LOUIS GRITZO VICE PRESIDENT AND MANAGER OF RESEARCH, FM GLOBAL, FORBES, MARCH 18, 2021
The pandemic has meant that companies in the financial and insurance sector, and many of the companies they serve, have quickly had to shift to remote work. Even risk management engineers, whose job is to perform risk assessments at several different sites a week, are now mostly limited to one place, their homes.
It’s the same for many knowledge workers, and one hears frequent, dramatic appeals for a change of scenery—but what, you’re okay with working from home?
Many workers are. They love the flexibility, productivity and convenience of remote work. Fifty-four percent of Americans who can do their job at home say they want to continue after the coronavirus pandemic is over, according to the Pew Research Center.
From a management perspective, the remote work has yielded some unintended, and unexpected, consequences: Working from home actually builds organizational resilience, a trait every company wants.
Resilience has two meanings in this context: In the first sense, resilience means responding with alacrity to new business challenges, like a major client demanding expert engineering analysis within a single business day. The other sense of resilience is the one risk management professionals in industries like commercial insurance tend to use – the ability to resist business disruption and reduce loss from events like natural hazards, fires and cyberattacks. The mass of remote work brought on by the pandemic has some positive effects for organizations on both counts.
When this is all over, office workers will almost certainly work from home far more often than they did before. Seventy-eight percent of CEOs from around the world view remote work as an “enduring shift” that will last beyond the pandemic, and 61% say the same of “low-density workplaces,” according to a PwC survey. Forty-nine percent of CIOs from around the world say productivity has improved since employees began working remotely, vs. 29% who reported a decline, according to an Enterprise Technology Research Survey. Organizations that embrace remote work can expect to be more resilient than ever even though they won’t have strength in numbers at the office. Here’s how.
Greater capacity– Ironically, remote work has actually made people more accessible to the colleagues and clients who need them. First, remote workers commute less, sometimes only to the kitchen table or home office. From 2015 to 2019, prior to the pandemic, the average American spent 53.8 minutes, almost one solid hour, traveling to and from work. Commuting by car or mass transit costs each worker (and organization) lost time and productivity. Driving is time workers should NOT be available and should actually be driving, not making and taking calls, emailing or texting. Mass transit is better, but for many, it’s a multipart commute consisting of car-to-train-to-bus-to-subway-to-sidewalk transfers. That’s a lot of hassle, interruptions, unproductive time, and paperwork if you’re claiming the expense. Of course, after getting to the office it still takes a while to “settle in.”
Business travel, though sometimes necessary, likewise reduces operational capacity. Remote workers connected by technology, rather than jet-setting around the world, are more available to serve clients. Let’s say Susan is a consulting engineer with a particularly high level of expertise in turbines and generators. If she’s traveling this week to meet a utility client in Brazil, and next week to Spain, it could be a month before she can get to a client in Australia. But if she’s staying at home and at least doing the initial and/or routine part of an inspection remotely through videoconferencing and mobile engineering apps, she can conceivably handle the Brazil client one day, the Spanish one the next, and the Aussie client on day three. Not only is Susan more resilient in her ability to respond to her clients, but she is also available to bring her expertise into calls with her colleagues and, hence, expand her reach and net impact for broader resilience.
The insurance industry is rapidly expanding the number of remote inspections for both underwriting and claims purposes. It’s faster and more efficient. For risk assessment, remote inspections won’t eliminate site visits going forward (especially for complex risks, which require boots on the ground and eyes and hands on the site), but it will reduce them by some number. More importantly, it will allow the time on site to be focused on the really important issues, not the routine items that a picture (from an app, a video chat, or remote imagery) can provide ahead of time. In 2020, FM Global used this approach for risk evaluation and improvement to perform 15,000 remote servicing reports by its workforce of 1,281 field engineers. When surveyed, clients overwhelmingly gave high marks for successful leveraging of technology and procedures to maintain communication with an almost 90% approval rating for the ability to deliver industry leading loss prevention guidance.
This is resilience. By focusing in-person face time only to those items where it is necessary for technical details, to build or maintain a relationship, or by local customs, organizations can gain far more than is lost.
Risk mitigation – When you have hundreds of people in the same office every day, that’s concentrating a lot of risk in one place. If an equipment failure occurs, an earthquake suddenly strikes, or the network is hacked, a geographically concentrated business will be disrupted on a greater scale (all things being equal) than a geographically dispersed one. And when the disruption hits the geographically condensed workforce, the impact will be amplified, as workers need to travel (an average of >15 miles in America)1 home anyway (with even greater challenges) to tend to family matters there. Further interruptions in continuity will happen as workers have to set up in their home offices under duress and try their best to ramp back up to baseline productivity. Thus, ensuring workers are prepared to work remotely as part of their standard practice enhances resilience by distributing risk, a basic tenet of sound insurance and financial risk management. Routine working from home also creates a level of redundancy and robustness in work site options. It’s not unlike having redundant suppliers in different geographies – a resilience-building measure whose value no one questions.
Satisfaction and retention – The research is in: Working from home is more satisfying than traveling to the office. According to a CNBC|SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey: “Remote workers are more likely than those who have been going into the office during the outbreak to describe themselves as very satisfied with their job (57% vs. 50%), to consider themselves to be well-paid (81% vs. 75%), to say that their company provides them with good or excellent opportunities for career advancement (66% vs. 58%), and to note that their contributions at work are valued a lot by their colleagues (54% vs. 48%).” [emphasis added]
Satisfied workers are generally more productive, responsive and capable of delighting customers. They also cherish their jobs, turning over less. Turnover is volatility while employee retention is business continuity. Put more plainly, do you want new hires serving your most important customers and leading your most important initiatives in a crisis? No, you want seasoned experts. That’s resilience.
Managing the risk (of remote work)
It’s clear that remote work can be a resilience builder, but it’s not without the occasional tradeoff and some important risks to manage. One of those is the fact that working remotely exponentially increases cyber risk by creating a bigger, and potentially weaker, attack surface. Using company hardware on virtual private network (VPN) connections is a great start. A “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) approach significantly increases risk, and makes it harder for corporate information technology staff to help resolve issues. If BYOD is a must, then follow standard guidelines for uses to reduce the likelihood of downtime and/or a security breach.2
Another reason to meet a colleague or client face to face in real life is for richer creation, innovation, culture and cohesion. Although video calling is great, and 63% of Americans are fine with using it often, nothing replaces the visceral experience of being in the same room with your colleagues unmediated by technology. So although the benefits of working from home most of the time offset the benefits of working face to face, it doesn’t negate them.
Furthermore, for some the greater capacity for work can lead to lack of balance and job burnout. The daily commute can be an opportunity to “disconnect” from work and shift focus. For these and other reasons, top companies have established a “work from home pledge” that includes commitments to avoid video fatigue, and dedicated time to focus on family and to maintain one’s well-being. These and other work practices are evolving to accommodate changing needs, while ensuring the availability to respond to truly urgent items.
Another tradeoff of remote work is the failure to benefit from the sturdiness of commercial property. That is, an office building is often designed to more robust building codes, and is better maintained than residential property. Making sure residential properties are well designed, built and maintained should be a priority regardless of remote work; hence, the gap between these two needs to be narrowed in the future. With increased flexibility in living locations, consumers should consider these factors in making their decision on where to locate, just like the smartest companies have always done.
The most likely post-pandemic work scenario is the “hybrid” model, where office-based workers spend some time working at home, but then allocate time to spend with their colleagues, partners, or customers in person. In other words, employee work locations are flexible, agile, and better tailored to the needs of the business and the people that make it successful. Of course, this may result in different, and less, office space. Companies seeking to save money by downsizing their vacant offices should start by concentrating functions away from the most at-risk properties, and thus providing a further increase in resilience.
Finally, despite the case for remote work’s ability to create resilience, remote work sometimes scares leaders. It can seem like a dangerous loss of control, even if only for a fraction of the time, and does require a different management style and a deeper commitment to creative employee engagement. Managers have to make special efforts to stay connected, but not constantly “dropping bombs” on staff with last-minute calls or computer meeting requests. Instead, leaders should think about what makes themselves and their staff (each with their own special circumstances) able to respond effectively to new challenges and urgent items that threaten organizations – and to resist collective calamity in the event of a geographically focused event.
In other words, do what lets employees be resilient.
COVID-19-Related Remote Working: Remote working and cyber resilience
Remote Engineering: Virtual visits ensure business continuity