Even before the global pandemic, the popularity of remote work had been steadily rising among insurers, and for good reason. A wave of retirements and a shortage of skilled workers inspired many carriers to explore more flexible working arrangements.
Now the COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged this shift, abruptly forcing the majority of staffers, whether from large multinationals or small carriers, to work at home. RGA asked some long-time remote workers to share perspectives on what has become a vast global experiment.
All dressed up and nowhere to go
“I don’t wear my pajamas to work. I dress like I’m going to the office,” says Kathy Thiesen, Director, Survey and Research Services, RGA Group Reinsurance.
Pajama-wearing may be among the most widespread, if inaccurate, stereotypes of remote workers. In fact, certain professional dressing rituals are necessary to get into the right mindset for work, says Scott Brammell, Executive Director, Underwriting, U.S. Mortality Markets. His most important advice for home workers: “Put on pants. And by that, I mean get ready for the day.”
Bruce Bosco, Vice President (VP), Business Development, AURA, dons both pants and a polo shirt, but believes that every home worker has a personal trigger for the start of a workday: “I, for one, have to shave to start my work day, but I have one friend who feels he has to have socks to get his work day started.”
A separate peace
Long-time remote workers suggest creating physical separation between home and work lives. “The number-one piece of advice I can give is have an office space,” advises Winona Berdine, Vice President, Business Development, Individual Health. “You need a dedicated work space that sets a physical boundary and a mental boundary.”
Those thrust into remote working by COVID-19 may not have a free room in their home or apartment that can be used for an office. Still, Karen Riendeau, Senior Technical Claims Consultant, U.S. Mortality Markets, says, “If it is possible to keep a work space separate from the rest of your home, it will help sustain a work-life balance.”
Bruce Bosco, however, warns against having a desk in a bedroom. “I always believed, if at all possible, you would want to have your work area relatively close to a bathroom, but not too close to the kitchen or anywhere you sleep.”
The productivity paradox
According to the State of the American Workplace, based on a 2017 Gallup survey, remote workers tend to log significantly longer hours than their office-bound counterparts. That finding indicates a change in management style. Scott Brammell describes that earlier view as, “If I can’t see it, I can’t manage it.”
Advances in technology have helped change that mindset for many companies, including RGA. Scott says: “I am a big believer that people want to do well, and that has been demonstrated by the success of remote work at RGA. We have metrics to follow how much work is being processed, how quickly, and how accurately.”
When Chris Noyes, Vice President, Business Development, USMM, applied to work at RGA, his future manager was concerned that he would not know if Chris was committed to RGA and to the job if Chris didn’t come to the office. That was 11 years ago.
Chris admits that when he first started working remotely with a different reinsurance company, “I was hyper-focused on working from 9 to 5.” He found he could get more done working on his own schedule. “Critical work has to get done on time, of course, but tasks that don’t have a deadline can be completed any time during the day,” Chris adds.
But this can be a problem, too. “Working from home can take over your life if you let it,” Scott Brammell warns. “Set boundaries. If you have kids, let them know when the door is closed, you are at work. And that goes for colleagues, too! Keep a regular schedule so your coworkers and customers know when you are available. That same schedule helps your family know when you are off work.”
Achieving better work-life balance isn’t the sole challenge remote workers face. In Buffer.com's 2019 State of Remote Report, 19% of workers confined to their homes cited loneliness as their biggest struggle, and 17% identified challenges with collaboration and communication.
Beyond the risk of lost creativity and companionship, many worry that the social bonds necessary to achieve productive teamwork will fray. Kathy Thiesen recommends sharpening listening skills and distributing meeting notes and other documentation. “That was the hardest lesson for me in the transition to remote work. Particularly after client calls, it’s just more difficult to debrief remotely.”
With the insurance industry awash in technology, videoconferencing and workplace-communication apps like Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom have helped break down barriers. Of course, not everyone has, or wants, a webcam, and video conference calls can also be packed with diversions. Examples include sudden appearances of mischievous children, and one case of a cat throwing up slightly off-camera. Winona Berdine has come to expect an appearance from her Chihuahuas during telephone conference calls, “It is guaranteed, my dogs are sleeping all day, and the moment, the moment, I get on the phone, the dogs wake up and start barking. I had one client who was working from home, and she also has a dog, and they heard each other and set each other off. We had to wait out the barking for a full five minutes. It was like a dog park episode.”
Still, Bruce Bosco marvels at how far the industry has come since the days of email backlogs and screeching dial-up modems. “We’re light years ahead today. I feel very connected with all the tools we have at our disposal. I may not be in the office physically, but I feel I am very easy to reach.”
Scott Brammell says remote workers must be deliberate about in-person communication: “I tend to be heads-down with my work, so I had to make a conscious effort to use the phone rather than send an instant message or email on a subject. Though you are sitting alone in your office, the phone calls help maintain social contact and work as a great substitute for those hallway conversations, where a lot of ideas get their genesis.”
That outreach goes for business partners and clients, as well as team members, according to ROSE Program Director Barb Tomlin, who says her team is making a concerted effort to connect on a personal level and finding many clients easier to reach now that so many are confined to their homes.
Without the natural interruptions of an office, it can become far too easy to stay in one place for hours. Remote workers suggest taking the time to exercise. Asked for one piece of advice for those new to remote work, Karen Riendeau says, “Get up during the day and move around. Go for a walk at lunch. It helps to keep active.”
“I have an office in my house, but I don’t use it all the time. On nice days, I’ll take my laptop and sit out on the porch,” says Winona Berdine, who also hikes around her farm for exercise.
Donna Megregian, Vice President and Actuary, U.S. Mortality Markets, keeps a workout band at her desk and tries to do exercises while on conference calls, from jumping jacks to stretches. Barb Tomlin walks her dog for two miles a day before starting work: “It helps me get the day started with some energy.”
Improvisation is the mother of invention
With families sheltering in place together, balancing business and childcare needs can require creative thinking and non-stop improvisation. Every day, Bruce Bosco, who has worked remotely for 20 years, shares his internet bandwidth with his wife, a geometry teacher trying to teach remotely, and daughter, a financial planner whose husband is currently deployed. They juggle childcare duties for Bruce’s two young grandchildren: “It takes a little bit of logistics. But everybody is ready to go do things and help out.”
Still, managing the unexpected is nothing new for many remote workers. A devastating hurricane hit Winona Berdine’s old home in rural New England and left her stranded for 10 days with no power. So she found a Boy Scout camp with a generator and satellite Internet and spent her days working in a wooden outbuilding.
For Scott Brammell, the most significant realization has been to accept that work and personal life now happen at the same time and in the same space. He is using this reality to his advantage: “You may have to get online early or late to send that email or have that meeting, but you can also throw a rack of ribs on the smoker to be ready for dinner, or cheer on your daughter, who just burst through the front door because she got an “A” on her final exam, or tell your son life isn’t going to end because he got a parking ticket. Or you can explain to your wife why you decided to throw ribs on the smoker AGAIN this week! Embrace it all.”