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20.10.2020

The impact of the pandemic on where and how we work

Ever since the likes of Edward Rowe Mores first commuted to their actuarial workplaces in the 18th century, little has changed in terms of where actuaries work [1] – like for many professionals, most of an actuary’s work is performed from their firm’s office.

In the UK, this pattern of office working was severely disrupted on March 23 2020, when the government announced that we should all work from home where possible, in response to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Remote working, including home working, is not new and most of us have worked remotely by choice at some point in our careers.  This was different though: it wasn’t optional and, as the impact of Covid 19 plays out, it isn’t at all obvious when, or even if, we will return to pre-Covid ways of working.

I’ve reached out to a number of my client contacts to ask them about their experiences of remote working, finding them by and large to be consistent with the messages we have had from our own staff. In this article I expand on these experiences and share my views on how this will impact the longer-term working environment.

The good, the bad and the challenging

In the main, we have adjusted reasonably well.  We rapidly organised new home-work spaces, embraced new technology like Zoom and learnt first-hand just how reliable our home WiFi networks are.

The good

Long commutes exchanged for family time. Those who have given up a significant commute to their places of work now have more time on their hands.  The value you place on this will be specific to your personal situation but for some this has been a game changer: if you lived 1.5 hours from your place of work and could not work on the commute, then you have gained 2 additional working days per week.   Many in this situation are reporting improved productivity at work coupled with improvements in their personal life: being more involved with the kids, better exercise regimes, time for hobbies etc.

What makes a good actuarial student - balance

Improved flexibility. The change in environment combined with the lack of commute mean that there is less pressure to conform to a 9-5 day.  This lets individuals choose, within reason, the times they are most productive, perhaps by splitting the day into smaller periods interspersed with family time, exercising or relaxation periods.

Similarly, some actuarial work contains time consuming calculations that can lead to unproductive periods while these run.  Now it is possible to step away from the computer while calculations are running and spread the working day over a longer period, getting more done without having to spend more hours in front of the screen.

I have also had reports from several colleagues dividing their tasks into desk tasks and those that can be carried out elsewhere, such as calls that can be taken on the move while they take their daily walk.

Improved productivity.   A contact of mine in the HR department of a large financial services organisation mentioned that, as an organisation, they were pleasantly surprised by how productive staff had been in the early phases of lockdown imposed remote working.

Many individuals report that they are more productive working remotely compared with being in the office.   They have less distraction, can focus well on the task in hand and are getting through more work.

For those who have a dedicated workspace at home there is also the added benefit of having more control over their working environment, eg temperature, music, desk and chair configuration etc. I have even had someone suggest they have a space in their office for yoga between meetings and a fridge set-up for easy access to healthy snacks!

Improved ability to service clients’ needs.

We have found that the improved flexibility and productivity combined with not needing to be on-site have enhanced our project delivery to clients using our consulting services.

On such projects, where we provide a solution rather than a resource, we have found that when work pauses, for example because we are waiting for client inputs, our homeworking actuaries can find non-client-related work or private study to keep them busy; previously if they had been on-site, they would have found themselves doing ‘busy work’ for the client. This flexibility ultimately saves clients money.

We also have found that moving to remote working removes location as a factor in matching people to projects, giving us a wider pool to select from and the ability to meet requirements based on suitability rather than geography.

Reduced corporate and personal carbon footprint, and general environmental improvements.  Clearly, the less we all travel, whether through commuting, wider business travel or our own leisure activity, the lower our carbon footprints are.  There have been lots of interesting stories in the news that touch on this, such as pollution free skies over London and wildlife being spotted in the middle of cities (including this deer in my neck of the woods).

The bad

Whilst remote working has been a positive experience for some, this is by no means universal.

Social isolation. The most significant negative theme is that of social isolation.  For some, the workplace fulfils an important function as a place where we enjoy social interaction.  Remote working has abruptly removed this social contact, and in some cases this loss of social contact has negatively impacted mental health and wellbeing.

While many companies did a good job at the beginning of lockdown of putting in place temporary support, as we move into an extended period of remote working over winter this will become even more important.

Reduced productivity.  Just as some have found themselves able to be more productive, others do find working from home difficult.   During lockdown, it was nigh-on impossible to concurrently fulfil the roles of parent, teacher and employee, and many their found their it was their work that suffered.

For a number of reasons, some are unable to create appropriate workspaces and others find they can focus better in the office compared with home, so we have definitely seen the productivity question as a nuanced one that depends on the individual. For example, for some of our more junior staff it is harder to create an appropriate workspace in rented house shares with multiple people all trying to work remotely, or in smaller inner-city flats that do not have room for a dedicated workspace.

The challenging

How we work.  We’re used to working in the office and we’re used to collaborating in teams that are office-based; but many of us are also already familiar with collaborating in teams where team members are based in different locations.  So isn’t remote working just an extension of this, or is it simply not possible to work as effectively remotely?

The answer is complicated and depends on individuals and the specific organisational circumstances.  At APR, we’ve had to make remote working a success, and based on client feedback, we’ve done so.

That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges: for example we’ve had to deliver our induction training entirely remotely to what has been largest ever intake of actuarial trainees in September.   So far this has worked very well, and some have already started their first projects remotely. However, we’re very aware that while social isolation can impact anyone it could disproportionately affect younger staff, so we’re continuing to monitor closely how they are managing, and have various initiatives in place to mitigate the impact of social isolation.

IR35 Contractor View

Living at work, not working from home.  This one made me chuckle when a former colleague first mentioned it.  He pointed out that whilst he did not love his commute, it wasn’t too long, he was able to chill-out on the train and the act of arriving and then leaving the office “book-ended” his working day.  Now, it’s much less clear cut and, at times, he finds himself back at his desk working long after the kids are in bed.

Staff like their colleagues more than they like their work!   Absence makes the heart grow fonder and so it would appear in our field: I don’t love my job but I love the people I work with” is a direct quote from someone in our industry and one that I have heard paraphrased on a few occasions.

I consider this to be a related to the social isolation problem and both can be addressed by creating space and time for staff to socialise.  There is an up-front cost (if you pay staff to socialise) but spent well, the return on your human capital will be worth it … offset against those remote working productivity gains!

Trust.  Some managers don’t trust their staff and worry they are home-shirking (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-54289152).  Whilst the linked BBC news article is perhaps a little extreme, and about a different industry, trust is undoubtedly a concern for some in our sector too.

At APR we’re very fortunate not to have any worries on this front.  We’re careful about who we recruit and specifically seek and select motivated individuals with the result that this is not an issue within our team (in fact our bigger concern is to persuade some of our people to switch off!).

Between the lines.  There are some aspects of work that aren’t taught, they’re just picked up by experience. For example realising who are the more approachable members of other teams by observing their general office demeanour over time, or even when to go and sit on someone else’s desk to ensure they carry out that urgent task for you. These are often vital to getting things done effectively in an office environment,  but can rely heavily on social cues that are much more difficult, if not impossible, to gauge in a remote environment

Zoom fatigue: This phenomenon has been widely documented over the last few months (https://www.forbes.com/sites/yolarobert1/2020/04/30/heres-why-youre-feeling-zoom-fatigue/#727505ed2ac6) and several of our staff on more collaborative projects have commented on how exhausting a full day of video calls can be.

This has led to some companies putting in place guidance to try and limit video conference calls and give staff a break to focus on work. We consider this to be a balance point and we have been taking steps to try and manage the number of calls we put in for our staff to ensure we aren’t overloading them.

So, where are we heading?

In the near term

Sadly, as I type this in early October, a second full lockdown feels likely and I am certain that we will be remote working full-time until Christmas at the very least.

In the medium term

My own rather pessimistic view (not, I admit, shared by all of my APR colleagues or our clients) is that I cannot see a significant movement away from remote working until 2022 at the earliest.   Let me qualify that: it’s difficult to imagine meaningfully returning to “the office” before a vaccine or some other very significant breakthrough (such as “Covid free” passports supported by widescale daily rapid result testing).   Even if a vaccine starts to be available over 2021 as predicted, how long will it be until office workers who can work from home will receive it?  And then, how effective will the vaccine prove to be relative to the evolution of the virus?

In the long term

For resilience purposes, we are preparing for indefinite remote working. Certainly, for some of our staff we expect this to be their preferred method of working long-term and we believe this will be fine for many, but certainly not all, roles.

It’s difficult to imagine a return to pre-Covid ways of working, but equally, it’s difficult to imagine an entire country working from home indefinitely. So where will this all land?

The mixed model

This is talked about by many – i.e. we work from home some of the time and then work from “the office” the rest.  The mixed model benefits from some of the advantages while mitigating most of the disadvantages of remote versus office working. The social and collaborative advantages of the office are gained without losing all of the productivity gains and commuting time savings that so many have cherished with remote working.

Ultimately we anticipate returning to a flexible mixed model as soon as it is safe to do so but our position is very much “wait and see” – we will be guided by staff, clients and the reality of life.

Remote working is here to stay

We like remote working at APR, and it’s fair to say our business model lends itself to remote working, with a number of our staff working remotely, on either a part time or a full time basis prior to the pandemic.  We have bases in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, and we largely ran our consulting projects remote (from the clients’ office) from our base offices pre Covid.

I acknowledge that remote working does not suit everyone and therefore some will continue to operate largely from their firms’ office.  However, I suspect that remote working will continue to form a significant part in many of our future working lives.   It’s hard to imagine lots of actuaries who have benefitted from an extra 15 hours per week from not commuting, suddenly being OK with reverting back to previous working patterns (and the consequent reduction in quality of life).

I see this as a continuation of the “how we work” evolution which has been happening since Edward More’s time.  Having established that we can work equally (or more) effectively in a remote environment, we think it would be a shame to go ‘back-to-normal’ once restrictions are lifted, and anticipate a significant level of remote working beyond the current situation, certainly within APR and probably more widely in our industry. The challenge for us all is to make sure that this change in normality represents an evolutionary step forwards, not backwards.

Chris Bryce

October 2020

Chris Bryce

Notes / References

[1] During the early 20th century Spanish flu pandemic, research suggests that whilst some individual churches, theatres etc. did shut, there was no centrally imposed edict to avoid the workplace.