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Remote working: The winter of our discontent

Keeping up morale and employee mental health as the winter lockdown endures has become a major preoccupation for business leaders. Insider Engage discovers some of the creative solutions firms have been exploring to keep their people motivated and happy

Woman looking out window holding coffee cup, winter outside
Kara Gebhardt /Getty Images/iStockphoto

10 lessons from lockdown

• Employers have recognised that ‘home working’ doesn’t equate to ‘not working’

• Remote working hours have to be carefully managed by employers to avoid staff burning out

• Staff need to be mindful that other colleagues’ non-work commitments may mean they are working to different shift patterns

• Greater flexibility is needed, especially in the winter months, to accommodate the need for employees to take breaks/get some exercise

• Regular and varied communication is a key tool for firms to keep staff engaged and motivated

• Re-opening offices when practicable has been a great benefit for those employees whose home situation is not conducive to remote working

• Virtual social and networking events not only help to maintain existing employee relationships but are also crucial in connecting recent joiners with their new colleagues

• In addition to social events, online wellbeing resources and care packages, volunteering opportunities can help with employees’ sense of wellbeing and purpose

• Formal learning programmes and mentoring schemes are essential for giving new recruits and early-career employees the opportunity to learn on the job – as well as adding to companies’ attractiveness to future recruits

• Wellbeing policies and flexible working arrangements are likely to become a fixture in most companies’ employment packages

By now, everyone is well versed in some of the main tropes that have arisen from successive coronavirus-related lockdowns and their associated restrictions.

Wearing a facemask has become routine for many, and a norm for most. Socialising via Zoom has definitely lost its novelty value - such that when bars and restaurants are allowed to re-open, it’s not only the smokers who rush for the outside seating in all weathers, but anyone seeking to socialise without breaking the rules around mixing households.

And everyone who can do so, has got to grips with the practicalities of doing their job from home – whether that means setting up an office in a corner of the lounge, conservatory, dining room, spare bedroom, hallway or vestibule of some kind.

Shared experiences of 2020

When it comes to the (re)insurance world, the experiences relayed by executives from across the ecosystem show some close parallels also.

While the industry has collectively congratulated itself for its ability to quickly adapt business to remote working, experiences of that transition will have differed.

Large, corporate firms are likely to have had contingency plans and resources – from laptops to Microsoft Teams accounts - in place, making the transition relatively seamless.

Smaller firms may have had to scramble to set up virtual conferencing software and either supply employees with laptops or ship monitors and other equipment to their homes.

However, while everyone has ultimately adapted to the mechanics of remote working, more existential problems with the reality of working from home five days a week have come to the fore.

People have begun to recognise that the flipside of an onerous commute is that for some it provided a brief period of ‘me time’, away from family or housemates, to prepare yourself for the working day.

“I don’t think as a society we realised how important it was to get on a train and go somewhere,” says Toby Sisson - head of HR at McGill and Partners. “We all, as individuals, moaned about that, but actually now people really hark back [to that] and want to have the normality.”

Others are missing the social interaction of the workplace and the creative energy sparked by spontaneous interactions with colleagues.

And for those with children, there has been the additional stress of trying to balance work with parenting during the more stringent periods of lockdown when schools and nurseries have been closed.

“The initial lockdown, when we were home schooling, was a really hard period for a lot of people in the company,” recalls James Willison, managing director of software firm WCL. “I was very aware that for other people in the organisation, especially those with perhaps two kids who are school age, that it made the working day very problematic.”

And then there was the issue of bringing new staff on board, and acclimatising recent recruits to the office environment without an actual office to go to.

Claire Parkinson, head of HR at Aegis London, experienced first-hand some of the challenges faced by new members of staff.

“I joined Aegis London in February last year and was actually only in the office for three weeks before lockdown, so the role of head of HR was immediately thrown into the spotlight,” she says. “There was a lot to consider in terms of what we were going to do with regards to mental health and wellbeing throughout what, at the time, we thought was going to be a relatively short period of working from home.”

Psychological safety

The move to so-called flexible way of working has generated issues of its own.

On the one hand, there has been a major psychological shift on the part of employers who may have been reluctant to give their employees more freedom to work from home, but are now realising they can actually trust them to get on with their jobs unsupervised.

“If there was any doubt or concern in the past about not getting as much work out of people when they’re at home, that’s just been completely dispelled,” says WCL’s Willison. “If anything, we’re getting to the stage where we’re telling people, ‘Look, you need to down tools’.”

“Initially people were working incredibly long days, there’s no doubt about it,” says Parkinson. “We have ambitious growth plans and remote working was quite new to Aegis so the long days probably became more normal. Eventually you don’t factor in the lunch breaks, and you don’t have the opportunity to have those water cooler conversations as much, so it becomes quite intense.”

As well as people needing reminders to stop working at the natural end of the working day, remote working has also involved learning some new rules of etiquette, where people’s working patterns differ. Sending an email to a colleague may necessitate an appended explanation that while the sender is working late, they don’t expect a reply or action from their colleague until the latter has resumed their own set of working hours.

James Stevenson, managing director at H W Kaufman Group, London, believes there are three further issues that have been created by the impact of working from home, namely: “less idea generation; less engagement - with leadership, markets, peers and mentors; and less ability to feel psychologically safe.”

“It helps that we are a large, privately-owned, multi-generational family company,” he continues. “Though large, we are made up of a collection of distinct brands of intermediaries, [and] these units are of a size that allows everyone to know that they are valued and contribute to the culture of the organisation.”

Winter working

In the run-up to the Christmas period and looking ahead over the first quarter of this year, the challenges facing firms trying to keep employees motivated and taking care of their mental health has changed dramatically.

“Long periods of lockdown are expected to lead to psycho-social problems and ergonomic issues,” says Eva Rodríguez, deputy manager of diversity and wellbeing for MAPFRE’s Corporate People and Organization Area

She says the firm was aware from the outset of the crisis that it could affect employees’ wellbeing, and immediately set out to deploy contingency plans.

“Given MAPFRE's concern from the outset, our employees have not had significant problems beyond the logical difficulty of balancing work and family care during lockdown, especially when caring for small children or dependent elderly relatives,” she says.

With gyms closed and social venues restricted or closed also, opportunities for people to get exercise and to relax outside of the work/home environment has shifted to parks and other open spaces. However, exercise has become more of a challenge in the winter months as the weather has worsened and the hours of daylight have reduced.

Many companies have evinced a duty of care, in reminding and persuading their employees to step away from their home desk, whether it’s to take the dog for a walk, take the kids to the park, or go for a walk, jog or cycle themselves.

However, employers will need to be mindful of some of the long-term effects of the pandemic on not only the workplace but the wider social environment.

“The current situation is lasting for far longer than expected,” says MAPFRE’s Rodríguez, who highlights the increased risk to the working-age population of “anxiety, depression and stress due to the current situation”.

She suggests that the most effective way to mitigate this risk is by creating an environment “that is as close to normal as possible”, while still abiding by necessary health and safety measures.

Importance of communication

This element of pastoral care on the part of employers has highlighted one of the key tools that companies have used to help their employees adapt to the current situation: efficient communication.

“The regularity of communication - at the individual level, the team level, and the group level - has been key. And we’re a relatively small company, so that connectivity is easier,” says McGill and Partners’ Sisson.

This communication has taken many forms. For large firms, the town hall or webinar via Zoom or GoTo has been invaluable in updating employees on company strategy and actions and resources available to them.

For smaller firms, a more informal Zoom/Teams call with the entire company has taken the place of the stand-up office meeting. And of course, regular team meetings have shifted from the office meeting/conference room to an online platform.

“The thing we’re working on and ensuring we try and keep is that horizontal communication,” says Parkinson. “People have still got their daily team meetings and the vertical communication is excellent, so we’ve been ensuring that people get those opportunities to speak to people from different teams across the business.”

“One of the critical things about going to remote working was that communication piece,” agrees Willison. “We did not have a weekly stand-up call with the whole company before the first lockdown but now we have a Monday morning catch-up, where everyone gets on the phone for 10-15 minutes, and that will now continue.”

But as well as keeping employees up to date with company strategy, firms have also used these forums to cajole workers to take more breaks, to encourage employees to make use of some of their accumulated leave, and to highlight some of the wellbeing resources available through the company.

“One of the things that’s been working really well is our networking groups,” says Parkinson. Aegis London has three main groups in this respect – for people who are living alone, for people in a house share with a partner or housemates, and for parents who are trying to manage childcare and work.

“We recognise that there are many different challenges for different people,” Parkinson adds.

Desperately seeking solutions

In order to keep staff happy and motivated companies have initiated a number of responses.

Recognising the need for some people to have a work space that is distanced from home life and enable them to work more effectively, most companies have sought to re-open offices to some degree, rendered Covid-safe with social distancing measures, screening and hygiene stations.

“Until the latest lockdown period, we have had the office open and our advice to all our colleagues is exactly in line with the government, which is where you can work from home do so, however we do appreciate that that is not right, appropriate or correct for everybody,” says Sisson. “For those who have utilised that facility, the sense of relief and mental positivity it brings them, even if they’re only entering the office one day a month, is massive.”

The social side of the office has also been resurrected in some form, with many companies having pursued a number of different online social events, from the ubiquitous quiz, to wine, beer or cheese tastings, bingo nights and a range of competitive interactions from fitness tests to talent contests to cooking competitions.

“I think everybody’s a bit over the quiz thing,” says Sisson. “We have had dress-up Fridays, and I for one have appeared on this camera in an interesting array of outfits. We had a truly excellent talent session in the summer, some of the content of which was stunning. I think some of our broking colleagues took the wrong career path early on.”

At Aegis London, Parkinson says that in the absence of Christmas parties and lunches the firm launched a ’12 Days of Christmas’ series of events, involving both colleagues and their families, and covering activities from gingerbread house decorating, wreath-making, and a festive food competition, to tree decorating and the inevitable Christmas jumper competition.

Firms have also sought to replicate non-business communications virtually, with water cooler conversations and lunchtime chats replaced by networking schemes, support groups and online chat schemes – as well as online yoga and exercise classes.

Aegis London converted its existing inter-departmental lunch programme into virtual lunches where two members of the executive team meet with four people from different teams across the business in a more informal setting.

The company has also started a facility called ‘Aegis Chat’ where, on a weekly basis, an algorithm pairs everyone in the company with someone from a different part of the business, for a 15-30 minute chat – a kind of speed-dating for employee relations.

Firms have also introduced more formal wellness initiatives – from company policies to online resources and advice and even, in MAPFRE’s case, access to clinical psychologists via its online support services.

“Pretty early on we recognised that this is something that is very alien for a lot of people, so we partnered with Infinity Wellness [Project], who have focused a lot on mental wellbeing and mental health and we’ve run a series of sessions,” says Willison. “We had lunch and learn sessions anyway, so we used those sessions with [Infinity Wellness] and extended those out.”

MAPFRE’s Rodríguez says her division has created and compiled content related to “health and safety, leadership, collaborative working, digital skills, training and so on”, to meet the likely needs of employees.

“We also anticipated the fact that different countries would have the same needs but not necessarily at the same time,” she says, explaining that the firm has compiled an extensive series of information kits on these topics, which its HR departments worldwide are able to use depending on what stage they have reached.

Care packages also seem to be a popular way of making staff feel valued and connected – with everything from fruit baskets to craft beer selections winging their way to employees’ homes.

And in the pre-Christmas period, MAPFRE’s Rodríguez says the firm was promoting a more altruistic solution to employee wellbeing.

“Volunteering is a good way to make this Christmas extra special,” she says. “Focusing on people who need extra help and care and offering support raises our self-esteem and makes us grow as people. It gives us knowledge that can only be obtained by performing selfless acts for others.”


One informal prediction as the first lockdown descended was that the job market would grind to a halt as tightening resources drove hiring freezes. Initially, this appeared to be the case, but once companies got to grips with remote working, recruitment seems to have picked up with gusto.

While many people will have suffered extended periods of furlough or even lost their jobs due to the economic impact of Covid, the flow of talent around the (re)insurance market nonetheless seems to have picked up in 2020.

Bringing new employees on board has been talked about in similarly pessimistic terms to the prospect of remote working, with new recruits expected to struggle without the opportunity to physically meet their new colleagues. However, firms seem to have adapted to this challenge also.

In addition to couriering office equipment to new employees, firms have also set up ‘buddy’ schemes so that newcomers have a personal point of reference at the company, in the shape of a colleague who can familiarise them with the company and with other colleagues.

Workplace earning for new and recent joiners has also been addressed through introducing or adapting existing mentoring schemes to make sure that new colleagues are getting the on-the-job training that they need.

“In the insurance industry, especially on the underwriting side, people learn a lot through shadowing experienced [colleagues] - underwriters, sat at the box at Lloyd’s - so we’ve had to put measures in place to ensure that people continue to grow at the pace they would had they been in the office,” says Parkinson.

One positive consequence for any firm that has continued hiring throughout the pandemic, and has had to work on a consistent approach to onboarding new employees, is that success of such schemes, in concert with any wellbeing programmes they have initiated, is likely to make them more attractive to future employees.

“We have worked closely with people we’ve onboarded in this period to ensure that everyone has a consistent and detailed induction plan,” says Parkinson.

“[The feedback] from the interviews is that at least 50 percent of people asked whether we have informal, flexible working, so it’s definitely something that we need to ensure we retain in order to attract the best talent within the market.”

The future of the workplace

As companies look ahead to a continuation of remote working - at least for the first quarter of 2021 and most likely well into the middle of the year and beyond - further changes are likely to occur in working practices.

Companies that have not already done so may be exploring the options of some kind of online resource for wellbeing. Resilience plans for future contingencies will be re-worked, with resilience and remote working training for managers and staff likely to be a regular activity.

Online events and training are likely to become a staple for most, even when a full return to the physical office is practically achievable, not least because they give employers greater flexibility in scheduling events, enabling them to accommodate off-site workers or attendees who would otherwise be travelling or in a different location on the date of a specific event.

Agile working guidelines are likely to join wellbeing schemes in companies’ employee policy outlines.

As Willison notes: “[Infinity Wellbeing Project] have provided a lot of input for us to put together a mental wellbeing policy, which is a first for us. Obviously it’s the right thing to do, but whether we would have done that if we hadn’t gone into lockdown and remote working…it’s certainly accelerated our focus on those things.”

And, whether you like it or not, most are agreed that the traditional 9-5, five-day working week will consigned to history as employers and employees alike make use of this experience to work more flexibly and efficiently – whether in the office, at home, or travelling.

“We’ve had a lot of focus groups running around the business about what the future ways of working will look like,” says Aegis London's Parkinson.

“One of the things that people are finding is that their work/life balance feels better in some ways. People have fed back that they get to pick their children up from school, they get to have dinner with their partner every night, so I think people want to take that side of it and keep it going.”