One of the biggest challenges in insurance is that we sell an intangible product. Customers are purchasing Peace of Mind. Because of this intangibility of the product, the insurance industry has been built on trust and relationships. Customers purchase from agents who seem knowledgeable and trustworthy. Agents depend on carriers to protect their reputation in their local communities by fulfilling the promises made to the customer at the time of loss. Carriers depend on their agents to sell to insureds whom they trust. Internally, departments within a carrier must build trust and relationships between employees, so they respect the expertise of their colleagues. Most of us are still in the mindset that relationships are built face to face. If you want to grow your career at a carrier, you can generally assume that you must live where the home office is located, or at least at a major hub. Moving forward, I believe we should question the necessity of physical proximity for effective relationships and collaboration.
Imagine the benefits for an organization that solved the challenges of relationship and collaboration with location independence. You would be able to hire talent from any location without limiting your organization to those who live in your city. Your workforce would be thrilled, and you would have brand ambassadors beyond agents and claims representatives in all of your markets (and potentially beyond). Any employee who has moved for a role understands the tension of being far from family while desiring to do the best possible thing for his or her career. Finally, your location independent team will bring truly diverse perspectives. They will be aware of what is going on in their local communities, and they will have more opportunity to network outside of your company. All of these perspectives will make you stronger.
These benefits are valuable, but they aren’t without their challenges. Three significant challenges that come to mind are Consistency of Culture, Distrust of Remote Employees, and Effective Collaboration. Let’s consider a couple tactics that could be used to overcome each of these:
Consistency of Culture
1) Explore Different Communication Tools: Technologically, we are in the best era to nurture relationships over a distance. I have friends who I almost never see in person (including Tony and Nick who run InsNerds with me). We connect by text daily, we use Snapchat, we follow each other on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter; sometimes we even pick up the phone and call each other! When we actually see each other in person, it feels like we are involved in each others’ lives even if it’s been months since we were last physically in the same place. Companies can build the same networks.
2) Commit: Make your company culture a part of all of your processes. Build it into every interaction you have with your employees. In the same way that you build your brand into every interaction you have with your customers, customize your communications with your employees to reinforce your culture.
- Embrace Video Chat: For the first five years that Facetime was available, I hated it. But my writing partner loved it, and any time he wanted to chat, he’d ring me up on Facetime. I got used to it, and now, I understand how many more cues you get by seeing your colleague’s face and how much more engaging it is.
- Be Smart about the Medium: Email has a place. Texting has a place. Video Chat has a place. Be intentional about which medium you use for which message. Guide your employees about urgency, and teach them about the differences between the different communication methods. Consider which works best and use a mix!
- Hire for Performance: Commit to hiring for cultural fit and commitment to greatness. If you hire someone, you should trust that they will get their work done. If you don’t, there’s no difference in whether they’re in your office or working from Prague!
- Make Performance Standards Non-Negotiable: We have all been on teams that are hindered by someone who is not pulling his or her weight. This is a morale killer, and it should not be tolerated. Again, this is the same whether your employee is physically in the office next to you or working 1,000 miles away from you. Trust issues can be solved by hiring and committing to a standard of performance.
Location independence is a big idea, and the challenges are great, but they’re not insurmountable. Other industries are already getting it right. To attract and retain the best talent and to innovate and maintain our expertise and knowledge, we must get comfortable with more flexible working arrangements.
Flexibility will become table stakes
We recently saw a report that unemployment in the insurance industry has come down to just 1.6%, there is simply no slack in the market and the US Department of Labor predicts we’ll need to hire 400,000 new employees. By 2020 50% of all employees in the economy will be Millennials or Gen Zers who tend to place a strong value on work life balance and are true digital natives. We’re already seeing more and more companies offering trusted employees the opportunity to work from anywhere, and word on the street is that most of Hartford’s small commercial renewal underwriters are now work from home, in fact they’re even in Forbe’s Top 100 Work from Home Employers, they’ve got literally hundreds of work from home opportunities. Carriers who figure out how to make the most of a flexible location independent workforce will have a major retention and recruiting advantage. Don’t be left behind! The time to figure out how to make it work is now, not once too much of the competition is already good at it.