice president and chief people, place and brand officer, said in an email that management is looking at the short-term requirements to return employees safely but is also thinking of the long term as well.

"Virtual work may play a much larger role for Lincoln Financial, even in a post-COVID work environment," Buckingham said.

At American Family Insurance Co. there are two teams working under Jim St. Vincent, vice president of human resources. One is focused on what returning employees to the office looks like and how that can be done safely, while the other team is "reimagining normal."

"We certainly see many more people working from home in the future, and that's both permanently as well as people who might choose to work at home three or more days a week," St. Vincent said, noting that about 20% of the company's workforce was remote prior to the pandemic.

Though there may be a small group of employees who return to the office in phases in the fall, St. Vincent said that would probably only add up to 5% to 10% of its workforce, and would be limited mainly to those who have "hardships" at home and would be more efficient at the office. Employees who are not comfortable returning will be able to stay at home even after the phased approach begins.

"We're hoping by then there will be more contact tracing capabilities, more reliable testing and more availability of testing," St. Vincent said.

St. Vincent has participated in calls with other human resource leads across the insurance industry, and said there is a range of timings, with some insurers wanting to reopen offices in July, while a few others are committed to not even starting that process before January 2021. All plans are fluid though, he said, and some of those plans may be disrupted, particularly if there is a resurgence of the virus later this year.