Providing producers and employees the ability to work remotely and with flexibility is no longer an accommodation that an agency principal or carrier executive generously grants out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather, remote, flexible work is now a competitive advantage.
It’s a route to make an agency or carrier more appealing as a workplace. It’s a way to be more cost-efficient as an operation, and a way to diversify geographically and get closer to clients. It's a method to vie for the attention of young and upcoming professionals — a vital task given the reluctance of millennials to join the insurance industry. Last but not least, it’s a way to retain experienced professionals and keep them engaged rather than letting them ride off into the sunset never to be seen again.
Remote work isn’t for everyone. But it can be a plus for many workers, owners and clients. Some 3.67 million people in the U.S. (not including the self-employed) are “teleworkers,” calling home their primary place of work, according to research from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. The number of people who regularly work at home increased by 103% from 2005-2014.
Remote professionals still need to work together with peers who aren’t in their line of sight each day. And they hold a special responsibility to be proactive in collaborating.
The good news is that today’s technology facilitates that collaboration. Insurance firms striving to be competitive, as well as efficient, need to look at technology in this way.
Selecting best tech options
But the tech options can be overwhelming. With the large number of online services available today, which ones are best for the insurance market? Which are best to consider for you, your agency or your department?
As a remote staffing solution for the insurance industry, Work At Home Vintage Experts (WAHVE) has tested numerous collaboration tools. On the following pages are eight relevant tools it has found helpful for remote insurance professionals.
Related: 10 top apps for business
Skype from Microsoft 365
Skype helps everyone feel connected. It’s a tool for speaking with clients and teammates via video call. A free video conferencing and instant messaging app, it allows for “face to face” video meetings, conferences and policy reviews with peers and clients across the town, state or country from the comfort of the office or home. Skype works on all devices and operating systems.
OneNote from Microsoft 365
Imagine this scenario: A producer is working on a desktop computer and forgets to transfer information about an upcoming client visit from computer to smartphone. Walking away from the desktop means this information isn’t available. But it could be available through a tool such as Microsoft’s OneNote, a cloud-based digital notebook that automatically saves and synchronizes notes.
This software links mobile devices to a computer through the cloud. Cloud-based tools like OneNote (Evernote is another) empower the flexibility of location. In our example, once the producer takes down an action point on the smartphone in her vehicle after the client visit, the client can then access the note later from a desktop machine when he is prepared to follow up.
Already a well-known application, GoToMeeting allows as many as 1,000 people to convene through voice and video communication, whether within the U.S. or even between countries. With screen-sharing, high-definition video and PowerPoint capabilities, GoToMeeting allows hosting of meetings, presentations, video conferences or webinars with as many as six presenters.
For example, a subject matter expert at an agency could host a training webinar for remote staffers, or could host a client-specific educational webinar to demonstrate additional value. Accessible via laptop, desktop or tablet, GoToMeeting allows for sessions to be recorded.
(Photo: Google Play)
Hangouts is a tool similar to Skype. It provides face-to-face video conferencing, screen sharing and instant messaging; but, unlike Skype, Hangouts requires no software download. Browser-based, Google Hangouts allows for hosting webinars, podcasts and meet-ups with multiple participants.
Every participant’s face is visible at one time, making this tool beneficial for small-group meetings. Additionally, it has impressive video quality and is compatible with almost every device. Imagine using it for an agency meeting or brief training session to bring everyone up to speed on the latest product news or business process.
Slack can be described in two words: team communication. Dubbed a “messaging app for teams,” it’s being used by some agencies to reduce or even eliminate internal email messaging. And wouldn’t less email be welcome?
Slack functions as a chat room for co-workers. It brings together team communications in one place and is searchable. Slack is especially useful in facilitating collaboration with a remote workforce, so employees can communicate with each other even if they are not at their desks.
Huddle is another cloud-based service — one that lets individuals share documents and collaborate. Users can share content and documents, manage projects, simplify information across internal and external teams, and work with clients more effectively.
This collaboration tool helps users and teams stay organized, share ideas, keep track of workflow, add tasks, request approvals around content, manage access rights across individuals or teams, and control document versions across large project teams.
(Photo: Google Play)
Google Drive acts as a digital filing cabinet. It’s a way to store documents — including product brochures, spreadsheets, photographs and other materials. It also can be used to create Office-like documents (akin to Word), spreadsheets (akin to Excel) and slides (akin to PowerPoint).
What makes it powerful for agencies is that more than one person can retrieve documents or contribute online to a document. For example, an agency can keep a directory of carrier claims department contacts handy. When one of those departments changes staff, everyone in the agency can access that info instantly when one person updates the document. So there’s no more hunting for the latest information.
The Google Drive document settings can be adjusted document by document, so the creator can allow team members to view or edit based on their roles.
Dropbox is one of the original cloud-based tools to back up files. Using a piece of software downloaded to a computer, it automatically updates the files on that computer, storing them remotely — where they also can be accessed via website.
That means there are instantly two versions of any file: a local copy and a backup copy. When the computer hard drive dies or the phone gets left in the airport lounge, files still can be accessed. And who in the insurance industry hasn’t lamented the loss of a file in the past?
Another Dropbox feature is the ability to share files or folders. Imagine instantly uploading and sharing photos of a property risk for an underwriter in the home office to consider. Or consider the value of providing a carrier representative with photos of a claim scene instantly, so the policyholder can know that the agency is working as quickly as possible to get the claim in motion.
Tools like Dropbox also are a good way to share large files such as videos. One use example: Tape a talk by a carrier representative, and share it with someone who was out of the office at the time of the visit.
Having solid technology tools for collaboration and communication is vital. Because they can improve individual and team performance (and thus the bottom line), they’re worth a try for online team collaboration. Two considerations:
1. Every online and system tool used by any agency or carrier must be evaluated in light of data privacy. Federal and state regulations and of course good business practices mandate that any tool provide the appropriate level of data security.
2. While some tools are available in a paid version only, others are based on a “freemium” business model — meaning that a “lite” version is available without out-of-pocket cost. But proprietary features (such as additional data storage) require a subscription or other fee. Some tools are available in both individual and group versions, and the agency or carrier needs to consider what suits the work group.
Rick Morgan is senior vice president, marketing, of New York City-based Work at Home Vintage Experts (WAHVE). Email him at email@example.com.