The coronavirus pandemic is already changing the way that American businesses operate, at least temporarily. But look closely and you can see the potential for long-lasting changes even after life returns to normal.
One of these shifts might just mean the end of the traditional insurance office.
Pandemic-related lockdowns have already forced many major companies to expand work-from-home policies on a short-term basis. But having tried it, some employees and their bosses are considering more permanent changes.
Nationwide Mutual Insurance is going even farther. One of the leading life insurance and retirement companies, the Columbus, Ohio-based company moved 98 percent of its 27,000 employees to working from home in less than a week in early March.
CEO Kirt Walker told Fortune magazine that management found no changes in key performance indicators and no negative feedback from customers.
"We keep hearing from members, 'if you hadn't announced you were all working from home, we never would have known,'" he said.
The Fortune 500 company decided to make the change permanent and has already shuttered five offices in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, and plans to shrink from 20 offices to just four.
As you face similar issues at your business, there are short-term, intermediate and long-term issues to consider.
In the past, employees who worked from home had designed a setup that worked for them. Many workers today are doing so under duress.
Working from home during the coronavirus pandemic is complicated by schools being closed and businesses and workers having no advance planning time.
Taking care of your school-age children, helping with their online learning, sharing home computers and internet bandwidth are all challenging experiences.
Not having the option of going to the office at all is not the best way to make work from home on a permanent basis work.
The coronavirus is going to be with us for a while. Fear of travel and fear of crowds is going to make it hard to convince employees to return to work. Lack of childcare options will continue to be a problem. And even when schools reopen, they may do so under staggered or limited school times.
These issues are going to last for more than the coming 12 months. Now is the time to adjust to the drawbacks of the current forced and hurried experience.
You may need to invest in better laptops and other equipment for your newly remote workers. Your work-from-home staff needs quality video cameras and audio to participate in the increasingly common online meetings.
While your staff may have a home computer their kids use for gaming that has these features, you really do not want to expose your business systems and data to your employee’s children’s computers. You would not be best pleased if your staff let their kids access the computers in your office. Why would you want your staff working from their kids’ devices?
You may need to provide cell phone or better phone solutions for your home staff. For security reasons you do not want to have company contacts and emails on your employee’s personal phones.
You need to hold regular weekly companywide or department-wide video meetings with your staff. People need to keep the connections with the folks they have been working with in your office.
It is probably a bad idea to have your staff take the computers and printers they currently have in your office home. Most traditional stay-at-home options are combined with remote access to networks and servers used through your current computers at your current physical office.
You need to put in place online methods for your customers to interact with your staff. This means increased use of digital signatures, electronic payments and online video meetings.
Even in the current situation, working from home provides some positives that you should consider.
Studies over the last several years consistently show benefits to your staff and your company. These include:
Increased productivity and lower costs are two things your business could always benefit from. In the coming economic challenge – whether it turns out to be a recession or even a depression – these may simply be competitive advantages your need.
Take this time to plan how you should restructure your business now. As things settle out you need to have permanent adjustments identified and ready to go.
The future comes gradually, and then all at once. We may be at one of those tipping points, where companies shift from traditional offices in downtown buildings to employees working from home.
Now is the time to start planning for that future.
By Duke Williams, Founder of Simply Easier Payments