By Naomi Grosman    |    16-minute read

In this issue we explore the return-to-office vs remote working discussions insurance companies have been having. Employers weigh up staff sentiments, productivity, hybrids, reduced office overhead costs and work-life balance as they formulate plans for an ever-shifting pandemic situation.

Safety First

“All decisions we’ve made have been rooted in how we can look after employees, who are looking after policyholders and brokers.’” - Carol Jardine, EVP & President, Canadian P&C Operations, Wawanesa Mutual Insurance

Since March 2020 many insurance industry employees, like other industries, have resided in their homes working remotely as gathering restrictions have been put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Driven by the pandemic, between 2016 and 2021, the at-home workforce jumped from 5% to 32%, for Canadians aged 15 - 69, according to Statistics Canada.

By the end of 2020, Canadians started getting vaccinated and by mid-January 2022 nearly 80% of the Canadian population had received two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

But the emergence of the Omicron variant changed the perspective of many people on return-to-office timelines and pre-pandemic work-life balance.

“We started having holiday events in some provinces in late 2021 and even had a retirement celebration in Winnipeg,” said Carol Jardine, EVP & President, Canadian P&C Operations, at Wawanesa Mutual Insurance. “We thought we were getting closer to pre-pandemic life, before Omicron hit.”

She said in addition to the disruption the pandemic brought to people’s worklife, the ebbs and flows of the pandemic are a strain.

“People are tired,” she said. “When announcements  made that the pandemic is really over…that will be the true test of returning to pre-pandemic life.”

According to a KPMG poll from August 2021, 62% of Canadian small- and medium-sized businesses plan on or are making vaccines mandatory for employees to return to the office. And 90% of those businesses identify as being well prepared to bring employees back in-house.

But what are the insurance industry’s plans and approach to get staff safely back into the office?

Part I
What do employees want? — a front line perspective

At Winnipeg-based Wawanesa Mutual Insurance, a remote work program has been in place since 2019. The company has approximately 4,200 employees in offices across Canada in its P&C and Life businesses, as well as Wawanesa General in the U.S.

EVP and President of Canadian P&C Operations Carol Jardine said due to the company’s long history — it has been in operation for nearly 125 years — its business continuity planning had incorporated scenarios that included employees not being able to come into the office.

“(In 2018) we tested…how many people could work remotely and had to figure out what we would need to do assuming that no one could come into the office,” Jardine said. “We’ve often talked about how the Spanish flu and wars have impacted the company — when you have a history of survival you tend to plan for surprises. We think we were ready for this one.”

Since 2019 Wawanesa’s remote work program has been available for some areas of the business. Before the pandemic approximately 13% of the insurer’s workforce was approved to work remotely, the majority of whom worked remotely at least three days of the week. Currently, less than 5% of its workforce works in the office, performing essential duties.

"Wawanesa does not plan to introduce a mandated return-to-office plan," Jardine said.

“We have taken a bit of a different stance than some other companies of the same size because of our purpose and who we are as mutual — to look after one another,” she said. “All decisions we’ve made have been rooted in how we can look after employees, who are looking after our policyholders and brokers.”

She said if working remotely is effective, it begs the question: why return to the office?

“As long as they are doing what is expected at the quality it was done from the office, we want employees to have the freedom to choose where they work,” Jardine said. “We allow employees to decide what works for them.”

Office and Remote working banner

Weighing the options

“It has become apparent that working remotely resonates with our team and if we don’t give them these options they can go elsewhere,” Adam Mitchell, CEO Mitchell & Whale Insurance Brokers Ltd.

Intact Financial Corp. did not have a spokesperson available for comment but said it is continuing to work on a return to office plan.

Desjardins Group said its employees whose tasks allow them to work remotely have been asked to do so for the coming weeks, as per public health guidelines. Beyond that, the return to office will be gradual and done in several phases and the company will adopt a flexible remote work formula for the majority of its employees who will alternate between being in the office and working remotely.

Pushing the envelope even further away from a hybrid work model, Whitby, Ont.-based insurance brokerage Mitchell & Whale Insurance Brokers Ltd. is weighing the cost and benefit of having a physical location, and even considering sending a team member abroad through, a model that allows staff to travel around the world while working full time.

Mitchell & Whale’s offices have been open throughout the pandemic. Its staff is mostly in Ontario, where it writes all of its business, with three staff members outside of the province in Alberta, Quebec, and New Brunswick.

“We don’t have plans to bring people back into the office,” said CEO Adam Mitchell, “We’ve had the office open on a volunteer basis during the pandemic — it is open right now and is an option to everyone.”

However, out of its nearly 100 employees, only a small percentage is using the office, he said.

“We will continue to offer coming to the office as an option, but the team will call the shots — I don’t think the leadership team cares where their employees are located.”

He said prior to the pandemic it was assumed that it was easier to manage staff while they were all in one location. Being forced to test technology and management capabilities remotely has rendered that assumption questionable.

“It has become apparent that working remotely resonates with our team and if we don’t give them these options they can go elsewhere,” Mitchell said.

He added that the preferences his staff cite for coming into the office instead of working from home are wanting to break up the work day, collaborate with their team members, and improved focus at the office.

“It’s mostly the same people who are coming in, the strong majority stay at home full time,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said trying to go back to pre-pandemic management is not necessarily the best option.

“It wasn’t the perfect way to manage a team and we consider key performance indicators as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to return to a pre-2020 management style only because it’s an option,” he said. “It’s the quality of work and the metrics that matter, if the client is getting great service and you are being a good teammate, does it matter where you are located?”

The business has grown over the course of the pandemic, Mitchell & Whale has hired 30 - 40 new staff members who have worked remotely since joining the team, and sales have improved by 30% over the course of the past two years.

Toronto-headquartered brokerage Navacord has a different view on the benefits of people returning to the office.

Navacord has over 2,000 employees in approximately 100 locations across Canada. It is licensed in every province and territory and has physical offices in all provinces except Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the territories.

Because of its unique operations, with over 40 local brands serving communities across the country, it has adopted a decentralized management model.

Kristin Coulombe, Senior VP of HR, said Navacord’s decentralized operation means that each location has its own leadership, employees and in some cases, its own HR team. Because it is located across the country, and the pandemic has affected each province differently, each Navacord location has had a different approach.

“Each business has implemented what they have needed to achieve our guiding approach — keeping employees safe and clients serviced properly,” Coulombe said. “That may look different business to business and province to province: some have kept 100% of staff in the office, others have transitioned remotely to 100% since March 2020 — this is the complexity that we are dealing with nationally.”

Navacord Chief Operating Officer Melanie Muise said the decentralized model allows the company to share ideas, different approaches, and best practices across the group of companies.

“At the beginning of the pandemic we had a timeboxed challenge — we needed to get staff set up to work from home all at once, and that was a tangible and solvable problem,” Muise said. “But longer term, questions around how to build and sustain a culture, and replace in-person relationships and casual conversations remotely remain.”

“We crossed off the tangible issues — technology. But the intangible, soft skill items are a lot more challenging.”

Navacord’s philosophy to safely return to an in-office culture is rooted in the feedback it is getting from staff, Coulombe said.

“A happy, healthy, modern workforce tolerates and embraces a hybrid work environment — a manager that blindly wishes for people to be in the office doesn’t exist in our culture.” Melanie Muise, COO, Navacord

“We rate the willingness to come back to the office as high, through our broker partners doing regular checks and surveys with their employees,” said. “We also see the benefits of having an in-office work culture and have an extreme amount of flexibility for those who need accommodation — throughout the pandemic and beyond.”

Muise said it’s not about imposing a management style onto the workforce but finding what type of work environment is the most beneficial for employees and for the business.

“A happy, healthy, modern workforce tolerates and embraces a hybrid work environment — a manager that blindly wishes for people to be in the office doesn’t exist in our culture,” she said. “It’s not about necessarily being the same way as it was before but people are excited about being back together, and flexible and hybrid work models are the right way to get back face to face.”

She said that in 2021, teams with highest sales were teams that were together face to face.

Coulombe said it’s unclear what exactly influenced those higher sales numbers but it’s possible that it was simply getting the engagement and encouragement that comes with being in the office that did the trick.

Five policies to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the office:

1. Vaccination
2. Physical Distancing
3. Best quality masks
4. Manage air flow
5. Health screening and questionnaires

Part II
What does it take to be prepared? A medical professional’s perspective

Dr. Matthew Burnstein, general practitioner and occupational health consultant at corporate wellness and health clinic Medcan, said, while wanting to put safety at the forefront, some of his clients have been eager to get their staff back into offices since the summer of 2020.

“Each time a wave passed employers wanted to bring staff back — I have seen this several times over the course of two years,” Dr. Burnstein said. “It has been very frustrating and the question ‘when is it going to end?’ has added to the angst of the pandemic.”

He said prior to the pandemic the insurance industry, among many others, had begun equipping their employees with the right technology to work from home.

“Some companies had been moving to remote working, the pandemic only accelerated the transition,” Dr. Burnstein said. “This has been challenging for managers. For example, how to structure their employees’ work days, and it has been a big learning curve.”

He said while there are numerous ways employers can prevent the spread of Covid — and other illnesses — at this point in the pandemic, one truth remains: working from home is the best prevention to curb the spread.

Dr. Burnstain said for businesses that are moving ahead with returning staff to the office, these are the top five policies to consider putting in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19:

1. Vaccination:
“It’s the single most important thing,” he said. “I appreciate the angst around getting vaccinated and it is a contentious issue. But (worldwide) 5 billion people have been given the vaccine, there is good knowledge of its near term side effects and there are very few medical reasons not to get vaccinated.”

2. Physical Distancing:
For workplaces that require an in-person, collaborative approach they need to be six feet apart when in the office, Dr. Burnstein said.

3. Best quality masks:
He said that it is now known that there is aerosol spread with the Omicron variant, therefore N95 masks should be worn when possible, in particular walking down hallways and on elevators.

4. Managing air flow:
Workplaces should ensure their HVAC systems are unobstructed at all times, working at maximum levels and that filters have the highest rating their system can handle. Windows should be open where possible, boardrooms and cubicles with open doors should be left open. Where HVAC systems are older, companies should consider getting standing air filtration units, Dr. Burnstein said.

5. Health screening and questionnaires:
A routine screening for everyone is useful for those who are asymptomatic (rapid testing is not accurate enough to rely on, especially for those who are asymptomatic). If anyone feels anything but perfectly well, as of Jan. 13 (the day of Dr. Burnstein’s interview) they have Covid until proven otherwise, he said.

This list is not exhaustive. There are other important health measures, such as giving staff ready access to hand sanitizer.

Dr. Burnstein said it’s important to communicate with staff what health policies and procedures are in place, implement a more liberal sick leave policy, and set staff up for success to work from home.

“It’s important to allow people to stay at home when they choose — not penalize them for doing so, and to have employee assistance to help people deal with working from home, or transitioning back to the office,” he said. “Companies we are working with are looking for ways to safely return people to the workplace. Some have made the decision that they are in no big rush but some people want to go to a smaller office footprint — they know it can be done to have a happy workforce because they recognize it's a real advantage to work in an office — it can be very isolating to work from home.”

Part III
Approaches to ensuring employee wellbeing

The intersection of blurry boundaries between work life and home life, and the lack of social engagement with coworkers has made mental wellbeing a particular concern for employers during the pandemic.

Ensuring a work-life balance has been addressed by the Ontario government. Recently the “Working for Workers Act” was passed in the Ontario legislature to ensure labour laws keep up with the complexities of remote work, among other modern day labour trends.

At Wawanesa Mutual Insurance they recognized the importance of supporting leaders with the mental health ramifications of the pandemic — not just anxiety surrounding health and the uncertainty the pandemic has created but also the challenges of working remotely.

“These waves and cycles of the pandemic are tiring and we assume that everyone is feeling that,” said Jardine, EVP and President of Canadian P&C Operations. “We invested in additional mental health support and have given staff more hours towards that support.”

“Having a good working environment for teams and autonomy of your life will probably attract higher caliber talent.” Adam Mitchell, CEO Mitchell & Whale

She said leaders at Wawanesa have been able to access mental health training through Queen's University, and are encouraged to communicate with their staff and provide support on a daily basis.

“It’s the perfect storm for leaders — we can’t reach out and be with everyone, so because it’s more difficult, we are giving people the skills they need to navigate that.”

And if someone wants to come back to work now, if their mental health is suffering or there are other things going on at home that are not conducive to work, accommodations are made, she added.

“If people want to come, they can, because we are an essential business,” Jardine said.

She said staff that want to return to the office have to do a daily home evaluation, need to be vaccinated, adhere to physical distancing measures at the office, and wear masks.

Mitchell & Whale’s CEO Adam Mitchell said the office culture held a special place in people’s social lives and because that has been taken away, it’s important that it is replaced with other hobbies and social activities.

But ultimately the decision to get people back into the office hinges on the efficacy and success of remote work and, ultimately, what staff want, Mitchell said.

“If we can embrace working remotely, there can be benefits for the customer, he said. “Having a good working environment for teams and autonomy of your life will probably attract higher caliber talent.”

He said the pandemic has elicited tough questions like what is the purpose of having an office and whether paying rent is the best way to spend money?

“Most employees seem pretty happy at home,” Mitchell said. “If someone has a better playbook, I’d like to see it but we are growing and I don’t think I would have a net happier team in the office or a better performing one, so why do it?”

The question of the wellbeing of staff has been a top consideration for Navacord as it navigates the policies and procedures of getting staff back to the office. Kristin Coulombe, Senior VP of HR, said establishing effective communication remotely was something that leaders had to quickly learn. The benefits of being at the office were soon realized as face-to-face interaction is a key leadership touchpoint to assess the wellbeing of teams.

“The benefit of collegial conversations that naturally occur in the office can’t be underestimated,” she said. “Body language and getting a sense of employee wellbeing is lost during Zoom meetings when people jump in and out of the meeting without chatting — these are things you can pick up naturally when you see employees in person.”

Have a comment?

We want to hear from you! Email us by clicking the button below.