Thinking Outside the Office
The sudden shift to mass remote working was brought about by the pandemic, but now companies are making more deliberate choices for long-term flexible working.
The Covid-19 pandemic created an abrupt change in working culture among city firms that otherwise might have taken decades to achieve. Now that the immediate crisis is over, companies are reflecting on lessons learned during lockdown, and coming up with longer term strategies for flexible working.
Agility is always important for any business to thrive, never more so since the pandemic.
“Agility is always important for any business to thrive, never more so since the pandemic,” says Nick Cook, CEO, BMS Group, a London-based (re)insurance broker. “In a matter of months, a new age of workplace has emerged; goodbye traditional office, hello modern hubs, reliant on technology to handle much more fluid situations.”
Before the pandemic struck, many firms had already made strides in adopting flexible working, in a bid to improve their diversity and inclusion, as well as to attract and retain staff, by improving their work-life balance.
“We’re all grownups and I think there was already considerable leeway. That’s just become more enhanced,” says James Cooper, director, Damhurst & Co, an insurance executive recruitment consultancy. “Some US-parented companies had obstructive cultures that would turn people off, but those have been kicked into touch.”
Working (Very) Remotely
But allowing everyone the freedom to choose when or where they work — including even moving countries — can work against a company’s interests.
“We have seen some senior candidates move abroad, and, on the broking side, some have been successful, so far, in running teams [who remain] sitting in London,” Cooper says. “However, a potential downside to that is talent retention: you’ve got overseas executives trying to keep hearts and minds in London and building those vital relationships between brokers and underwriters.”
Some US-parented companies had obstructive cultures that would turn people off, but those have been kicked into touch.
Some might think these managers are abusing the privileges of rank, Cooper suggests, which could harm team morale and lead staff to desert in the years ahead.
“The reality is that they probably aren’t lying on a beach somewhere, but their remoteness doesn’t do much for keeping their people committed to the cause. I’m not commenting on whether it’s right or wrong, but it’s a factor,” says Cooper.
He describes one instance of a senior property underwriter who wanted to relocate to Latin America as part of his conditions for taking up a new position managing a property book of business at a London market insurer.
“It became a regulatory issue,” Cooper says. “You can’t have an underwriter taking decisions in that country for a London market portfolio unless you have approval to underwrite from that jurisdiction.”
Employers Must Be Flexible
Not every manager wants to relocate to Rio. Some might simply want to go for a mid-morning jog, or avoid a long commute in and out of central London on days when they don’t have many meetings. Those companies that don’t offer these employees this kind of flexibility will now face problems in keeping hold of them.
“Those that don’t will be left behind,” says Ian Macartney, chief global business service and innovation officer at Argo Group.
“We’ve seen a few large insurance companies mandating that employees return to the office full time, which is surprising following 20 months of successful remote working. We have been able to attract some good, diverse talent due to our hybrid working policy, and I know from speaking with industry peers that others are also benefitting from the inflexibility of some larger companies,” he says.
Cooper names four London market insurers and managing general agents that have insisted on their staff returning to traditional office hours, five days a week.
“There’s been a lot of pushback from staff, but they’re not necessarily going to change it,” Cooper says. Employees have got used to having that flexibility over the past year and a half. “They don’t want to lose that, and they think their work has been of equal quality working remotely.”
Other London firms are adopting a more conciliatory hybrid approach, typified by employees working perhaps one or two days from home each week.
“BMS sought to be proactive and implemented a hybrid working model early on where employees can find a balance without compromising client service,” says Cook.
“There is an expectation that all employees attend the office during the week, however, dependent on their roles and the markets they serve observing country or state guidance on managing the pandemic. So far so good,” he says.
Planning for the Future Workplace
Unlike in the first stages of the pandemic, when decisions were being taken in a crisis, companies have had the luxury of time to plan their exit routes carefully and avoid U-turns where possible.
“Our policy at Argo is that we won’t say something unless we have a formal plan to do it. It’s vital that companies walk the walk before they talk the talk,” says Macartney.
A consultation process revealed a mixed response, reflecting employees’ different circumstances, but a majority preferred a hybrid working approach, Macartney explains.
Our hybrid policy is therefore helping us to attract talent from both banking and insurance.
“We responded by giving employees the ability to choose, equipping the remote and hybrid workers with the equipment needed to be able to work effectively from home. We acknowledged the issue, addressed it with employees, then acted accordingly. There are a few companies in the industry that acted similarly, but many are still playing catch up,” he adds.
The way we work has changed, Cook emphasises. “Our employees recognise the benefits of seeing their colleagues off screen and have enjoyed the sense of belonging and camaraderie that office life brings,” he continues. “That said, they also appreciate the balance that hybrid working affords. It’s new territory for everyone and we are very much testing the water, communicating with each other every step of the way.”
The shift towards flexible working is one instance in which the London insurance market — which has traditionally cultivated a culture distinct from other areas of finance — faces the same pressures as other city firms, particularly its banking neighbours.
“We recently hired a new head of procurement and found that candidates were applying from both insurance and banking,” says Macartney. “This is because people are understandably reluctant to return to the office full time. Our hybrid policy is therefore helping us to attract talent from both banking and insurance.”
Running Ahead of the Law?
While companies might choose to be flexible, employees are still bound by their existing contracts unless they opt to move. However, Cooper notes that companies are not rewriting their contracts when recruiting senior management. “We’ve not seen any significant changes in contracts around,” he says.
Is employment law up to speed, considering the cultural changes taking place in many workplaces? Cooper thinks not. However, Macartney thinks that it will begin to change for the better, beginning to reflect the changes seen over the pandemic.
“In the UK and the US, employment law is actually becoming more flexible as a result of the pandemic, and we are finding that our hybrid policy is in alignment with it,” he says. “This is making it easier to embed a flexible culture because employment law increasingly encourages it. We’ve found, in most cases, that our practices have been ahead of current employment law. We have the opportunity to change the culture of employment, and we intend to do so.”