By now most of us have adjusted to a new reality in that the lines between our working lives and home lives have become irrevocably blurred. In the past nine months (since March 2020), I’ve sat in on hundreds of Zoom, Teams and Skype calls and caught a glimpse in many cases of the work/home lives of hundreds of my clients. I now know that some of my clients have dogs, kids, and microwave ovens. It’s reassuring to know that at some level we’re all the same and this pandemic in some respects has brought us closer and made that which seemed remote from a professional perspective a lot more personal, a lot more human.
Back around St. Patrick’s weekend, not many of us knew what we were facing into. The successive months of lockdown meant home schooling was our new reality and timetables adjusted accordingly. We were no longer the working professionals from 8.30am – 5.30pm with a clear line of sight on what needed to be accomplished during those fixed hours. In most cases, our days just got longer with the working hours interspersed with homework, keeping kids entertained, alleviating the boredom with games, science experiments, Youtube videos, Skype/WhatsApp calls with family/friends, learning new skills. I learned in one week how to complete a Rubiks cube, an objective I’d had for nearly forty years but had been lost in the mists of time as I grew from a child to an adult. Suddenly I found myself back re-learning the things I’d long forgotten – times tables, the modh coinníollach, multiplication, long division. I’m sure many of you can relate to the feeling of familiarity, yet dread when you were faced with school work. I’m indeed grateful that Peig wasn’t on the curriculum.
Many Insurance sector employees also found themselves forced into working from home. The daily commute and accompanying routines of getting to their offices – fixed abodes where they would spend the majority of their waking hours and were expected to perform the perfunctory tasks of their jobs were replaced with a new routine. What was once a fixed location became fluid as our offices moved (depending on the juggling demands of our homes) from pillar to post, kitchen to bedroom, spare room/attic conversion to the garden shed. I’ve lost count of the number of Insurance professionals who have repurposed their back garden sheds and turned them into the underwriting/claims hubs of their respective firms. This fundamental shift from fixed to fluid is like the modern equivalent of the transition from tape to CD or from Black & White to Colour TV, (for those of us old enough to remember these things). We’ve been literally dragged into a new era and forced to adjust our thinking in terms of the commonly accepted meaning of an office.
There are several benefits to working from home, not least of which is our reduced carbon footprint and the potential we now have to set a new precedent for the future generations. Most people had become institutionalised to the point of thinking of a workspace as being one physical location. That is no longer the case. With a rapidly expanding broadband network and the introduction of 5G connectivity, we will all have the potential to work from anywhere, anyplace, anytime, with the realistic possibility of swapping cities for the most remote and inconceivable locations across Ireland and indeed the world.
The Insurance employees of the future will not be tied to any one location, they will in effect be omnipresent; physically in one place but virtually in many. They will also place more demands than previously on their employers, they’ll want more remote access but also the facility work from an office too as their lives demand it. Employers in the sector are already adjusting to the realities of more flexible working arrangements with many providing laptops and remote access to their networks to thousands across the country. What was once considered a perk of the job will be commonly accepted as the norm for any aspiring candidate entering the market. This is a surprising but welcome development from an otherwise annus horribilis.
Remote office hubs, hot desking and working from home becoming the new normal will also bring physical and environmental changes. Many commercial real estate firms and property developers are reimagining what had once been considered fixed purpose buildings as the homes and retail outlets of the future. There is significant potential in Dublin to transition large tracts of the city from office blocks into residential units, bringing life and soul back into parts of the capital that for the last thirty to forty years were considered the urban jungle. Think of the societal impact that one change would have on the ecosystem of Dublin. Think of the long term benefits that might bring to local economies elsewhere as people live and work in smaller villages and towns across Ireland, spending their disposable income closer to home. This has the potential to effectively achieve what successive governments failed to do – to decentralise jobs and opportunities away from Dublin and afford anyone the possibility of achieving a career right on their own doorstep. There will of course be several challenges to surmount, not least of which is the technology required to achieve this.
But are we in danger of painting ourselves into a corner? In our haste to upgrade and respond to the shifting demands of remote working, the very technology that on the surface would appear to be making our lives easier, also represents a significant threat. Back in 2014, Elon Musk – CEO of SpaceX, (whose stated ambition is to reduce space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars) called artificial intelligence “our biggest existential threat and called for tighter regulation and controls to ensure we don’t summon a demon. In 2016 Stephen Hawking warned that developing full Artificial Intelligence could end the human race. He saw this at that time as the biggest threat to humanity and unfortunately passed away in 2018, before Covid 19 was even known. We’re on a slippery slope now to what was once considered a post-apocalyptic vision.
As Insurance companies move more of their products to online platforms, digitising the customer experience will lead to many jobs being replaced. I’m already hearing several insurance companies talking about moves to automation and robotics, replacing a lot of the back office administrative functions. Because of the drive to move the personal lines customer journey online, it’s already possible to renew your car/home/travel insurance without any physical contact with the insurer/broker. It’s entirely possible that within five years, most companies will renew their commercial insurance in a similar manner with a virtual underwriter/broker. It might appear to be science fiction and positively dystopian but the insurance worker of the future may have more in common with the Terminator than with Teresa from Kiltimagh.
Campbell Rochford – Turning Good To Great!