The Future of Work Has Arrived: How Independent Agents Can (and Should) Adapt

Agency Culture, Industry Experts, Leadership, Personal Lines, Small Commercial Lines

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to write about how the pandemic has forever reshaped our personal and professional lives.

At the time, I discussed how the independent agent channel – and the world – was at an inflection point: One where we can “choose to continue the same course despite changing market conditions or one where we can evolve, knowing the transformation won’t be easy but will allow us to emerge stronger than ever.”

Today, that transformation is coming to a head.

As uncertainty begins to fade and optimism emerges, there’s nothing more timely or urgent than addressing the tectonic shifts happening within our own “office” walls.

The Future of Work Has Arrived: How Independent Agents Can (and Should) Adapt 1

This article is part of our new Future of Work Guide. Click on the image to view the full guide.

In what has been dubbed the “great resignation,” employees are quitting in record numbers. Whether in search of greater work-life balance, inspired to find a new career path that better aligns with their values, or simply from burnout following an incredibly challenging and, for many, traumatic year – employees from every corner of the country are reevaluating their career choices. In fact, a recent survey from Monster.com indicated that a staggering 95% of the workforce is considering changing jobs.

On the flip side, employers are reimagining their business models to attract top talent in an increasingly competitive hiring market. During the pandemic, organizations big and small transitioned to remote work essentially overnight, many finding that employees were happier and more productive working from home. Forty-five percent of workers at least partially working from home during the pandemic say they’re more productive, according to a June 2021 survey from Fortune.

At the same time, conversations around the importance – and business imperative – of diversity, equity and inclusion rang louder and louder. The most future-looking organizations are leaning into the moment to meet the challenges and opportunities of a changed world.

The independent agency system isn’t immune to these emerging workplace trends. The demand for talent, more equitable workplaces and purpose-driven careers is greater than ever. We have entered a new era of work, and the agencies that thrive in the future will be those willing to adapt, today.

So, how do agencies future-proof their workplaces and embrace this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine the way we work?

Here are the five areas where agencies for the future can (and should) adapt:

Recruiting and retaining the right talent

As we continue to come to terms with what a post-pandemic working world may look like, the employee experience will be fundamental to any transformation.

Employees are the lifeblood of any business. In a relationship business like insurance, that becomes even more true. But it’s not just about finding good talent, it’s about finding the right talent.

Finding the right talent has emerged as one of the greatest business challenges of the day. It’s a problem that exists independent of agency size, location or makeup of personal-commercial lines: Nearly every day I hear from agents from all corners for the country that they are struggling to hire and hire well.

To address the challenge head-on and better position the business for future growth, agencies need to rethink recruiting and retention. The right talent can come from anywhere, in or outside of the industry, and a great employee is about more than the list of skills found on a resume. – so much of the industry can be taught. A great employee is one that is engaged. Full stop.

If the definition of what makes a great employee changes, so can the standards and assumptions used to recruit and retain talent. Is a bachelor’s degree really required for the role? What transferable soft skills does a candidate bring? How can you foster the talent you already have to help them fulfill their career ambitions and emerging needs of the business?

Developing talent and designing careers

Upskilling and reskilling are an often overlooked strategy for addressing the needs of a marketplace that looks very different than a few short years ago, especially as agencies work to meet the rapidly changing customer expectations brought about by the pandemic.

According to a 2021 report from Gartner, the number of skills required for a single job is increasing 10% annually, and one-third of skills that appeared in an average job posting in 2017 are no longer needed in 2021.

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that change is the only constant in life and business.

A consistent focus on upskilling and reskilling will help agencies remain at the cutting-edge of the industry, while directly benefiting retention and employee satisfaction.

The best upskilling and reskilling efforts are also so much more than just providing the resources for employees to learn new skills, they empower employees to take control of and design their own careers. They offer career growth and give employees something meaningful to work toward, in a time when professional purpose has become more important than ever.

According to a recent study from Robert Half, 38% of professionals said their careers have stalled since the start of the pandemic. Salary growth, career advancement and skills development were all cited as top reasons for feeling stuck in their careers.

There is an incredible sense of urgency to not just support employees through what continues to be a challenging time, but to also create conditions where employees can continue to grow and evolve careers.

Creating great agency cultures 

Culture is deeply interconnected with talent. Great cultures attract great talent, and great talent – in turn – create great cultures.

There’s good reason for the many concerns that have been raised around employers’ struggle to maintain company culture in the face of so much disruption over the last year and a half. At times, we’ve all been at least partially disconnected, discontent and disengaged in our jobs as a result.

In fact, two-thirds of American employees across all job categories report feeling disengaged, according to the Gallup State of the Global Workforce 2021 report. Gallup defines an employee as being engaged “when their basic needs are met and when they have a chance to contribute, a sense of belonging, and opportunities to learn and grow.”

Nothing is more critical to employee engagement than company culture. And organizations can no longer separate the two.

In a post-COVID world, we have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to take ownership over creating inclusive workspaces that encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work.

Employees with a strong sense of belonging are over six times more likely to be engaged than those who don’t, according to research from Glint.

A new phrase has recently gained in popularity to help define the concept, which is “human-centered workplaces.” A human-centered workplace is one that humanizes the employee experience and keeps employee wellness and satisfaction at the center. An alignment of vision, values and action is essential to the concept, as is an emphasis on prioritizing people over profit.

Embracing the philosophies of a human-centered workplace has only become that much more important during the pandemic when nearly 90% of workers indicated their work life was getting worse, according to a 2021 Harvard Business Review study.

Embracing flexibility and empowering teams

When it comes to employee satisfaction in a post-pandemic world, no topic has gotten as much attention as hybrid work models that combine remote and in-office work. And for good reason: According to the Accenture Future of Work Study 2021, a majority (83%) of workers prefer a hybrid model.

But the hybrid discussion often focuses too much on the how – the ideal number of days in the office, strategies for keeping employees productive when remote, best practices for running meetings – and not enough on the why.

Flexibility and empowerment should be the goal, with hybrid and remote models as one of many potential outcomes.

There’s no one-size-fits-all policy that will work from one organization to another, and what works for one employee won’t necessarily translate to another. But if the organization can offer flexibility and empowerment, built on a foundation of trust and equity, employees will flourish and so will the business.

Agencies that thrive in the future will also be deeply digital. Being deeply digital means being both digitally enabled – providing employees the right tools and technologies that allow them to excel in their role whether they are sitting in the office, working from home or even from their mobile device – and building a culture that embraces digital.

The most effective digital cultures will be ones that promote continuous iteration and encourage employees to take bold steps, powered by cutting-edge technology, to stay ahead of constantly changing market conditions.

Building the next generation of leaders

While talent and culture may be deeply intertwined, when working in lockstep, the two also have the potential to create a new generation of industry leaders.

As Baby Boomers begin aging out of the workforce, Millennials become the largest working generation and Gen Z enters the workforce for the first time – the leaders of tomorrow will look different and value very different things than their predecessors. Embracing the new era of work means also embracing this new generation of leaders.

Not all leaders necessarily have the title to match, or at least not today. Leaders can emerge from any level and fostering the qualities of leadership within all employees, independent of title, will allow you to grow talent from within. That can look like investing resources such as providing management training or investing time via mentorship and feedback.

It can also look like offering employees the opportunity to grow and evolve their careers via non-traditional roles and responsibilities. Most agencies focus on two roles: producer or CSR. But there’s a lot more to running and growing a business, especially as the needs of the business change as customer expectations also change. Marketing, customer experience and technology are just some of the areas that can offer such opportunities.

Agencies that thrive in the future won’t just look different generationally and by role, they will also better match the demographics of the world around them – at all levels.

Just as recruiting can and should keep an eye for diversity, equity and inclusion, so too should career pathing.

And the case for diversity in senior leadership roles is a strong one. McKinsey has been tracking the subject since 2014 and has consistently found companies with greater gender and ethnic diversity outperform their less diverse counterparts.

In fact, companies within the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have an above-average profitability than companies within the bottom quarter. An even more stark story comes to light for ethnic and cultural diversity: Companies within the top quartile outperformed those in the bottom by 36% in profitability.

The future of the channel

Even as the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel becomes just a bit brighter, there’s a lot yet to be determined about what the long-term implications truly are. As we continue to face the realities of a changing market and world, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine the way we work from the ground up.

The future of work has arrived, and how we collectively respond will shape the channel for years to come. What part will you play?

This article was originally posted on IAmagazine.com. Reposted with permission. 

Tyler Asher

President, Independent Agent Distribution, Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance

Tyler Asher is president of Independent Agent Distribution at Liberty Mutual, leading Safeco personal lines and Liberty Mutual small commercial lines distribution through independent agents. Tyler joined Safeco in 1999 and has served in a variety of leadership roles, most recently as president, Safeco Insurance. He has a deep understanding of the industry and how carriers and independent agents must adapt together to succeed in the rapidly changing marketplace.

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