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A Shift in the Right Direction
Nicole Couwenberg
CEO Norwich Insurance Brokers
Saqib Mehmood
Director of Operations InsureLine Imperial
Meghan Paczkowski
Marine Department Operations Manager, McLean & Dickey
With Ontario’s Covid cases on a steady decline and the province slowly beginning to ease up on restrictions, much of the province is wondering what will happen to the WFH option we’ve become so accustomed to. Insurance being an essential service meant that some brokerages maintained safe distances working at the office and others adapted to a fully remote or hybrid model. We spoke with three brokers on the future of office life and what it looks like for their brokerage.
With things begining to go back to normal in Ontario, will you be transitioning back to the office, staying remote or looking at a hybrid of the two?
NC: Due to our location and a large part of our client base, we’ve been preparing to transition fully back to the office. We’ve renovated to provide each staff member their own space and we’ve installed protective glass barriers for client and staff interaction. But the health and wellness of our staff is what’s most important, so if we have to deviate from our plan, we most certainly will.
SM: At our brokerage, the setup’s been hybrid for a long time. The pandemic didn’t change much in that regard. We’ll continue to operate the same way post-pandemic as long as the nature of work allows a hybrid model.
MP: I’ve transitioned back to the office full-time which has been very positive for me. We moved to a beautiful new space in February which was designed with social distancing in mind, so 90% of our team has been safely working back under one roof for several months. We intend on fully transitioning back to the office, other than as needed to support parents and guardians with children learning virtually.
We have a vested interest in our staff’s learning and development—it’s a value we want each of our employees to feel.
How do you measure success as a remote or hybrid office?
NC: Along with many other businesses, we had to quickly implement new techniques, procedures, routines and most importantly, we created and implemented checkpoints to measure staff performance. We work hand-in-hand with each employee to setup individualized workflows that are optimal for their individual career, their personal success and for the brokerage. The pandemic forced us to act on what we referred to as future technological movements at a much faster pace.
SM: It depends on the role. As long as the work is done as needed, it serves itself as a metric. At our brokerage we prefer that clients are serviced by their broker, as they know the history of their clients well. Since clients have the option to contact the office if their broker isn’t available, that helps identify how well the client’s being served. The major metric for measuring success is client satisfaction and retention.
MP: We measure success by traditional results like growth and retention, but also by the level of collaboration and engagement of our team members. The latter suffered when most of the team was working remotely last year. There was less day-to-day interaction among the team, which meant generally less engagement, fewer opportunities to work together to problem solve and less awareness when someone needed help. It takes a considerable amount of energy to be intentional about engaging with others when working from afar—this tends to be the first thing pushed aside when there’s little energy to spare. 2020 was successful given the environment we had to work with, but it wasn’t conducive to fostering collaboration, growth or team engagement on any significant level.
What challenges do remote workers have compared to those in office?
NC: There are many more challenges working remotely compared to working from the office. The most difficult challenge our staff experienced was time management and productive workflows. When you’re in the office there are far fewer distractions, and it can be easier to remain focused. Some of our staff began to feel the impacts of social isolation working from home, so we created activities to keep our inter-office social time active to ease the impact, especially for those with less family at home.
SM: The biggest challenge from my perspective is the lack of human interaction. Quite frankly, all the work can be handled remotely in today’s digital world. But being able to meet and discuss ideas face-to-face with the possibility of discovering better alternatives is what’s lacking—it’s just not the same communicating by phone or email.
MP: Engaging and building trust with your team is difficult for remote workers. This is especially true for new employees who are working remotely. Ad hoc learning is invaluable and can’t be replaced by virtual interactions to the same effect. We often underestimate the benefit of overhearing difficult situations your colleagues are dealing with and the bond that’s built by offering help or working together to find solutions. Face-to-face interactions, giving or receiving in-person shoutouts for a job well done and stopping by someone’s office to have a laugh or talk about a tough day are all part of what makes us human and connects us to who we are and what we do. Without these interactions, it really starts to feel like a grind.
How will remote work change your hiring practices?
NC: It’s changed our hiring process and procedures including questions asked during our interview process. Our office has created a procedure plan for when all new staff are brought on board—it accommodates both interoffice and remote hiring. Even though remote hiring creates a challenging atmosphere, technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have simplified some of the challenges of hiring during a time of forced remote working.
SM: Most of our work was designed to be handled remotely prior to the pandemic so we haven’t really seen a change in our hiring process.
MP: We didn’t hire new candidates for about six months into the pandemic, but soon realized that in order to meet our strategic goals we’d need a continuous stream of new talent joining our organization. We couldn’t avoid hiring forever! Remote work hasn’t necessarily changed our hiring practice, though we now start with a phone interview before meeting in person for a socially distanced interview. In a couple of instances, we offered a position to a candidate who backed out when they realized they wouldn’t be working remotely, which was a new experience for us. It’s a little strange to bring new team members on without having seen their whole face!
How do you take breaks and recharge throughout the day?
NC: Breaks and recharging are extremely important when it comes to remote work. Studies have shown that taking breaks increases productivity. We stress time management with staff, which includes allowing time to breathe, relax and regain your energy. We encourage staff to take breaks away from their office space as needed and to be sure to take their lunch hour. The outdoors is also a great way to recharge and fuel your mind.
SM: For me personally, anything that’s being productive aside from work is a break—going for a walk, a bike ride or reading up on current affairs or technology. It’s so important.
MP: When I was working from home, my daily walk to the mailbox and watering the flowers on my porch were life savers. These tasks gave me a reason to step away from my desk while requiring little to no brain power to complete. I took up running in the evenings which was a great way to mark the end of work time and the beginning of home time. Although incredibly cliché, the lines between work and home are so easily blurred when they happen in the same place.
How will you educate employees who are new to remote work?
NC: We have a vested interest in our staff’s learning and development—it’s a value we want each of our employees to feel. When working remotely became the new normal, we chose both synchronous and asynchronous delivery modes. It was important to us as an employer to choose and create a delivery model that works for our entire team. It’s key to invest in the right remote training tools for your team.
SM: Our practices are led more by example than anything. Allowing employees to understand the role they play in the organization and how it needs to be carried out is fundamental. Working remotely has led everyone to work more as the expectations and demands of our clients have increased. Focusing on taking care of yourself emotionally and physically is key to a balanced lifestyle.
MP: We’ve moved away from remote work, and since the pandemic began, we’ve expanded our in-house training and development team. We’ve developed and implemented a four week in-person training curriculum for new hires and have conducted training sessions for our existing team members. We have a beautiful training facility in our new office space that allows us to safely conduct in-person, socially distanced training.
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