Analysis: Returning to the workplace

working from home

As the UK government further eases Covid-19 lockdown measures, as pupils across the country return to school, how do insurance companies and employees feeling about returning back to the workplace? Post spoke to some of the leading insurance firms to discuss how they are approaching a return to the workplace and employee sentiments.

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Across the number of insurance firms Post spoke to it seemed that the general feeling about returning to office work post covid-19 lockdown was mixed. When Post asked how employees felt about returning to an office environment, companies were understanding of the fact that individual circumstances had to be considered, with some employees stating a preference for the office environment.

A spokesperson for Aviva said: “It varies across teams and the different personal circumstances of our people. That’s why our return to office plans have prioritised those with urgent needs to come back or who have expressed a preference to work from our premises.”

Aviva’s return to work survey found just less than half (49%) of employed British adults felt positive about a return to work; there was support for employers with 61% of those returning to work believing their employer would ensure safety measures were in place; but 35% of those who do not believe their employer will do enough to make their workplace safe said they won’t return.

The survey found infection, social distancing and travel are among employees’ top concerns; older workers were most concerned about the risk of infection; younger workers say they are confused by the communications on social distancing; construction workers are among the most concerned of being infected by Covid-19; while regional, age and industry differences show the complex impact of Covid-19 on communities.

These mixed views were also held by employees working for other insurers. A spokesperson for Allianz said: “We recognise that there will be mixed feelings among our employees regarding a return to the office. Our recent survey revealed many Allianz employees are enjoying working from home, with not having to commute as the key benefit along with flexible working hours, less disruption and mental health benefits of being with friends and family."

The spokesperson added: “However we understand that working from home impacts everyone in different ways and know that a percentage of our people are missing informal or social work-related exchanges, while a large number of our colleagues told us that they recognise the value of access to shared space for occasional use such as training, collaboration and meeting new colleagues. The welfare of our colleagues remains our priority and we will only be implementing a return to office when we are confident that it is safe for our people to do so.”

Direct Line Group has carried out regular engagement surveys and has emphasised employee wellbeing through its internal \#WeCare campaign. Vicky Wallis, chief people officer for the insurer, noted: “From September, we are aiming to get around 20% to 30% of colleagues back to some of our main sites including Bromley, Leeds Wharf, Manchester, Ipswich and Doncaster. Like most industries we are re-assessing how we can offer a mix of office and home working so that our people have more flexibility.”

Employees' mental health

Post found supporting employees’ mental health during lockdown was a priority and insurers were ensuring they engaged with employees throughout the period.

A spokesperson for Covéa said: “We have really promoted self-care, encouraging employees to take extra care of their physical, social and mental well-being, particularly in the early days of lockdown. We have been using our comms channels to remind them of resources such as access to our Employee Assistance Helpline and also our internal community groups who are trained to provide specific support."

The spokesperson added: "We have adapted and built on our programme of events and comms to create social connection across remote working, provide opportunities to have fun together, to team build, and to tackle loneliness. We have continued our investment in training of Mental Health First Aiders, and have provided online training for line managers in how to continue supporting the health and wellbeing of their team members, focusing on listening skills and driving empathy with colleagues. 

"We have built on our partnership with mental health advocate Luke Ambler to bring our people ‘Power Boost’ videos to support them with handling stress, building resilience, and coping with uncertainty." 

Similarly during lockdown Allianz gave employees the opportunity to take part in virtual exercise classes hosted by Mr Motivator. Employees at the insurer also took part in its ‘Stronger Together’ campaign to help everyone keep active, stay motivated and feel part of a team. Recording fitness activities on an app, Allianz UK colleagues covered the distance of 140,785km, raising over £30,000 for its charity partner Mind. 

“We have organised a mental health roadshow with Mind and hosted webinars with St John’s Ambulance and Mental Health First Aid England on how to cope with some of the challenges of Covid-19," a spokesperson for Allianz told Post.

They added: “We’ve set up a skills centre for colleagues to arrange lessons ranging from guitar courses to online yoga and languages. To help clear the mind or provide entertainment for children at home, we’ve hosted online workshops, which have included balloon modelling, scone making and chair yoga.”

Employees who have families, in some cases with children at home due to school closures, may have struggled to adapt to working remotely during the lockdown, which has meant the need for flexibility on the employer’s part.

A spokesperson for Covéa said in this case employees were only expected to do what they found manageable. “For our colleagues with young families, we have been unequivocal from the start that they must only do what they can, when they can and to acknowledge that children interrupting video calls is a part of how we are all managing through this – we’ve actually found this approach to be a really nice insight into their lives and our customers have responded in such a positive way to our honest approach. 

“We have an internal Facebook group for employees which, along with our other internal comms channels, has provided both valuable advice and some light-hearted relief (for example, asking people to show us how their pets are taking to them working from home and asking people to tell us about the additional skills they have learned in lockdown). 

"We have conducted pulse surveys throughout and have ensured we have kept open, regular and honest communication with our people throughout the pandemic.”

RSA created a wellbeing hub on the intranet for employees, which been visited almost 12,000 times since it was created a few weeks in to lockdown. A spokesperson for RSA said: "The hub has a wide collection of content on there to support mental wellbeing as we all continue to deal with the Covid impact on our wellbeing.

“We’ve run a series of weekly webinars throughout lockdown to help employees overcome some of the physical and mental challenges of working remotely – from how to manage a team virtually, and IT/communication tools training through to coping with change and dealing with stress. The webinars have also worked as a two-way conversation mechanism for employees to raise topics for future webinars

“We extended our existing [email protected] online and phone medical service to the partners and children of all our UK employees. We took this action in response to our awareness that the current pandemic has put pressures across the NHS including GP services. We were keen to do everything in our powers to offer some reassurance and a backup alternative to all of our employees

“A Families Forum has been set up to meet demand for working parents and carers to connect with others in similar situations. Regular sessions are led by volunteers in RSA, to help enable working parents and carers be at their best, while balancing the challenges of working, caring and everything in between.”

Furlough and additional support

Despite the UK government’s efforts to roll out a job retention scheme for employees back in March – some insurers refrained from using it.

An Aviva spokesperson said: “We haven’t furloughed any colleagues. When the UK entered lockdown, we reassured our 15,000 UK employees that they would continue to be paid even if their personal circumstances stopped them from working ‘as normal’."

Wallis said: “We protected our peoples’ jobs and their pay. With less than 1.5% of colleagues on site for essential work we adapted to a new way of working to keep our people safe. We also made a commitment to take no government support from the furlough scheme.”

According to Steve Collinson, head of UK HR at Zurich, the insurer believes the pandemic has shown how it well it can adapt to a new way of working and continue to service its customers. Collinson said: "As life starts to slowly return to some kind of normality, we’re beginning to see change in what our customers and broker partners expect from us. To meet these needs, we’re expecting that more of our colleagues will be needing to visit our offices over the coming months.

"The Covid landscape is ever changing which means we may need to adapt our approach to align with devolved government/local council guidelines, but our current approach is as follows: colleagues who need to work from our offices for significant operational or wellbeing reasons are able to do so and have desks allocated to them; the remaining Covid-secure desks in each of our locations will be available to book as hot desks from 17 August; the number of desks available varies by location and can be booked on a first come, first served basis. These are for our colleagues who would like to return, who believe they will benefit from working from the office - whether that’s due to increased collaboration, space, a proper desk set up or other business benefits."

Zurich has offered its employees additional support in the last few months through a range of benefits including a free antibody test for all 4,500 Zurich employees and their families; car park season tickets refunds for all employees until the offices open again; refunded corporate gym membership payments, the provision of additional free office equipment to ensure safe and effective working from home and has launched a wellbeing hub which includes Babylon, a virtual GP provider for all staff and families and reduced childcare vouchers to just £1.

Returning to an office environment

An Aon spokesperson said: “We have started to reopen a small number of offices at reduced capacity around the UK, and will continue with this approach over the coming months. While the majority of colleagues continue to work from home, their wellbeing is our priority and we will plan to reopen our offices based on their needs and those of our business.

"Where possible, we continue to engage with clients remotely or as required at their sites, but as our offices reopen, we will be able to host meetings with clients, in line with social distancing guidelines. We will continue to monitor guidance and review our planning as necessary, enabling us to respond quickly as the situation evolves.”

Insurers are in agreement that the safety of employees should be put first. A spokesperson for Aviva said: “The safety and wellbeing of our people remains our priority. We have done extensive work to prepare our offices for the safe return of our employees and in June we started to welcome a small number of colleagues back into our offices across the UK.

"Following recent government advice, from September we will invite more colleagues who wish to do so to spend some time in our buildings. We expect this trial to double current capacity to approx 10% of our office space.”

For the time being Ageas is not asking staff to return to the office unless their job requires them to be physically present or they need to for health reasons. 

Lyn Nicholls, HR director at Ageas, said: “Given that the majority of our people have been working successfully from home for some time, we have decided to continue with this way of working for now and are not currently asking staff to return to the office unless their job requires them to be physically present or they need to for physical or mental health reasons.

“Our number one priority is to ensure our people are safe while working, and so with people working from home we’ve introduced a number of initiatives to keep them safe and protect their physical and mental wellbeing, for example development and learning about how to get the most from working from home, fitness challenges and guidance for managers about managing remotely.

“Where services cannot be delivered through home working, a small number of essential workers are coming into our offices. To protect them we are minimising the number of employees in our buildings, enforcing social distancing, have cleaners on-site continually working and have changed our staff restaurants to takeaway only.

“Meanwhile, we have been very actively working on our long-term plans and are making good progress in our review to decide on our future working arrangements, incorporating the lessons learnt from the past few months’ experience.”

A recent survey by RSA was conducted to determine employees' preferred working patterns going forward. This found a number of respondents are keen on retaining more ways of agile working even once they had moved back into their offices.

The insurer is in the midst of planning a phased return in line with government guidance. The insurer said: "We won’t be rushing a return, as the safety and wellbeing of our people has been at the heart of our decision making throughout the pandemic.

"We will begin by piloting a phased return in our Peterborough office, where we will initially bring staffing levels up to around 30%. This will commence later this month, and we’ll keep a close eye on how it works in practice before looking to replicate the approach anywhere else.”

Covéa is also taking a phased approach. A spokesperson said: “Our digital team have created an app which can be used for booking a space within the offices, meaning we can flex our capacity limits up or down accordingly.

"Our people have been so responsive about our approach and in a recent survey to understand their future working pattern preferences the majority of responses indicated that our people would prefer to adopt a hybrid model of working both from home and in the office."

“We are taking a phased return to our offices and we are following the latest advice from the government. While the majority of our people are working from home, we have a small number of employees in our offices and, in line with the guidelines, we have put in place a number of measures to make our people as safe as possible. 

"We will continue to consult our employees about future working arrangements, which in future are likely to focus on flexible, smart working arrangements which suit the needs of our people, our customers and our business.”

Remote working

When UK lockdown measures were enforced back in March, most businesses with office-based staff worked remotely. However many companies already offered employees this flexibility pre-pandemic. 

An Aon spokesperson said: “We have an established agile working strategy, so remote working was already part of our culture and the majority of our colleagues have adapted very well to full time remote working.

"Our agile working strategy will continue to support colleagues to ensure they are productive, able to connect with colleagues and clients and can look after their wellbeing.”

A priority for insurers has been ensuring that employees have the necessary equipment to work remotely. Direct Line told Post it has sourced and delivered over 2,000 monitors; 700 mobile phones; 2,100 office chairs; over 2,700 laptops and more than 3,600 headsets, while Aon highlighted since lockdown employees have been provided with the option to purchase additional equipment to make their home working experience more comfortable.

Wallis said: “With the exception of our accident repair centres, which we kept open to keep key workers on the road, we quickly set up 9,000 people working from home, 6,000 of which had not ever worked from home. With so many companies reacting to the pandemic at the same time, we worked with a distributor to source several thousand laptops and our in-house technology team installed their software in line with our security standards."

The insurer has been quick to adapt to the new normal –  delivering equipment to employees' homes to aid in the move to remote working. “We have been resourceful where we can. There was a big demand from our people for monitors so we moved around 1,300 from our sites into homes – saving on costs and our impact on the environment,” said Wallis.

She added: “This is the first time Direct Line Group has had to deliver anything on this scale in such a short time period. We have relied heavily on learning in the moment and constantly looking at ways to improve our approach so our people feel as comfortable and productive as possible – this is agile working at its best.”

Covéa believes being able to offer remote working is fundamental to the future success of any business. A spokesperson for the insurer said: "Covéa's recent pulse surveys found that 97% of employees feel working from home is effective. 52% of employees would like to adopt a hybrid of office/home working (reasons for this include work/life balance and wellbeing); 42% of employees would like to maintain working from home only (reasons for this include financial and less commuting) and 6% of employees would like to return to full time office based working (reasons for this include seeing their teams, morale boost to see other people."

Employees who took the survey also had the opportunity to share their own views on their experience of working remotely. Some comments included:

“'I feel really lucky to be able to work from home and keep safe."

“I have felt valued and reassured as an employee. I have to say my manager and team have been fantastic, constantly reassuring and encouraging and always there for support."

“'I feel the company has looked after employees extremely well during these strange times.  Being able to work from home and stay safe has allowed me to help the elderly and vulnerable people in my family by being able to do their shopping etc.”

From the insurers Post spoke to it seems companies will implement more remote working for employees in the future. 

Allianz revealed it has received positive feedback regarding its transition to remote working. A spokesperson for the insurer said: “Thanks to the hard work of our IT and operations teams, we moved quickly to a flexible home working model where 97% of our employees were able to work from home and the majority of employees told us they’ve been able to deliver as well as they did previously.

"Our approach to homeworking is to be as flexible as possible and encourage discussions with line managers to agree practical and sustainable arrangements for employees.”

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