Revising the New Normal: Exploring the Future of Work for the Insurance Agent

By | May 6, 2024

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, socialist and one-time presidential candidate, has been making headlines recently suggesting that government should mandate 32-hour work weeks for the same pay as the traditional 40-hour week.

Naturally, this has been roundly criticized by many, including business leaders.

In my opinion, when politicians latch onto a new initiative, it is not because they came up with the idea from thin air. Likely, they are trying to hitch their cart to a trend they see gaining traction. That may sound cynical, but according to the Harvard Business Review, 63% of job candidates in 2023 said a four-day work week for full-time pay was the top new sought-after benefit.

While we are seeing trends in flexibility for workers, we are also seeing some turbulence for employees as artificial intelligence and other advancements enter the marketplace and threaten to take jobs as we adjust to this new normal.

With all this change afoot, what does an independent insurance agency owner or manager need to do to maintain or increase employee morale and engagement, retention, and recruitment while balancing productivity and profitability? As in almost everything, the problems suggest potential answers.

Exploring the Evolving Workplace

In 2019, 60% of “remote capable” people worked onsite. By 2023, only 20% of those remote capable employees do so, according to the Gallup Organization. Additionally, 60% of employees say the costs associated with in-office work outweigh the benefits of doing so, and 67% say it takes more effort to function as an in-office employee than in the pre-COVID era, again according to the Harvard Business Review.

While creating flexibility, this disruption in the way we work is also creating new stress for employees. For example, a Gartner survey revealed 22% of employees expect their jobs to be replaced in the next five years. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report claims worker stress is up, with evidence of an erosion of connection to corporate mission and purpose among remote capable workers.

One bright spot in employment statistics is that, even as millennial and Gen Z workers take over in the workplace, 19% of those over 65 continue to work, double the rate of a generation ago according to Pew Research. While many more statistics are available to review and contemplate around workplace trends, what I have seen seems to denote work is continuing to be disrupted and that this is likely to continue for some time.

As this disruption proceeds apace in the remote work environment, which became almost commonplace in the COVID era, the new watchword is “hybrid,” commonly defined as requiring a physical presence split between being in the office and remote. The hybrid work environment stems from a rejection by business leaders to fully embrace remote work workplaces and a feeling of disconnection reported by employees.

No doubt, this disruption brings with it opportunity. Agency owners would be wise to monitor trends in the future of work within our industry and be open to embracing change to find what works best for their teams. To stay on task, they should consider the following three best practices:

1. Become or Stay Nimble

Disruption destroys the immobile. But disruption can create opportunities for those willing to be flexible and try something new. Many agency owners reacted quickly to the changing demands created by COVID while many others did not. This era not only unleashed the current wave of dislocation of workplace norms, but it also demonstrated the importance of being flexible and open minded about new ways to approach traditional work.

While the disruption in 2020 was sudden and acute, the ongoing disruption is likely to continue throughout the coming decade. Growing demographic changes in the work force, increasingly empowered labor due to talent shortages and a likely bumpy economic environment could provide this to be certain.

Agency owners must be willing to review and revise practically everything about their employment policies and practices every year, or more frequently, to be an employer of choice for talented people. You can’t set work hours, benefits structures and workplace requirements and expect them to remain competitive, or even practical, for prolonged periods of time as you may have in the past. We are in a dynamic period that will not tolerate reserved responses.

2. Focus on What Matters

The insurance agency business is a people business, and the best agencies have the most productive people. So, first, focus on productivity. Our industry is blessed with an abundance of data on relative productivity and performance. It is easy to compare not only your current performance against your past, but also to measure how you are doing relative to your peers.

If you position productivity measurements as a priority in managing the business, it can be easy to distance yourself from how that productivity occurs. But if you continue to focus on attendance and a full-time physical, in-office presence, the future may prove to be difficult.

Developing a robust set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to manage your business will allow you to become flexible as circumstances continue to evolve. Manage the business for profitability and regularly consider how the business rewards employees based on how their needs evolve in the future. Their wants and needs will continue to change for the foreseeable future as employees continue to grapple with the best new ways to balance work and nonwork in their lives.

3. Listen Carefully and Be Flexible

As a business owner, I have received countless employee requests over the years. Often the request was made for something unrelated to what we were working on at the time. As a result, my response to such requests, at least internally, was frustration. More vacation time, different work hours, a flexible workweek, a new compensation model and more have been pitched to me in my time running a business.

There are three takeaways I have noted from this experience. Before the COVID Era my reaction was mostly, and often immediately, negative. Why should we make that exception? Why make administering compensation more difficult? Why am I being bothered when we have bigger, sometimes more urgent business objectives to address? Second, I noticed that eventually I accepted many of these requests. But my final point is really the eureka observation: What difference did it make to me?

In retrospect, these requests did make a difference. I had happier employees and a more stable and engaged work force. Most insurance agencies are not huge corporations with squads of human resource people and endless bureaucratic rule books that always point to “no” as the best answer. The beauty of our business as insurance agency owners is we can do what we want (within legal guidelines, of course). So, listening to people’s thoughts about how to make their lives work better can lead our businesses to perform better in the future.

For those who dislike change, the role of employer may be unpleasant over the next few years. For entrepreneurially minded employers, and especially those in a people business like insurance agencies, the next decade is going to be both challenging, and rewarding, as well as fun, as we find new ways to compensate talented people. Helping our employees enjoy the best version of their lives their way, through flexibility, hybridization or whatever you want to call it, promises a bigger, better future for all of us.

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