Back at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, insurance giant Allstate was among the many employers that moved employees to remote work, citing health concerns. With little knowledge about how the arrangement would go and hopes that it would be temporary, the Northbrook, Ill.-based company transitioned 95 percent of its global workforce to remote work in one weekend—no small feat, considering Allstate has 40,000-plus employees.
But as weeks turned into months and months turned into more than a year, Allstate started to realize that the arrangement, although complicated at first due to figuring out tech and logistics, was working. Work was getting done. Employees were connecting with one another and with clients over Zoom, perhaps in a deeper way than before. And maybe most importantly, employees were happy working from home, as they spent more time with family and pets and less time on commuting and lunch and coffee runs.
When the immediate danger of the pandemic began to fade and discussions turned to bringing workers back to the office, "we very quickly made a plan to talk to our employees and find out what they wanted," said Stephanie Roseman, vice president of people solutions and experiences at Allstate. "So in 2021, we surveyed our employees and asked them what their preferences were."
The result? The overwhelming majority of employees—roughly 83 percent—indicated they wanted to remain fully remote. So, Allstate allowed employees to do so, shrunk its real estate footprint and hasn't turned back.
Allstate's remote-work policy follows those of other companies that have continued to embrace remote work nearly three years after the pandemic began. At the same time, a handful of employers are beginning to implement return-to-office mandates.
"A lot of employees feel empowerment with the ability to work remotely," Roseman said. "Employers have to think about what's right for them [both the organization and their employees]."
SHRM Online spoke to Roseman about what lessons Allstate learned in embracing a largely remote culture, what she thinks about employers mandating office returns, and what company and HR leaders should do to make remote work a success.
SHRM Online: Were you surprised by so many employees saying they wanted to stay remote?
Roseman: We were assuming many would like to stay remote, but we were surprised with how high the number was. We did [tell workers] that remote didn't mean we never saw them; [employees] were still able to go into any office near their home or could travel to an office if they needed. Their badge still worked; we weren't going to lock people out of an office even if they were fully remote. So [employees] said, "You know, I found a lot of flexibility in being able to work from home. And so I can come in when I want to come in."
SHRM Online: What impact would you say that it's made on your employees after embracing this for the past couple of years now?
Roseman: There are a couple of things that it's done. It's helped us to recruit talent and to diversify our workforce. Our applications are up about 60 percent since we have gone to this remote environment; we're also seeing a 30 percent increase in diverse candidates. It really has helped us to find people who may not want or be able to work in an office for whatever reason—whether it's a physical limitation, a personal choice, a family obligation, and so on. It's enabled us to find the best talent. That's a really compelling thing for us.
The other piece is that it's enabled us to get to know "a whole employee," and what I mean by that is, when we were in the office, my team got to know me and I got to know them. [Yet] as much as I talked about my family in the office, [being remote] was different. When we went home, my camera was on. When my kids came home from school, they would peek their head in and say hi to my team. My team got to see my dog when we adopted a dog, and then they got to watch the dog grow. They got to see my children grow. I was on a call the other week, and somebody said to me, "Oh my goodness, your son got so tall." Those are things that [create] a whole other dimension of me as an employee that I don't think people could see before.
SHRM Online: What have been the biggest lessons about embracing a remote-working model?
Roseman: We're always learning. I wouldn't say that there are definitive things that we've learned and we've put away and we think we've got it completely figured out. I think the most important thing is that if this is going to continue to evolve, we just have to be curious. And part of that curiosity has got to be including employee voices in the way we're looking at it and thinking about it. So those would be the two biggest lessons—to make sure you're listening to your employees, and to make sure that you're just overwhelmingly curious all the time about what's coming, what's changing, new technologies that are available to help make this work even better, and really just continuing to learn.
SHRM Online: What has the biggest challenge been in doing this and pursuing this?
Roseman: Some of it, at the beginning, was that the technology didn't exist to make this work; we're in a much better place now. And you have to evolve: One example is when we started coming back into the office—and it was by choice—you would have four people in a conference room in one office, and then four people at home on Zoom. And there was one camera in the room—so you couldn't see faces, and the conversation in the room was harder to follow. Since that time, we've invested in technology that has one camera, but that camera has an individual box for each participant in the room on the Zoom screen. So it's driving equity of the conversation. It doesn't matter anymore if you're in the room or not in the room for a conversation like that. It's really important to make sure you have equity and everyone's voice is being heard—and you have the technology to support that—whether they are in person or remote.
SHRM Online: There have been a handful of companies that recently told employees they have to come back into the office the majority of the week—including Disney, Apple and Starbucks. What do you think about employers putting a stop to remote policies?
Roseman: I can't speak about specific companies because I'm not in the rooms where those decisions are made. But from our perspective, we're constantly looking at: What is important to be in the same room for? What is meaningful work to get done in a collaborative environment? It's important to us that we do get together and collaborate when it will benefit the work. There will be times that will bring people together. But we don't think that you have to do that to get all the collaboration. We've been successful over the last three years. We're really proud of being able to serve our customers in this environment and drive the business forward. And we do know that there are purposeful, strategic reasons to gather people, and we will continue to do that. But again, it's about recognizing that employees are whole people, and that flexibility is important to them.
SHRM Online: What would your advice be for other HR leaders trying to find their footing in these decisions about whether to continue allowing remote work or making workers come back into offices?
Roseman: Listening to your employees is really critical. Regardless of what the job market is, people have choices about where to work. We should be listening to them the same way we listen to our customers and try to drive customer experience; we should listen to our employees and drive our employee experience. And they will be honest with you about what's valuable to do in person. There are people who don't want to ever come in, and there are probably some very personal reasons for that. But I would say when I talk to my employees, when I go out and talk to people across the organization, they're happy to come in for meaningful work. But no one wants to come in and get on a Zoom call.
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