Millions of Americans are currently subject to shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders as efforts to slow the spread of the current strain of coronavirus expand, thus requiring employees across all industries to shift to performing their jobs remotely.
For many workers, including insurance agents, this shift is possible thanks to technology that is already utilized everyday such as email, smart phones, and other internet-powered communications.
“The good news is there are so many amazing tools out today that enable this,” said Sharon Emek, president of WAHVE (Work At Home Vintage Experts). “Insurance is unlike other industries, it’s knowledge work – we’re all paperless today, so this work can be done from anywhere.”
Setting agents up to work remotely is what WAHVE has done since it was founded a decade ago. The company helps match pre-retiring baby boomer insurance veterans looking to scale down their careers but not retire just yet with agencies and brokers who can’t find the talent “in their backyard,” Emek said. WAHVE currently works with about 300 agents around the country.
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“We know there’s a talent gap right now in the industry, and we’re trying to fill that need with our qualified experts,” she said. “They’ve got 25, 30 years of amazing experience that we don’t want to lose … we’re keeping it in the industry and giving it back to brokers who need it.”
Emek said shifting an entire office to working remotely over the long-term can be a scary concept for leaders at agencies and brokerages because they are used to seeing everyone in the office and think that the only way to manage people is in person. However, agents are currently doing much of their work without face-to-face contact via smart phones and agency management systems.
“I would say to all brokers today, stay calm – you are able to do this,” she said. “You really have, in some way, been doing this already. You just have to adapt to some new tools and recognize that you can still manage people.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak started last month, WAHVE has been helping clients set up internal staff to work remotely and providing tips on how to be productive, as well as offering a remote work best practices guide. The firm has a guide on its website for agents.
Since some agencies cannot get everyone working remotely overnight, her company’s “WAHVEs” have taken on more work as employees transition from their offices to working from home. Emek said some WAHVEs have seen a 10% to 20% increase in their workload because they are already set up and ready to go.
“We set up 20% of the employees the first day, then they would get to 40% – it could take a week or two weeks, depending on the size of the brokerage, to get everybody working from home because the first few times it’s trial and error,” she said.
Brokers are also asking for help with work that was previously outsourced or handled by call centers that can’t operate right now. “We can help fill in the gap in the meantime with our talent,” Emek said.
Most important, Emek said, is considering issues including whether employees should use their home computers or should the company buy everyone laptops? Will other people in the household be using the employee’s computer? There should be very clear protocols and rules.
“We’re helping them understand that the key here is security. You have to make sure when anyone works from home that they’re secure, that they have virus software … that when you leave you have to shut down [your computer] … No passwords are saved anywhere that anyone could find,” she said. “You have to set up some clear guidelines for your team.”
Agency leaders should set expectations for how often people need to meet and how those meetings will take place. Emek encouraged companies to utilize tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to stay connected. “It makes it much easier because you can still run your company just as if everyone’s in the office, even though they’re remote.”
However, Emek warns against employers trying to “micromanage” their employees. She maintains that employees need to establish their own schedules and routines that work for them, especially since they may be at home with spouses and children and have to keep different hours during this time.
Offering flexibility is key.
“Micromanaging never works – micromanaging means that you don’t trust your people, and that means maybe you don’t have the right person working for you,” she said. “If you like your team and you think you have a good team, you don’t need to micromanage them because they’re adults.”
She noted that there are ways to ensure that employees are being productive, such as agency management systems that track agents’ activities and their sales.
“It’s better if you let them know how you appreciate how hard they’re working from home, and [how they make] your operation work, because without them you would have nothing,” she said. “And to respect that they’re doing the work – they will appreciate that you respect that they’re doing it.”
It is nerve-wracking for agents, as well, to have to change how they do business and lose that face-to-face interaction with their clients, especially with so much uncertainty. Agents have to change how they get leads, complete sales and they can’t meet with their customers. But agents can and should be there for their clients during this time of crisis, Emek said.
“We don’t always call our clients enough, and talk to them enough, and ask them, ‘How can we help?,'” she said.
“The key here is to maintain your business … the wonderful thing about the insurance industry is it can’t go away in a time like this, everybody, everyone still needs to maintain their insurance, because in any disaster the exposure is greater, so businesses aren’t canceling their policies because they’re hoping they’ll be back in business,” she said.
Agents can also be useful in their communities.
“There’s a lot of businesses that need help,” she said. “But with every problem there’s an opportunity to create something that’s meaningful and better, and that might give you more options to build your business.”
As agencies move through this new normal, they may find that working remotely is an option that works out well for their company.
“Brokers should start considering what will the future bring for them; how they might want to re-craft,” she said. “You have to just change your mindset and think, ‘Okay, I have to deal with this. This is real. What is the opportunity? How can I benefit from it?'”
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