Enforced remote working: Some clients share their experience so far


This week the world was jolted into remote working. By Tuesday lunchtime, both our clients and we discovered that enforced remote working is very different to occasional working from home. Everyone is facing similar challenges, notably maintaining productivity, motivation and team spirit. We asked some clients about how they are facing up to these challenges.

This blog moved quickly. When we conducted some of the research in the middle of the week, our first question was “what is your company’s current working arrangement”. This question has not aged well: any client operating a flavour of a 50/50 arrangement has now moved to, or is about to move to, full remote working.

So let’s skip that and move to the second question: What has surprised our clients most about the practicalities of remote working?

First, it is interesting that technology has not been the greatest challenge for most. (We admit that we did not speak to technology teams who have no doubt worked heroically to make this true for the business!) One client, a mid-sized broker, transitioned from an office-only to a fully remote environment in less than a week. As he said, “it’s amazing how much you can achieve when everyone has one single goal”. Some compromises were needed: laptops have, apparently, sold out in London and so the team bought Chromebooks and just got it to work.

But things have not been quite as smooth outside the large metropolitan areas. One Irish client reported that people living in rural areas either don’t have broadband, or don’t have WiFi routers. This makes video conferencing natural for some but impossible for others: easy for urban management to forget.

The same Irish client also observed that some of his younger staff live with parents, and finding a suitable backdrop for a call is not always easy. Another client had a similar observation about younger staff living in shared apartments and having to do video calls sitting on their bed.

But who cares if you’re discussing strategy whilst looking at someone’s bed? We have found a hugely warm, community atmosphere in all of our work. We’ve had calls with clients in t-shirts on balconies (nice weather in Vienna, it seems) and one client admitted that they were not turning on video because they were still in their pyjamas – at 4pm.

Talking of dress code: On Monday, the world felt the need to look vaguely respectable when working from home. As people realised that everyone is in the same boat, we agree with a client’s observation that dress codes could be permanently relaxed now that everyone has got used to seeing each other in hoodies. We wonder whether the second half of the year will be boom time for any surviving barbers as a few Coronabeards emerge.

Our third question was: What technology and routines have you put in place to make remote working work?

Everyone we have spoken to has noted that the hardest thing about full and enforced remote working is maintaining the team integrity. How do you replicate the casual corridor conversation that is so important for making work both socially fulfilling and professionally ‘joined-up’?

People are still experimenting here. Ideas we have heard include virtual coffee breaks, breakfasts and lunches.

Our own experience with virtual lunches is that they are a good time for the team to meet but conversation is not always ‘natural’. We hear we are not alone with this observation, and we discovered a team at another consulting firm is trying to break the ice with a weekly fancy dress call. We’re not going that far (yet).

Our own solution is to have some structure to some of these meetups; for example, we are doing several ‘lunch and learns’ a week on topics from 2019 market results (produced by our Market Intelligence team) to InsurTech (see the Impact 25) and project brainstorms. In fact, we would be happy to host some ‘lunch and learns’ for your teams if you think this would be useful. Please get in touch if you’d like to explore this.

We’re also increasing our training budget. We’ve asked our (excellent) training provider, Canning, to devise some regular one-on-one coaching sessions for our team over the next month or two. It’s a great time to fine tune people’s communication and presentation skills.

Finally, we asked people what technology tips they had.

A clear winner was Zoom, the video conferencing software that has emerged over the last few years. Certainly at Oxbow Partners this has been a superb way to communicate with the team, either in groups or in ad hoc bilateral video calls. We are particularly pleased with the ability to select one’s background, which means that calls have been taken from Machu Picchu, Burning Man and Scotland so far.

Other apps that we heard about are:

  • Discord – an ‘always on’ voice chat app which allows teams to communicate. This is handy for, say, sales teams where the call handler quickly needs to ask the desk manager a question. Obvious risks about forgetting to turn off the microphone prevail!
  • Slack – a well-known messaging app favoured in the startup world. The corporate version is often Microsoft Teams.
  • Officevibe – an app for collecting information, anonymously, from your team about how they’re feeling

This is going to be a tricky time for everyone. But amongst the gloom it’s great to hear about people getting into the spirit of it. One client told us that members of their sales team have bought whiteboards on Amazon for their homes so that they can replicate their work environment. It’s initiative like this which will see the industry through.

We wish you all the best for navigating the next few months. May the industry and our companies be better when we emerge from the gloom.

Oxbow Partners Coronavirus Coverage

Oxbow Partners is launching two initiatives which we hope will assist the insurance community during the pandemic.

First, we have set up a community noticeboard intended to connect available talent with corporates. The idea emerged when we heard that data and technology companies in particular had already let people go. There will, sadly, be more. Times will be tough for insurers also, but this is surely also a time for them to pick up talent in areas where they would have struggled even two weeks ago. We don’t know where this will go, but click here to see the first version of the board and please tell any available talent about it.

Second, our Market Intelligence team will be providing weekly coverage of insurers’ announcements and analysis regarding Coronavirus. This week’s note covers announcements from DLG and Hannover Re, and analysis from Swiss Re. You can sign up for the weekly email here.

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About the author

Chris Sandilands, ACII is a Partner at Oxbow Partners. Chris advises (re)insurers and brokers on a range of strategy topics and M&A. Chris started his career as a D&O underwriter at Munich Re, before joining Oliver Wyman, the consulting firm. You can reach him at csandilands@oxbowpartners.com.

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