Work From Home Pushing Back - Even In High Tech

march 2, 2023 – Michael Marsh

Followers to my work will already know that I'm a devoted reader of INC magazine. Have been since the early 1990's. Much to my daughter's chagrin, yes, I do have many of the older print magazines in my library. I'm not yet to the point of having to walk between stacks of magazines in my living room...yet. :)

I've been writing and giving talks on the work-from-home movement since the virus and organizational and governmental responses took over the United States in 2020. There were then many possibly valid questions that did not seem to in the discussion at the time...particularly in the people business of workers' compensation claims.

Were there other options besides full lock down? Were businesses other than healthcare institutions that assist in (and guide in many cases) given the option to continue to have face to face meetings with human beings in need of assistance? Was it the only answer to have everyone vacate the office work environment? Will the work from home unchallenged chanting become a fixture in the claims industry?

Those questions are still on my mind. Many of the larger insurers and claims TPAs across the country have been embracing and advertising acceptance of the 'new normal' work from home positions for their claims folks. However, privately, a good number of claims people have shared with me their uncertainty with the work in your sweatpants environment.

READ THIS. INC magazine (headline graphic) published in their e-mail newsletter (received 3/2/2023) an article that seems to be challenging the conventional keep 'em at home wisdom. In fact, it appears that a good number of folks prefer to be in the company of their coworkers.  Gasp, even in the high tech sector.

I have observed a similar trend in the workers' compensation industry. At a recent meeting at a large insurer, the issue of working from home was a topic of conversation. To their surprise, many of their staff in all departments, including claims, were said to be coming back to the office environment. In fact, it appears that nearly 50% of their staff that are not field staff are back in the office either full time or a majority of the time.

One story was particularly compelling. A claims examiner dealing with a fatality workers' compensation claim was able to gather a team before making the first call to the surviving spouse. The meeting included an underwriter, a representative from safety, a nurse, a claims supervisor and the claims examiner.

As a result of the face to face interaction, two positive things took place. First, the claims examiner made the call with confidence after her coworkers, with the significant experience, assisted in the pre-call preparation. The first call went positively with the survivor. The claims examiner was able to ask the necessary investigative and administrative questions and yet maintained a high level of empathy that might not have been possible without the pre-call involvement of the experienced coworkers. The coworker meeting was face to face. It was so impactful that the CEO of the company was made aware of the positive impact the meeting had for those involved.

Second, the spirit of caring between and for each of the coworkers was heightened. The claims examiner related that this caring truly showed that professionals in the workers' compensation space can do a good job, care for the recovering workers to whom they are assigned to assist AND care for one another. Not only did this one instance bring these team members closer together. It result in the spreading of the story among the hundreds of company staff. The positive energy is evident in the facility. The spreading word seems to have reenergized the company about their sacred mission of helping recovering workers through the workers' compensation system.

In the workers' compensation industry, it is important to remember the grand bargain. Workers and employers agreed to limit certain rights in order to have a sustainable level of guaranteed benefits for workers and a predictable recurring cost for employers. It has been my observation that some in the industry have either not learned or have forgotten about the great bargain...and where the insurance and self-insurance administrators fit in the picture.

When we remember that the grand bargain was for and between workers and employers, we understand our place. We have a place in the system, but it is not about us. We are not the injured person. We are not the premium or claim paying responsible employer. We are administrators, planners and guides. We facilitate the process of medical care, payment of lost time benefits and assist with return to work, or in the case of a fatality, explain and pay the statutory benefits for the survivors.

Of course, the claims folks send checks or EFT for benefits to involved parties. But the money is not ours. It is only held in trust temporarily. Monies for claims only exist through the payment of premiums or those set aside by self-insured organizations for their program. 

The story above brought about discussions of the grand bargain. The folks involved were not only professionally satisfied with the coworker collaboration and helping the surviving spouse in their time of loss, the were DELIGHTED that they had the privilege to be there to help.

One claim interaction, one team face to face collaboration. The situation above of course will not impact the overall profitability of the insurance company. However, when tens of thousands of similar interactions follow in succession, a culture develops. A culture of caring. A culture of delivering with heart.

In this day of the 'great retirement' and recruiting challenges, organizations would be wise to carefully balance their needs and desires of a virtual employment environment to the positive culture that can be cultivated in the face to face world. The changing culture at this one insurer has resulted in a positive impact upon recruitment. Simply seeing the smiles, hugs, laughter and delight at the recent company meeting was priceless. No zoom session can ever recreate those moments.

Takeaway: Workers' compensation is a human business. We can choose to make it humane. As observed by INC magazine, there appears to be a swinging of the pendulum from a mostly virtual workforce to a return to face to face coworker interaction. My observation in my own company and in the insurance organization discussed above is that humans have an overriding desire to be with others when carrying out the mission of delivery of workers' compensation benefits...together. 

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