Get Ready for the New Work Order
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Get Ready for the New Work Order

Business people meeting on video call in the office during COVID-19 pandemic

Lockdown disrupted the world of work forever. In the first of two articles, HR experts discuss the big challenges that insurers and brokers face as they strive to attract and retain the best talent.

A talent shortage loomed over the insurance industry before the pandemic struck, with HR departments in broker and carrier HQs under pressure to attract and keep talent. Today, confronted by what what’s become known as the Big Resignation, the HR challenges facing the sector are at a new level.

While finding the best way to manage a return to the office that suits everyone is the headline issue, HR experts are warning employers that commuting into the office from Monday to Friday is now a thing of the past.

A key challenge for employers is the lack of consensus on what the return to the workplace should look like in terms of where and when staff will be expected to work.
Tilly Harries, barrister and HR support service leader at PwC UK
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Meanwhile, there are myriad issues around homeworking that need to be addressed, from complex duty of care requirements to formulating hybrid working arrangements that are equitable, productive and efficient.

“One of the hallmarks of the ‘great resignation’ is an increasing expectation by employees of significant, and sometimes unreasonable, flexibility — with many employees voting with their feet where it is not forthcoming,” says Nick Elwell-Sutton, partner at Clyde & Co. “So the pressure is on employers to strike a sustainable balance between the benefits and drawbacks of office and homeworking as well as ensuring optimal operating models.

“The very fact of being required to return to the office at all, or as part of hybrid working arrangements, is a common flashpoint, whether for childcare reasons where homeworking has facilitated greater flexibility, for those with health conditions reluctant to return at all, or those that simply find homeworking more congenial.”

Tilly Harries, barrister and HR support service leader at PwC UK, agrees. She expects some difficult discussions and, potentially, disputes: “A key challenge [for employers] is the lack of consensus on what the return to the workplace should look like in terms of where and when staff will be expected to work. Another is how to accommodate individual employee needs and expectations around flexibility whilst still meeting the needs of the business and the wider workforce.”

Harries foresees awkward scenarios such as staff who want to continue working from home in the long term, who have contextual reasons for doing so, such as caring duties or concern about the cost and climate effects of travel for example, and have had no performance or productivity issues whilst homeworking over the last two years. “Requiring such individuals to now attend the office on a regular basis, even in a hybrid arrangement, may prove difficult,” Harries warns.

Work/Life, Home/Office Decisions

If talent retention is going to need a new, more nuanced approach, there are big challenges ahead for insurers and brokers looking to recruit staff — and not just in the upper echelons of management.

One of the hallmarks of the ‘great resignation’ is an increasing expectation by employees of significant, and sometimes unreasonable, flexibility — with many employees voting with their feet where it is not forthcoming.
Nick Elwell-Sutton, partner at Clyde & Co.
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There is a talent shortage and, following the pandemic, the ball is now in the candidate’s court: if they were already thinking about a new position there has never been a better time to move — and call the shots.

The combination of dearth of talent, hard market and people generally re-evaluating what they want out of a work/life balance has meant insurance people are willing to leverage their position as much as they can. One leading London-based recruitment consultant told Insider Engage that job candidates are drawing the line at working more than three days in the office.

“We had one typical candidate this week who got down to the final terms on salary, bonus etc. and was about to sign when they asked for two days a week working from home in perpetuity in writing. They wanted it forever or they weren’t going to move.

“It’s not just at the exec level: mid-tier and entry level employees through the office are making exactly the same demands, across underwriters and brokers.”

The same consultant said they were aware of one London market insurer that is finding it difficult to recruit talent because it is insisting on four to five days in the office across the board: “The firm is well respected, a good payer and a recognised brand — but people are unwilling to entertain the idea of going back into the office full-time.”

A spokesperson for Lloyd’s said the Corporation views hybrid working as a positive — and inevitable: “It’s unlikely we will return to ways of working before the pandemic and being flexible and getting the right balance for organisations will be crucial. We are going to need to be competitive on flexible benefits and make sure the ways of working in place work for us all — employers and employees.

“On the question of recruiting and retaining talent, we all know that employees and new hires will be assessing our flexible working policies and weighing them against other prospective employers.”

Mandatory Vaccination Minefield

Any return to the office for existing employees is still fraught with problems. “The office environment throws up its own challenges for disputes between employees with varying approaches to the risks of Covid such as around mask wearing, proximity of contact and personal views around vaccines. Indeed, it is not impossible that anti-vax could be soon be tested as a protected philosophical belief,” says Clyde’s Nick Elwell-Sutton.

Covid testing and vaccination is an employment practices liability minefield. The UK government has made vaccination compulsory for workers in English care homes and, from 1 April 2022, for all frontline health and social care workers. Employers in these sectors can rely on a legislative basis for dismissing employees who refuse to have the vaccine. However, in all other sectors, the Government currently only advises encouraging employees to take up the vaccine and notes that vaccinations are not suitable for everyone.

There are a number of legal risks for employers that implement a mandatory vaccination policy, which could result in claims being brought, and EPL cases ensuing, Elwell-Sutton says: “Claims employees could bring if they were dismissed because of being unvaccinated include unfair dismissal, if they have at least two years’ service, and discrimination.”

Where an employee’s reluctance or refusal to get vaccinated is related to a protected characteristic, for example an extreme anxiety regarding the vaccination, could amount to a disability under the Equality Act, employers will be at risk of discrimination claims if they insist that employees be vaccinated to continue in their roles, access company benefits or attend company premises or events, PwC’s Harries warns.

“It’s also important to remember that vaccination status itself is special category data as it relates to private health information. This means that employers who don’t have a good reason for requiring this data and who use, retain or share vaccination data inappropriately could also risk claims for breaches of privacy rights,” Harries adds.

Legal experts point out that mandatory Covid testing is different again to compulsory vaccination. Requiring employees to have a vaccine is much more intrusive than requiring them to take a Covid test, which is a reasonable health and safety requirement to help protect employees in the workplace, Elwell-Sutton points out. Given employers’ health and safety obligations, to keep their workplaces Covid-secure, if an employee fails to follow the employer’s reasonable instructions to take a Covid test, this could be treated as misconduct and a fair ground for dismissal, he says.

As vaccination and testing ushers in a new phase of endemic Covid and hybrid working takes hold insurers and brokers insurance employers’ now have to review their responsibilities around duty of care and health and safety when many of their staff are working remotely.

In part two of this article we’ll look at how forward thinking insurance businesses can adapt to an agile working model that takes account of employees’ wellbeing as well as their productivity.