Behold: the office of the future

With many people working efficiently and happily from home during lockdown, Bermuda:Re+ILS surveyed readers about their views on what the future of office-based work may be.

When re/insurance professionals consider the impact of COVID-19 on their industry, one of the few positives is the relative lack of disruption caused by Bermuda’s Shelter in Place order.

Risk managers working on their disaster contingency plans before the crisis struck could barely have hoped for a more painless transition to working from home. Apart from the fact that most of their clients were in the same position, and the dramatic increase in the number of invitations to video calls appearing in their inboxes, they would have had no reason to suspect anything had changed.

Executives are rightly proud of the seamlessness of this transition. While it can be partially explained by the nature of the work that re/insurers do, institutions deserve credit for their preparedness going into the COVID-19 crisis, as do the staff for making it work.

Six months after the Shelter in Place order was announced and re/insurance staff started working from home, there are many unanswered questions about the future of office work. Bermuda:Re+ILS asked readers their views to find some of the answers.

Opening the doors

Figure 1: When do you expect your offices to fully reopen to staff?

The most obvious question is when things might get back to something approaching normal. A good number of respondents (36 percent) reported their offices as now being fully open again, whether or not staff are expected to come back, or have chosen to do so (Figure 1).

Re/insurers with plans to reopen offices quickly have apparently mostly already done so, with only 4 percent of respondents reporting their offices will fully reopen later this year.

The majority of respondents said their offices will open in 2021 (or later), with 18 percent expecting them to reopen in Q1, and 42 percent expecting it to be later than that: in Q2 or beyond.

Safe spaces

Figure 2: How difficult has it been to get your office ready for COVID-19 compliance?

One encouraging finding is that three-quarters of respondents report that it has been quite easy (only 3 percent of respondents thought it was very easy) to prepare offices for COVID-19 compliance (Figure 2).

It is not clear exactly what measures office planners have had to take to make it safe for people to return to the office. There is talk of one-way system corridors and offices being forced to work at considerably less than full capacity.

There are questions about the safety of elevators and bathrooms, but Bermuda may have an advantage in terms of being a relatively small island that has been very successful in stamping out the virus within its shores. It may be that spacing desks out a little more and wearing face masks is enough to be compliant in a country that has had so few reported cases.

Just under a fifth of respondents (19 percent) thought it was quite hard to get offices ready for the return of workers, while only 2 percent thought it was very hard.

Water cooler moments

Figure 3: What will the new normal look like?

There is room for interpretation about what is meant by a “fully open office”. For some the phrase may evoke images of bustling workplaces, banks of desks with people sitting at them and groups laughing around the water cooler—in other words a totally unremarkable pre-COVID-19 office scene.

There is no certainty, however, that the office of 2021 will look the same as the office of 2019. There will always be desks and people sitting at them, and the occasional chat by the water cooler will surely make a comeback.

The real question is about the acceptable density of office populations. Many people—staff and managers—have realised they can do their jobs just as well at home. The question is, how many will want to continue doing that once they are no longer required to? And if there is to be a mix of home and office working, where will people find the balance?

Nearly a quarter of respondents believe things will eventually go back exactly to what they were, meaning there will be no “new normal”—at least not with regard to the relationship between staff and their office (Figure 3).

The question does not give any sense of timing, so whether people expect that normal office scene back next year or in 2025 is unclear, but what is clear is that nearly a quarter of respondents do not expect the last six months to have created legions of footloose, long-term home workers.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents, however, believe COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on the way people work, and that most people, who would previously have worked in the office five days a week, will now split their time between home and office.

A majority of respondents believe that most people will avail themselves of this flexibility, as opposed to the 4 percent of respondents who predicted most people will go back to normal, with only a few taking advantage of the new opportunity for home working.

Only 9 percent of respondents believe the majority will spend the majority of their time at home; no-one believes the office itself is set to become extinct.

The office conundrum

Figure 4: Is your company considering downsizing or relocating your office?

If people can work from home just as effectively as they can in the office, it forces the question: do you really need an office? This comes especially in an environment in which re/insurers are looking to cut costs and boost profitability.

Offices are expensive, and if you can do without one, is there a conversation to be had about whether that money could be better spent on other things? Investing in new technology, increasing reserves, reducing premiums or passing it on to shareholders, for example?

Apparently not (Figure 4). Or at least, if that is a conversation that could happen, executives are not ready to have it yet—no reader agreed with the statement “We are thinking about it” or “We plan to do this”.

The value of an office

Figure 5: Why have an office?*

*Respondents could choose more than one option

The overwhelming majority of respondents continue to see value in the office (Figure 5). If re/insurers need their offices so much, what exactly do they need them for?

Plenty of reasons, it turns out. More than two-thirds of respondents argued that employees are more productive in the office, while over 70 percent said employees want to be in the office, making the office itself, essentially, a perk of the job.

There have certainly been reports of increased loneliness since people started working from home, suggesting offices play a significant role in fulfilling the social needs of their staff. People are evidently looking forward to the return of those water cooler moments.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said it is easier to manage staff in the office, and executives have stressed the challenges around managing younger, or newer staff, in particular, while they work remotely.

The office is a great environment for allowing inexperienced staff to learn from their more experienced peers, either by asking questions directly or observing them doing their jobs.

The issue of employee motivation also runs through many of these answers: employees who are not productive, unsure of what they are meant to be doing, or lonely, may all have issues around motivation, which may lead to problems with retention.

Nearly half the respondents said they need an office because clients expect them to have one, an issue that may change over time as the reality of future circumstances reveal themselves and sink in.

Twenty-eight percent cited concerns around the cyber implications of people working from home: staff have been connecting remotely for years, from conferences or while travelling between meetings, and a remote connection is either secure or it isn’t: whether someone connects regularly, or once every two months, may not make a decisive difference.

It is clear that the impact of COVID-19 will be felt for many months to come. Whether things will ever go back to exactly what they were remains to be seen, but Bermuda:Re+ILS’s readers clearly expect a future of increased flexibility—with at least some time definitely being spent in the office.

Image: / Sharomka

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September 2020

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