The tide may be turning against remote work, with some insurance employers keen to get teams working more often in the office

By Claire Heaney

Four years after the world ground to a halt and the pandemic drove people from their CBD offices to their kitchen tables, the balancing act between working in the office and remotely is under scrutiny.

Various reports suggest bosses want people back in the office, but others are pointing to a more conciliatory approach, weighing up the needs of the employer and employee.

The insurance industry is no different, as companies continue to refine the best models for their operations, mindful about attracting talent and retaining happy, productive staff.

Fuse Recruitment Head of Strategy Cameron Watson says there has been a clear rebalancing of flexible working arrangements growing from the covid lockdowns.

While the balance of power still largely sits with employees and job candidates, the discussion is nuanced.

“Insurance has always been a candidate-short market, but covid exaggerated candidate shortages,” he says. “We have not seen massive movement in the unemployment rate, which would then help with movement in the market.”

When it comes to candidate priorities, Mr Watson says most are still asking about work flexibility.

It is a deal-breaker for some and limits the number of candidates for a role. Other people are happy to be in an office full-time.

“Hybrid work will remain in place, but there is a definite rebalance occurring,” he says. “It is something we anticipated would happen and it will find its new level over the next six to 12 months.”

Mr Watson says some of Fuse’s clients are seeking more office time, or a full return to the office, especially in sales-specific environments.

The common terminology is “return to the team” rather than “return to the office”, because the culture of sales and the development of teams hinge on daily office interactions and the energy that generates.

“The younger or less experienced [staff] are, the more coaching and development they will need,” he says.

CBD locations in Melbourne and Sydney continue to face challenges, and many people do not want long commutes. For some workers, cost-of-living pressures are becoming relevant to where they work, how many days they commute, and costs incurred from petrol, tolls, parking, public transport and childcare.

Mr Watson says Fuse has clients that are insisting all new employees work in an office.

“While there has been some noise around the push to have workers return to the office and the new ‘flexidus’ [job quitting] phenomenon, [like] the great resignation that never eventuated, I suspect this will be similar in that regard,” he says.

Allianz Trade Head of Human Resources for Australia Mary-Kate Jurcevic says there has been an issue with knowledge gaps, particularly among new employees.

“Onboarding new staff has been a challenge in a hybrid model,” she says.

“Trade credit is quite niche, and we found that some of our new starters were really missing some of the general industry knowledge and know-how you pick up so easily when surrounded by others in an office.

“It was something we identified and have now addressed to ensure our new starters are gaining all the information and knowledge they need to be successful in their roles.”

Allianz Trade released new hybrid working guidelines last year, allowing people to work from home 10 days a month.

“While some parts of the [global] business have set a standard two days a week work from home, here in Australia, we provide flexibility around the work from home days,” she says.

It depends on the role. Staff meeting with brokers and clients will attend the office more frequently.

“Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are certainly the busiest days in the office,” she says.

“However, the office is open five days a week for team members to come in.”
Global guidelines set out office collaboration days, so teams come to the office on the same day.

“They come in as a team and are connecting with each other on these days.”
Anecdotally and in engagement surveys, staff are positive about hybrid working models.

“We certainly talk about it and promote our hybrid model when hiring new staff, especially when you hear that some companies don’t offer work from home or are mandating X number of days or certain days in the office,” Ms Jurcevic says. “Some companies have even indicated that working from home could impact bonuses and remuneration.”

She says roles have clear key performance indicators and specific targets, which are tracked so loss of productivity is not an issue.

“This year we have a big focus on wellbeing. How do we support staff managing their wellbeing? How do we ensure our staff manage their work-life balance? We are looking at different initiatives and programs.

“While flexibility certainly helps parents, it is also welcomed by others who love the fact that the days they don’t have to commute, they can finish up their work and maybe get to the gym or other events and activities more easily.”

Last year, the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance surveyed members on approaches to work.

“Our findings, based on 740 responses, highlight changes in working styles, such as the shift towards remote, flexible and hybrid work arrangements, have impacted the industry, with both positive and negative outcomes,” the institute’s General Manager of Industry Engagement Mark Silveira says.

“Just over half of respondents say the change in working arrangements has made their job easier, citing greater flexibility, increased productivity and improved work-life balance.”

About 29% say it has made their job more difficult and express concerns about longer working hours, health effects, reduced in-person collaboration, and negative impacts on training, culture and communication.

“Despite these concerns, there is a significant level of optimism about the impact of new workplace arrangements, although it will be important to address the concerns and downsides associated with these changes, including critical factors such as mental health, social interactions and informal training that occurs when people are physically in the same office.”

Hays recruitment agency predicts the balance of power is shifting in the insurance space, in what has been dubbed the “year of the employer”.

“With more candidates likely to be in the market, employers can tighten up on requirements and expectations, with many organisations moving towards a more structured office presence,” it says.

Hays says candidates expect some work from home element but recognise time in the office is beneficial.

“We have found that more senior vacancies are expected to be in the office more, but increasingly, junior positions are being offered fewer work from home opportunities as competition for these roles increases post covid-19. Fully remote jobs are in demand but increasingly less frequent.”

Hays notes staff retention remains key.

“Employee happiness and mental health is still at the forefront for most companies, with many across insurance still offering hybrid work. Employers that provide more non-financial benefits such as added flexibility are more likely to attract and retain staff.”

Smart working: Aon’s Vanessa Dwyer says hybrid workers appreciate some structure

Aon Australia Lead People Partner Vanessa Dwyer says internationally, the broker offers the “smart working” hybrid model, which it describes as “the office reimagined”.

“Colleagues, in consultation with their leaders, determine a work style that might be working full-time at an office location, a hybrid approach or working fully remotely,” she says.

While there are three distinct work styles, hybrid staff must spend at least half their working week in the office to foster greater team collaboration.

Ms Dwyer says as the hybrid working model evolved, the company needed to provide clarity to staff around the expected mix of home and in-office work.

Remote work is still an option where there is agreement between colleague and leader that this works in supporting clients.

QBE Australia Pacific says it continues to support flexibility.

“Hybrid working remains part of our approach and is determined by the requirements of teams and individuals based on several factors, including the nature of the role, the needs of our customers and stakeholders, and how we best collaborate as a team,” Chief People Officer Shiona Watson says.

“We encourage our teams to be purposeful about coming into the office regularly to focus on connection, collaboration and innovation. Since establishing our hybrid working approach, our people have enjoyed the mix of working from home along with the collaboration and social connection that office days enable.”

Hybrid approach: QBE’s Shiona Watson