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Remote-work challenge to building corporate culture

Culture concern: Thomas Olunloyo, CEO of Legal & General Re (File photograph)

The prevalence of working from home is raising concerns about how new employees can learn a corporate culture and assimilate into teams.

Executives speaking on a virtual panel at the Bermuda Insurance Institute’s Fall Conference agreed that remote working had proved popular with many employees and that it would be here to stay.

While some offices have found that their younger staff are keen to return to the office and to the social side of work, others are finding the opposite.

William Wharton, head of Bermuda for Argo Insurance, said: “I’ve struggled to get these young people back into the office. I have an actual occupancy rate that’s about half of my ceiling.”

Mr Wharton, who said he is in his 50s, added: “In the office, it’s all people of my age or thereabouts and it’s very difficult to get 20 and 30-year-olds back in. And they are the ones who most need to be here.

“People I have sat with for years, I don’t really need to engage with them every day. But the new entrants into the industry, the graduate trainees: I have deep concerns.”

Thomas Olunloyo, chief executive officer of Legal and General Re, shared those concerns and said younger people had adapted very well to the new norm.

“Whether they need to be in the office more is up for discussion, but it’s going to make it more difficult to run a business, especially when it comes to hiring and onboarding new talent,” Mr Olunloyo said.

“We have to think of that, as an industry, quite deeply. That’s where my concern lies.

“How do I get them to know the people, the culture, the practices effectively, if they don’t see anyone? If they can’t have that face-to-face interaction, so much is lost.

“On a Zoom or Teams call, you end up talking about very specific issues, not the broader things that help people understand what organisational culture and practices look like.

“If the younger generation wants to work long-term from home, then we have to think long and hard about how we make that work.”

Amy Ponnampalam, CEO of Athora Life Re, said working from home was sustainable and companies would have to factor it into how they work.

“Having autonomy over where you work is a great thing,” Ms Ponnampalam said. ”Another great value of work is people. People often stay where they work and remain motivated because of culture: they like their colleagues, they like the way the place is run. There’s a real challenge in terms of keeping that alive when your team is dispersed remotely.

“It’s easy to have Friday drinks or coffee and cake on a Wednesday afternoon to bring people together when you’re in the office. But that doesn’t work when you don’t have that in-person connection.”

Ms Ponnampalam added that another byproduct of the pandemic had been positive for business.

“The inability to travel has been a real leveller in terms of doing business in Europe,” she said. “Now it does not matter that I’m on a small island with a time difference of four hours on the end of a phone. Now everyone’s the same.”

Anup Seth, managing director, Bermuda global leader, underwriting solutions - commercial risk solutions at Aon, said: “We’re back up to about 50 per cent occupancy in the office and it feels very normal to be back. I don’t think you can say that about many parts of the world.

“The Government and the community have done a fantastic job and we’re now reaping the benefits of that.”

He added that the world had become more volatile and uncertain, driven by factors including geopolitical risk, low interest rates, climate change and cyber-risk, as well as the pandemic.

Access to different types of capital and matching it to appropriate risks was one of the challenges for the future for the Bermuda market, Mr Seth said.

He added: “Also, a lot of value has been created in intangible space. If we’re going to remain as relevant as we have been in the past, then we are going to have to bring some solutions to that intangible asset class. As an industry, we have a lot of catching up to do.”

Mr Olunloyo reflected on the impact of the pandemic on the industry.

“Just this year alone, we’ve seen several black swan events in the market as a result of the pandemic, let alone the pandemic itself,” he said. “We’re in unprecedented territory.

“The more important thing is how we respond and how we anticipate events like this going forward. That brings the focus onto the fundamentals of what we do in insurance and reinsurance to manage our risk well.”

Legal & General Re had won a Transaction of the Year award from Trading Risk magazine for having gained reinsurance coverage for pandemic risks in December last year.

Mr Olunloyo said: “That wasn’t because we anticipated the pandemic happening, it was because we looked holistically at the risks we carried and saw there were certain pockets such as pandemic risk, that we were not comfortable with.

“One thing that I can guarantee is there will be a lot more uncertainty and that will put a lot more emphasis on what we do as professionals in this industry.”

Some are concerned that the success of remote working could cost jobs in Bermuda as employees work for the island’s insurance industry from cheaper countries.

Mr Olunloyo said a major part of Bermuda’s appeal as a domicile was its regulator, the Bermuda Monetary Authority.

“If you want to benefit from Bermuda regulation, then you have to be in Bermuda,” Mr Olunloyo said.

“Then there’s economic substance: if you want to be a Bermuda company then you have to have people on the ground doing the work, whether they’re working from home, or in the office, they have to be in Bermuda.

“That said, there are elements of work that you don’t have to be in Bermuda for. That’s something business will consider on an individual-by-individual basis.”

The pandemic has largely brought a halt to business travel and an inflow of clients from around the world. Mr Wharton is confident that when risk managers do start to travel again, Bermuda will be their first port of call.

He said: “I feel very confident that by June 2021, we will be at the airport picking up clients again.”

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Published October 27, 2020 at 12:00 pm (Updated October 27, 2020 at 12:35 am)

Remote-work challenge to building corporate culture

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