Canadian Underwriter

6 principles for P&C leaders on return to office work

March 4, 2021   by Jason Contant

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Leaders in the Canadian property and casualty insurance industry should resist the following two urges: 1) making a hasty decision to return to work; and 2) mimicking high-profile companies that quickly announce plans to embrace remote work permanently.

These are two key takeaways in the recent Harvard Business Review blog, A CEO’s Guide to Planning a Return to the Office, written by Dan Ciampa. Ciampa is a former CEO, an adviser to boards and chief executives, and the author of five books. His article is intended for general business audiences and includes six key principles for company leaders who are committed to remaining all-remote:

  • Resist pressure to define a policy or make final decisions until its necessary to do so
  • At this stage, leaders should keep their personal return-to-work preferences to themselves
  • Don’t put too much stock in data gleaned from employee surveys
  • Recognize that company size is an important variable as it relates to formal policies
  • Don’t get transfixed by technological solutions to the problem of remote work
  • Avoid being influenced by high-profile companies like Google and Twitter, which quickly announced plans to embrace remote work permanently

Now that increasing vaccinations are restoring hope for in-person contact sooner rather than later, leaders of companies that are currently working remotely have started to think seriously about how and how much to bring their employees back to the office, Ciampa noted. More employees than ever before will work remotely, Ciampa suggests; for tasks that can be done more efficiently remotely, investments in technology are necessary.

However, only principals, CEOs, or other executives can address other strategic and fundamental issues. Questions for this group include: How do I handle tasks and decisions that are best done face-to-face, even if many employees today say they prefer to work remotely? Regarding the company’s culture, what will be the longer-term impact of dividing the workforce? When do I have to make these choices? To whom should I listen, and when?

The  answers will vary depending on the unique situation faced by each leader. The first thing leaders should do is resist the pressure to define a policy or make final decisions until necessary.

“We are getting nearer to the end of the pandemic each day, but we are not there yet,” Ciampa wrote. “With uncertainty about what lies ahead, it is important to avoid steps that will either create unrealistic expectations or limit options. For such big, consequential decisions, one key success factor is to buy time to gather more information and leave options open as long as possible.”

Leaders should also keep their personal preferences close to the vest. Instead, they should ask questions and refrain from making declarative statements for as long as possible.

As of now, Ciampa advises leaders, don’t put too much stock in data gleaned from employee surveys. As of right now, many employees may say they prefer to remain working at home for much of the work week. But a wise CEO will recognize that such opinions often change.

“What people say after a year of sheltering in place may not be meaningful this fall, particularly if by then they’ve had several months of living with fewer restrictions,” Ciampa wrote. “In the same way that political leaders should not base decisions solely on public opinion polls, leaders must look at employee surveys as one data point.”

Leaders should also poll managers separately. “Many managers I talk with have found working remotely more frustrating than satisfying because their job involves tasks that are most difficult to do remotely,” Ciampa noted. “They must ensure collaboration across department lines, coach employees, deal with people and relationship problems, and read the subtle signs of everyday interactions for barriers to communication. If they are not done well, morale and teamwork decline, and ultimately, innovation suffers.

“Managing people is always more difficult when working remotely. So, what managers think about the return-to-work plan should carry special weight, and count for more than the views of people who report to them.”

Leaders should also recognize that company size matters. Larger organizations may need to rely more on formal policies and perceptions of fairness, limiting their ability to make decisions on a person-by-person basis, as smaller companies might do.

Leaders should also not become transfixed by technological solutions to the problem of remote work. “In some organizations, the return-to-work discussions are happening alongside plans for technology upgrades that facilitate remote work,” Ciampa said. But the big questions around return to work should focus on what the company will not be able to do well if it goes “too far” in the direction of using technology to make remote work more efficient. (And what does going “too far” mean?)

Finally, leaders should avoid being influenced by high-profile companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Adobe, and Oracle, which quickly announced plans to embrace remote work permanently. “The most active advocates for expanded remote work are in industries that have the most to gain financially: software development technology companies,” said Ciampa, noting that these companies aren’t necessarily the model for setting policy.

“Because of what we’ve gone through over the past year, we are about to enter a new era in the evolution of organizations,” Ciampa concluded. “Decisions that CEOs make over the next few months will set the tone for how work will be done in the future, impacting the relationships employees have formed and their emotional connection with the company. They should be made carefully.”


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