Pandemic-Proofing an Insurance Agency
Failing to adopt a hybrid work model could be the kiss of death to insurance agencies. Here's why.
By Oliver Connor, Connor Insurance Agency | Posted: 10/5/2021
What hasn’t already been said about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on businesses? After a temporary loss of equilibrium, we righted ourselves and started working remotely; later, the vaccines arrived, offering hope that things could return to normal. Now, the emergence of new variants and a surge in cases has us questioning ourselves again.
This article was originally published on the PropertyCasualty360.com website (subscription required).
As an independent insurance agent with a small team, I’ve been grappling with what it all means and where we are headed. What constitutes normal anymore? The definition of “normal” depends on a number of factors. Often those factors are beyond our control, but I believe keeping a workforce happy, healthy and productive during the pandemic and beyond is something we can control. To succeed requires embracing unknowns, listening to differing opinions and making decisions with confidence.
Never turning back
Arguably, we’re never going completely back to the way things were before. The pandemic pushed us out of our comfort zone, and we realized this isn’t so bad, after all. Maybe even better.
• Too many workers have spoken with their feet: leaving good jobs and healthy salaries because they found a better balance working from home. No amount of bonuses or benefits will get these folks to return to the office.
• Employers learned they could run their business with a distributed workforce. They’ve come through the worst of the pandemic and learned they could do it. The fear factor has been greatly reduced as employers and employees alike embrace work from home.
• Customers don’t care. When was the last time you thought, “I’ll bet that person can’t help me because they’re sitting at home in their sweatpants.” If they ask, I’m happy to tell my customers I work from home most of the time.
Still, I hear a lot of trepidation in Zoom meetings with other agencies. There’s definitely a concern that productivity and customer service will suffer if the office isn’t fully occupied, especially among business owners like my dad who put on a suit and tie every day and went into the office.
Digital is designed for these times
My first real job was as a dolphin trainer (that’s a story for another day), then I returned home to work in my dad’s insurance agency. In my first week on the job, I found myself sitting in the back room with a stack of files trying to figure out where everything went. As a kid who grew up in the dawn of the digital age, paper was foreign to me. It quickly occurred to me that there had to be a better way to keep records and a more efficient way to do an insurance transaction.
Over the next ten years, we installed digital systems to power our agency, and I credit the Network of Vertafore Users (NetVU) for helping me and my staff realize we could do it. Having a built-in support system of other agents going through the same challenges helped us reduce the labor, time and money required to quote and bind policies and service customers. What used to require multiple phone calls, emails, cross-checking and tedious data entry can now be accomplished with a few clicks.
Going digital has made the pandemic easier by giving us the ability to work from home — or anywhere for that matter. Our infrastructure follows us to a coffee shop, the neighborhood pool or a supermarket parking lot. The customer doesn’t know the difference so long as they can make a payment, get a question answered or apply for coverage.
Weaning oneself from the old ways requires a willingness to let go and trust the process, which applies to customers as well as employees. A contractor recently admitted to me he knows nothing about computers, but together he and I completed an application for a surety bond — on our laptops! Know what he said? “I don’t know how we did that; I have no idea what just happened. But that was incredibly easy.”
When it’s easy, why go back? When you can order almost anything online, why spend the time and gas to visit a retail store? This evolution has been unfolding since the beginning of time. Remember how humans used to hunt for food in the wild? Neither do I.
Virtual is liberating
I’m a firm believer in virtual networks, and COVID-19 did a lot for our industry and people like me because it gave us a new way to connect to people and forced us to expand our borders. It doesn’t matter where you’re sitting — you can make powerful connections with your peers, discuss issues and solve problems. And that’s not going away. I’m confident our agency will maintain virtual connections, and we’ll be better for it.
After all, it’s tough to make decisions in a vacuum. That’s why the NetVU support group is so valuable. Talking to other agency owners helped me realize that there was a conscious movement to the hybrid model. For us, that means half the staff works in the office Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and everyone works remotely on Fridays.
When you hire good people, you’ll have a staff of people who care — sometimes too much. No one takes breaks or uses up all their vacation time. In the long run, that can backfire, resulting in burnout. However, working from home, an employee can take an occasional break to put in a load of laundry or walk the dog. Or maybe they need to sit on the deck for a few minutes to clear their head after a phone call with a difficult customer. Giving people that work from home option allows them to live their best life — to be more productive for their employer and more present for their family — as long as they don’t abuse the privilege, of course. We’ve always started by hiring the right people, so we don’t have to worry about performance, so long as they meet their targets.
If the last year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that being apart doesn’t have to be isolating — it can be unifying. It’s brought people together and strengthened our resolve against a common enemy: the virus. Once we’re able to move about freely, will we lose that magic? No. I believe we’re going to retain the best of what we built during the pandemic, and I urge every agency owner to remain committed to a hybrid workforce or seriously consider it.
Oliver Connor is principal and owner of Connor Insurance Agency in Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, and a member of the advisory board of the Network of Vertafore Users (NetVU).
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.