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Remote working likely lasting legacy of coronavirus lockdown

working from home

Companies from Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. to Twitter Inc. plan to allow some or all employees to continue working remotely even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and businesses reopen.

The experience of working remotely during the pandemic has shown that many tasks can be decentralized and handled using technological tools such as Zoom, insurance industry executives say.

In addition, allowing workers the option of continuing to work from home will offer employers savings on real estate costs, they say.

At the end of April, Nationwide announced it planned to move to a “hybrid operating model” that would include a substantial portion of employees working from home.

A spokesman for the company said that once the policy is implemented, about 30% of the workforce will work remotely.

“Our leaders foresee that percentage increasing to up to 50% of our total workforce, but we don’t have any specific details nailed down at this time,” he said. “We believe that we are fully able to make this pivot based on prior technology investments and upgrades and our workforce readiness.”

On May 12, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in an email to employees that they could continue working from home and would be allowed to make the decision themselves when to return to work.

The company’s own Twitter feed is full of working groups within the company discussing plans to continue working from home.

“OK, so we’re making this official. Check back tomorrow for a chat on working remotely and decentralized teams,” read one post.

Other insurance industry firms have also indicated that they may keep flexible working arrangements in place after the pandemic subsides.

Insurance brokers may adopt some of what they have learned as the way they conduct business changes, executives say.

“It’s going to be a balance going forward,” said Marc Cohen, president and CEO of Hub International Ltd. “What we have learned is that being in an office isn’t absolutely necessary to be able to service our business and prospect for new business and to have strategic meetings. I don’t see Zoom and other similar technologies ever going away.”

In Willis Towers Watson PLC’s first-quarter earnings call, CEO John Haley said more than 90% of the brokerage’s 45,000 employees are working remotely.

Willis Towers Watson has a task force examining remote working issues, he said.

“There are some things that we are doing with virtual meetings and with work from home that will become a feature of what we do. And so even when we come back, we will be traveling again, but we probably won't be traveling the same way or as frequently as we did,” Mr. Haley said.

In Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc.’s first-quarter earnings call, president and CEO Dan Glaser said the brokerage had proven it could work remotely effectively and the experience could lead to lower real estate costs over the long term.

“You don’t really require that real estate investment other than core back office,” said Kenneth Tolson, U.S. president of claims solutions at Atlanta-based Crawford & Co. “The home-based, virtualized employee can perform and function with the right tools, communication and connectivity.”

Nationwide is tentatively planning to phase in its new set-up from mid-May to late June; however, “these dates are in pencil and could change based on emerging information,” the spokesman said.

The first phase will include volunteers and staff identified as necessary for continuity of operations, he said.

The insurer will maintain its four main locations in central Ohio including downtown Columbus and Grandview Yard and locations in Des Moines, Iowa; Scottsdale, Arizona; and San Antonio. In addition, Nationwide will maintain offices in New York, where some of its management liability and specialty business is based, the spokesman said.

“We believe it is important to maintain space in the New York City area,” the spokesman said, adding that most of Nationwide’s excess and surplus and specialty business will continue to be based at its Scottsdale office.

There are 1,700 staff at the Scottsdale location, mostly working on excess and specialty lines, and about 150 staff in New York, but only a portion work on management liability and specialty lines in that location, he said.

More insurance and risk management news on the coronavirus crisis here