Life after Covid: The new normal

The coronavirus pandemic started this decade off on the wrong foot. We’re still coming to terms with the health and economic cost of the outbreak as it continues its rampage across the globe.

However, even the darkest of clouds have a silver lining – in this case, the opportunity to bring the future of work closer. Triggering the biggest remote working experiment in the world, the crisis has confirmed that flexible working is not just a dream but an achievable reality.

When country after country went into lockdown, many employees turned their homes into offices. Overall, they embraced the flexibility and zero commute that remote working affords. 

While the experiment is not over yet, the lessons have more or less been learnt. So where do we go from here? Should we shrug this off as a temporary turn or should we use the lessons to define our future?

At the Allianz group, we opted for the latter.

The ‘New Work Model’ project, headed by Sylvain Newton, aims to use the positive lessons from the Covid-19 crisis to create a blueprint for the future of daily work at the company.

Old idea, new opportunities

Remote working is hardly a new concept. Technology companies had made it fashionable quite a while back.

It’s an exciting theme indeed. Citing a study, the World Economic Forum highlights that a whopping 98 percent of the workforce would like to have the option of working remotely.

Allianz too had identified the opportunity as early as 2011. The company launched its strategy to virtualize workplaces with the Allianz Virtual Client (AVC). Today, this core platform alone has more than 110,000 users globally, with more being added daily. Employees use company-provided equipment or even their private laptops to access the AVC via secure two-factor authentication.

“At the peak of the crisis, as many as 90 percent of our employees were seamlessly adopting remote working because we had already been setting up the infrastructure for a while,” says Olav Spiegel, in charge of Global Workplace Strategy and member of the New Work Model taskforce, responsible for technology.

Talking about being ahead of the curve, a notable mention is Allianz Deutschland, the group’s German entity. “They started a project last year to set up home offices. When the coronavirus crisis hit, Allianz Deutschland already had some 8,000 people working from home with full equipment including screen, thin client, keyboard and mouse,” Olav elaborates.  

Having its own infrastructure enabled the Allianz group to add capacity quickly as needed. “We did not have to rely on third-party vendors too much. For example, when our remote access capacity was reaching the maximum limit, we deployed our testing capacity,” he adds.

In contrast, the sudden surge in the usage of online collaboration tools such as video conferencing caught providers of these applications by surprise. Even with buffer capacity in place, managing such a huge jump in demand couldn’t have been without hiccups, even for cloud providers. During the crisis, Allianz worked with its partners and vendors to stabilize the applications used by the company. Today, Allianz runs more than 100,000 virtual meetings per week on its platforms, allowing business to continue as usual.

“Our early start prepared us well for such situations. Many less-prepared companies struggled to get their employees online to work remotely,” Olav says. 

New decade, new normal

Under its New Work Model project, Allianz plans to extend the best practices and learnings from the crisis to more entities and users. According to Sylvain, the company has identified 22 ‘ambitions’ under four main categories.

The first two categories relate to flexible working – covering both the technological and the cultural aspects of remote working. “We are covering both the tangible and the intangible aspects,” says Sylvain, who has 20 years of experience in human resources, including in companies such as GE and Hilton. Other than equipment, remote working also needs a different mindset. “While the technology part takes care of topics such as hardware, software and IT helpdesk, the cultural part looks into leadership skills, mental health, performance management and virtual teamwork, among other topics.” Labor laws pertaining to home office also differ across geographies. “We are trying to design an entire holistic package,” Sylvain says.

The third New Work ‘lighthouse’ – as he calls the overarching categories – pertains to the new way of doing business: how the business can become more digital in terms of services as well as customer relationships.

Allianz’s inherent resilience kept it going at the peak of the coronavirus crisis. The company wants to further build on this strength through its fourth lighthouse – adaptive resilience “This includes aspects such as business continuity management and integrating ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) objectives in our operations,” Sylvain explains.

If all goes as planned, the bigger ambitions of the New Work Model should be in place by the end of the year. Some others are targeted for next year.

Sylvain’s core taskforce has eight representatives from various functions spanning operations including technology, finance and risk management, human resources and even the group’s environmental office. 

Collaboration concerns

No new concept, however, is without teething problems.

Among the downsides of remote working, reduced collaboration was found to be one of the biggest challenges. A solution, according to Olav, is interactive tools.

“We realized that we need more interactive elements in our toolkit to better support virtual meetings. Of course, we have the basic collaboration tools such as video conferencing, chat, email etc. But interactive tools could enhance collaboration greatly,” he says, giving the example of a feedback channel for virtual townhalls. “At the moment, it’s difficult for audiences to ask questions or for the presenter to get a feel of the general mood of the audience. We would like to address this, including for large-scale conferences.”

Then, there’s brainstorming, an act that is easier in person than in the virtual world. “In an office, you can easily go to a whiteboard for a quick brainstorming session. That becomes tough to facilitate virtually. Although you could use a text editor, not everyone can use it at the same time. So we are looking at tools that support agile collaboration – ideation and specific meeting elements that in-person meetings have,” Olav continues. 

Training people in using online tools is imperative to ensure the tools are used optimally. Unlike in an office, where you have “at least one colleague who has all the answers”, you are usually left to your own devices at home. “Training and adoption management is essential to get the most out of productivity tools. If we introduce new tools without showing employees how to use them, it will only lead to frustration.”

A strong helpdesk and technical support system with self-service further eases the transition to remote working, Olav adds.

Currently, Allianz has defined a digital tools landscape, providing clarity on the basic productivity, collaboration and communication tools to be used for different use cases and scenarios. “These tools are already being rolled out to our global user base. We will offer a common layer for everyone and will look at other specific needs going forward,” he says.

Not all about technology

Stock images of remote working usually glamorize the concept, showing people with laptops relaxing on beaches and mountains.

Reality, however, is different.

While working from home is convenient, it requires careful consideration of various topics, not least of which are privacy and security. “Some tasks can be done while sitting in the kitchen with your family around. But when you are handling customer data or working on confidential topics, you need a dedicated and secure workspace,” Olav points out.

Besides hardware and software, employees need the right kind of furniture. “Most offices have ergonomic furniture, but homes are rarely equipped for spending long hours on the computer.” Home-related costs also tend to increase for workers in such a work model. Many countries have strict rules for allowing employees to work mostly from home.

According to Olav, the corporate world will have to address these aspects before the concept becomes the norm. “What is a fair approach that does not put any burden on the employee? We will all have to figure that out. If an employee doesn’t have a dedicated space at home, can they work from home at all? That depends on the function and on the role.”

An efficient remote working set-up is not just a matter of convenience for the workforce. It can also enable companies to operate normally during disruptions caused by events such as natural disasters. “What happens when a data center goes down because of a natural disaster or a power outage? Earlier, these scenarios were more theoretical but now they have become realistic. So we are doing more planning and preparations for ‘what if’ scenarios,” he says. 

Other than offering flexibility, remote working can play a big role in resolving some modern-day ails. By eliminating the daily commute for a huge population, it can bring down the planet’s collective carbon footprints. Further, in megacities with heavy traffic congestion and pollution, it can help clean up the air and the roads.

Flexible working is also a more inclusive concept. It will allow certain segments of society – such as parents of young children, care-givers for ailing family members and people with limited mobility, for example – to participate successfully in the workforce.

Home is where our heart is. Increasingly, it will also be where our career is.

The Allianz Group is one of the world's leading insurers and asset managers with more than 100 million retail and corporate customers in more than 70 countries. Allianz customers benefit from a broad range of personal and corporate insurance services, ranging from property, life and health insurance to assistance services to credit insurance and global business insurance. Allianz is one of the world’s largest investors, managing 766 billion euros on behalf of its insurance customers. Furthermore, our asset managers PIMCO and Allianz Global Investors manage 1.7 trillion euros of third-party assets. Thanks to our systematic integration of ecological and social criteria in our business processes and investment decisions, we hold the leading position for insurers in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. In 2019, over 147,000 employees achieved total revenues of 142 billion euros and an operating profit of 11.9 billion euros for the group.

These assessments are, as always, subject to the disclaimer provided below.

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Flavia Genillard
Allianz SE
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