Canadian Underwriter

Return to the office: Acknowledging workers’ fear

May 5, 2020   by David Gambrill

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As the P&C industry plans to return to the office safely while remaining socially distant, perhaps the greatest challenge lies in accommodating anxious, digitally-empowered employees and clients who aren’t yet ready to return to traditional workplaces while the pandemic is ongoing.

“Some people may be comfortable coming back to work, and others may not, and [the industry] will have to deal with that,” Chris Cornell, partner and national leader for insurance at KPMG, told Canadian Underwriter Friday.

“I can see in locations that are looking to open quicker, in Saskatchewan and Quebec, for example, there are going to be some opportunities for brokers to be back in their office and share in the discussions to meet with people physically and face-to-face. But will their clients see it as priority to come into the office and have those chats? I think it does have to be a staged opening.”

Cornell said the challenges for Canadian brokerages and insurance companies in getting the industry’s workforce back into the office during the pandemic “are not going to be that unique to the industry.”

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has infected 61,159 Canadians and killed 3,915. The World Health Organization declared the virus to be a global pandemic on Mar. 11. The vast majority of the P&C industry has been working remotely from home for the past seven or eight weeks to reduce the spread of the virus.

Chris Cornell, National Sector Leader, Insurance, KPMG Canada. Photo courtesy of KPMG Canada.

Some health authorities and provincial governments have reported seeing positive trends in the COVID-19  infection numbers and death rates recently, which they attribute to social distancing policies. But the numbers depend on the jurisdiction. In Ontario (18,310 cases) and Quebec (32,623 cases), for example, where the numbers have been the highest in Canada, infection and death rates are still on the rise, according to Public Health Canada data. Whereas in Manitoba (281 cases) and New Brunswick (118 cases), infection rates have basically plateaued, with very few new cases reported since mid-April.

New-found optimism in the epidemiological trends has provincial governments priming to relax social distancing restrictions that would allow P&C workers to migrate back into their offices. (Insurance offices have remained open throughout the pandemic, since insurance is an essential service.)

But the fear of COVID-19 remains, Doron Melnick, partner in KMPG’s people and change advisory services practice, told Canadian Underwriter in an interview. And while some provinces have aggressive plans to re-open their economies, others aren’t there yet. And so, how employees are feeling about their safety should factor into any plans to return to the workplace, Melnick said.

“If you are national brokerage with operations in multiple provinces, it is absolutely going to happen that we will have different plans for the different provinces, because ultimately companies can only do what the governments are allowing them to do,” Melnick observed. “The safest thing to do is for employers to stay within public health guidelines and work with the best available information they have within each province, and not overstep or get ahead of where each province is.

“If Saskatchewan is moving ahead more quickly, that’s okay, the plan can proceed more quickly in Saskatchewan. There is another consideration, which is how are the staff feeling. If Saskatchewan is ahead of the rest of the country, it’s possible that your brokerage staff in Saskatchewan will not feel comfortable going back to the office if they have friends in Alberta, and those Alberta workers are not coming back to the office.”

An example of this can be seen in the United States, said Cornell, where Georgia and other states are moving to ease social distancing restrictions faster than others.

“I spoke with a board member of one of our clients in the U.S. and that example came up – the fact that Georgia has already opened up certain businesses, and South Carolina is right on the border,” Cornell told Canadian Underwriter. “They [Georgia and Carolina] are quite close in terms of their economy, but [South Carolina has] not opened yet.

“There are implications around the comfort level of people going back to work, [and] the travel patterns of those who are now being exposed [to potential infection by the virus] earlier, in terms of travelling across the state border. They certainly have to be considered.”

There is a legal dimension to re-opening the workplace, Melnick added, noting that employers are obligated to provide a safe workplace for employees. He advises that policies for returning to workplaces “should be in writing, and should be communicated verbally, whether in phone or video calls. Give people an opportunity to understand what they mean.”

Also, Cornell recommends, an employer should set out in writing what the expectations of the employees will be regarding a return to the office. For example, would a broker be obligated to return to work in the brokerage if the office has been re-tooled to allow for physical distancing? Or would the broker continue to be allowed to work remotely from home?


Editor’s NoteWatch for a follow-up piece soon on the ‘Top 3 things to consider when planning to move your workforce back into the office.’


Feature photo from iStock/valentinrussanov

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