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Risk Management
Risk Managers Walk a Tightrope as COVID-19 Challenges Remain

Risk managers say they’re seeing their roles evolve as the old work environment undergoes profound change.
  • Tom Davis
  • April 2022
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Key Points

  • Dealing With Changes: Risk management has become a juggling act for the industry as it deals with constant changes and inconsistencies in COVID-19 guidance and regulations.
  • Facing New Challenges: Insurers and risk managers say ergonomic issues have arisen with people working at home, many of whom have developed physical problems as a result of “not sitting in good chairs” and being “hunched over” while working.
  • Developing Solutions: Insurers and risk managers say the main thing employers need to do is develop their own coherent, personal and consistent strategies for reducing risk.

It once seemed so easy: Go to work. Sit in your office chair. Flip open the laptop. Log on.

Now, in the age of COVID-19, the insurance industry and risk managers view the whole process of opening office doors—if that's even possible—or even setting up remote laptops for millions of workers as a “tightrope” walk that's very hard to balance.

“It's more like a Cirque du Soleil act in a way, because you're walking a tightrope that you normally wouldn't have in a normal season,” said Lance Ewing, vice president, enterprise risk management and operations for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

Just a few years ago, risk managers were mostly concerned about employees slipping and falling on the company's premises. Now they're dealing with loneliness, or employees developing back problems after slouching for months in their creaky bedroom chair while working.

They're also managing the risk of employees potentially catching a disease that, in two years’ time, has killed upwards of 1 million people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in the meantime, they're frustrated with the constant changes and inconsistencies in COVID-19 guidance and regulations that have made their jobs even harder. “One of the greatest challenges is keeping up with COVID mandates, which vary from state to state and per local jurisdiction,” said Virginia Pajarito, director of risk practices, Lockton Insurance Brokers.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still impacting the way companies conduct their business, insurers, brokers and risk managers say they're working with employers to find practical, creative and even innovative ways to reduce exposure to risk as they return to their offices or continue to keep their hybrid and remote arrangements in place.

“Insurance companies have worked with customers to help them navigate evolving risks in these unprecedented times,” said Thaddeus Pajak, lead consultant/industrial hygienist, QBE North America. “In this new business landscape, a premier insurer will offer risk solutions expertise to its customers and work with them to enable a more resilient future. This is why insurance exists, and it's what we are in business to do.”

Related: Insurtech Exec: ‘Holistic’ Approach is Key for Risk Managers as Offices Reopen

Lance Ewing San Manuel Band of Mission Indians

“It’s more like a Cirque du Soleil act in a way, because you’re walking a tightrope that you normally wouldn’t have in a normal season.”

Lance Ewing
San Manuel Band of Mission Indians

Balancing Act

Risk managers say it's a balancing act to choose, plan and ultimately manage different work arrangements that carry their own unique challenges.

Ewing, a former president of the Risk and Insurance Management Society, cited the hybrid method—where workers return to their desks fewer than five days a week—as a preferable option for many risk managers so they can reduce risk while also satisfying an employer's desire to return to the office. One of the goals amid the pandemic, Ewing said, has been to “shrink the footprint of the space they have” that needs to be managed. With the hybrid method, he said, employers are finding creative ways to do that—even if it means sharing space with another company.

By having fewer people in the office, Ewing said, employers are saying, “Can I sublet that somewhere else? Can I shrink down? Why leave the lights, the heat, and all those things running on floor two when we all can get down to floor one and hybrid this at that point?” Ewing said. “You're seeing a lot of creativity and innovation.”

But even that option has risks, particularly when it comes to mental health, said Christy Kaufman, board director of RIMS and vice president, risk management at Zillow. Employers have to be cognizant of the residual effects of the pandemic such as loneliness and separation, she said.

Continuing to have people work from home while others work at the office could give people a sense of “isolation,” Kaufman said. Some companies run into trouble when offices hold meetings and one or two people are struggling to participate because they're the only ones on Zoom, she said. At Zillow, she said, the policy has been “One Zoom—All Zoom. If anyone is on Zoom during a meeting, then everyone must be on Zoom. If three people are sitting in the same office and there's one who is remote, you don't want that one remote person to feel as though they are struggling to contribute or missing out on opportunities to be seen and heard,” she said. “We're very sensitive to leveling the playing field between in person and remote.”

Keeping Employees Remote

Keeping employees entirely remote is a preferable option for many employers because they use it as an opportunity to save money while also reducing risk exposure even more, risk managers and insurers say. Pajak said the remote option “has allowed many office-type operations to sustain their business. Administrative, clerical, consultative and some technical-type jobs have been able to be performed on a remote basis without any noticeable drop in productivity and effectiveness.”

But even keeping employees in the relatively safe space of home still has its challenges. Kaufman said ergonomic issues have arisen with people working at home, many of whom have developed physical problems as a result of poor home office equipment and posture while working. “We gave our employees an allowance to purchase home office equipment from a provider of sound ergonomic equipment,” she said. “We also have virtual, tele-ergonomic assessments available for anyone who wants a review of their workspace.”

With remote work, Ewing said workers' compensation claims also can spring up from what could be the simplest liability issue such as “tripping and falling over my dog while getting the Zoom call somewhere.” Indeed, working from home has spawned some peculiar claims: In December, a German court ruled a man who was injured when he slipped and fell while walking from his bedroom to his home office was covered under occupational accident insurance.

Ewing recalled one Zoom call during which someone got a cup of coffee. As they were sitting down, “they literally scalded and burned themselves,” he said. “Is that compensable? Is it not? If you went to the office, got your cup of coffee from your Keurig or corporate machine and dumped it on your lap, that could be covered.”

For businesses in this environment to be successful, the remote employee also needs to be self-disciplined to remain focused on work and not get distracted in their own environment, said Pajak, who provides guidance and recommendations to underwriters. “Humans are social beings, and physical separation can bring about stress and coping issues,” he said. “To that point, risk managers need to engage with remote employees with a variety of support programs including fun gatherings, meditation, catch-up calls and other group interactions.”

Kaufman said Zillow has a new emergency communication process and automated wellness checks that send texts to employees to make sure they're OK during hazardous weather events. They ask questions like “Are you safe?” and “Is there any support that you need?”

“We are now focusing on remote support because everyone is working in their home, which is the new workplace,” she said. Having everyone in an office setting, Kaufman said, had its benefits for risk managers because “that was an environment we were better able to control. Now we're sorting through issues such as, 'What level of support do we provide to people in their homes? What is our duty of care when an employee loses internet access or is unable to work at home?'”

Virginia Pajarito Lockton Insurance Brokers

“One of the greatest challenges is keeping up with COVID mandates, which vary from state to state and per local jurisdiction.”

Virginia Pajarito
Lockton Insurance Brokers

Unoccupied Offices

If employers choose the entirely remote workforce option, Ewing said insurers and risk managers don't want employers to leave their buildings unoccupied. “Most insurance carriers are not going to embrace the fact that there's nobody there other than Barney Fife and security walking around every six to 12 hours,” Ewing said.

If a company does leave its building empty, Ewing said, insurance carriers are going to get skeptical and ask questions such as, “How much occupancy do you have there? How many people are there? Who's checking the sprinkler systems? Who's seeing that the toilet has been running for 12 weeks and has now flooded the three floors below us?”

Ewing said employers can't skimp when their workers are remote. “The approach, at least from my viewpoint would be is, you've got to be occupied in an eight-hour day, a shift, or whatever it is to at least have somebody there. You can't say, 'We'll just bring maintenance in. We'll bring security in,'” he said. “That's helpful, but when the HVAC unit has blown a coil on the roof and is now blowing icicles inside of your offices, that's a problem.”

With every office situation, Ewing said, having eyes there is helpful to help avoid potential workers' comp claims. “They trip, fall—there's a lot of space for potential liability issues that could still go on,” he said.

One way to keep an eye on things while also generating revenue to pay the rent or mortgage, Ewing said, is to sublet the building. Smaller businesses that are looking to grow may bite at the opportunity, he said. “Someone offers you 3,000, 10,000 square feet in a high-rise office complex somewhere and your contract allows you to sublet—why wouldn't you take that if you're trying to grow your business?” he said.

Others have outright sold their buildings. Allstate Corp. has said it expects this year to close on the $232 million sale of the majority of its 54-year-old headquarters in Northbrook, Illinois. Many employees prefer to work remotely and the sale will reduce real estate expenses, the carrier said when it announced the sale last November.

Related:App Addresses Worker's Compensation, Safety and COVID-19 Issues

Returning to the Office

Once the worst effects of the pandemic subside, insurers, brokers and risk managers say they're prepared for the reality that more employers will eventually still choose to open fully—even as new and different exposures to risk arise.

Maintaining everyone's mental health, once again, will present its own challenges once everybody is back at their desks, risk managers say. They acknowledge they'll need to find ways to help people feel comfortable since many may not be ready to return to a group setting—and they also may fear getting sick.

“Some things have had to change in an office setting as well, such as creating extra space between desks, cleaning more frequently, installing plastic barriers in the lunchrooms and common areas, staggering lunch schedules and requiring masks. Most fixed-based manufacturing facilities have mandatory mask policies for both employees and visitors,” Pajak said.

Kaufman said one helpful adjustment she's seen is employers setting up “collaboration spaces,” including couches and other reminders of home, so people can feel comfortable and safe when they return to the office. The spaces also allow offices to space people apart if they still feel uncomfortable about contracting COVID-19, she said.

Insurers and risk managers say they've also seen the same ergonomic problems persist even when workers have returned to the office after developing bad habits at home. Pajak said there have been additional needs “for things such as adjustable workstations, as many employees were working from kitchen tables or sofas and found this was not a good long-term ergonomic solution.”

And, of course, preventing outbreaks from COVID-19 will continue to be an issue, risk managers say. But the biggest problems that arise happen when a company has employees who travel or work in different states and countries and they have to deal with the changes and inconsistencies in regulations and guidance.

“It requires constant monitoring and, in some cases, direct access to county officials to affirm new requirements. Timely information is not only crucial in maintaining compliance throughout our eight offices in the Pacific but in providing appropriate guidance to our clients, each who have unique circumstances as it relates to COVID prevention,” Pajarito said.

That lack of consistency, risk managers say, poses challenges for employees who need to meet or work with clients and close deals that are too tough to make via Zoom. Sometimes, employees need to cross borders for a meeting, a conference or perhaps to simply visit the main office and enter a jurisdiction that has an entirely different set of rules.

The CDC, risk managers say, hasn’t provided the clearest guidance, either.

“You have to do the, 'How do I get my chief financial officer from Germany over here to the United States? When they get here, we find out that he does, in fact, or she does, in fact, have COVID. Am I quarantining him or her at the Four Seasons or at the youth hostel down the road?'” Ewing said. “Is there a plan in place for how to do those international travels back and forth?”

Elections also cause things to change on a “political dime,” Ewing said. He pointed to Virginia, where the new governor, a Republican, banned mask mandates in public schools almost immediately after taking office. “That changes a risk management's dynamic,” he said. “Even in the school districts—if you're the risk manager for a large school district in Virginia, it was mask, mask, mask, mask, mask. Now, no mask. Things are changing in regard to that.”

Risk managers cast doubt the government, the insurance industry, employers or anybody else can find common solutions for eliminating inconsistencies, noting the Supreme Court already has struck down the universal vaccine mandate for business.

Ewing said there are 50 states that are imposing or creating different rules and regulations that will always be hard to reconcile for employers and the insurance industry. “Are you making mandatory across-the-board vaccinations for everyone? Is that attractive to some people? Are you doing mandates, such as vaccinations plus testing, and who's responsible for that and how that goes down?” he said.

As for himself, Ewing said he initially wasn't planning to send anybody to RIMS' Riskworld conference in April because of San Francisco's strict vaccination policy. But the policy was expected to be modified and, in February, Ewing told Best's Review he will go.

Related: E&S Executives: Increasing Commercial Property Vacancies Spur Insurers to Raise Rates, Reassess Underwriting

Finding Personal Solutions

Lacking any kind of universal guidance or rules, insurers and risk managers say the main thing employers need to do is develop their own coherent, personal and consistent strategies for reducing risk that best suit their individual needs.

Pajak said businesses have adjusted their in-person operating procedures to minimize COVID risks by having their own mandatory mask policies for both employees and visitors as well as: health screening questionnaires for visitors; additional hand sanitizers; vaccination requirements; contact tracing and quarantining; physical separations between employees; and barriers in common areas.

“Visitors to buildings who must remain on their premises for extended periods of time are given vacant offices to conduct their work to keep those persons isolated from the regular staff,” he said.

In navigating various state regulatory requirements, Kaufman said her company tends to develop policies based on the most restrictive rules and follow those uniformly with respect to traveling, conferencing, working remotely or even working in an office setting.

“For a national employer, it is more manageable to apply rules consistently than to manage them on a state-by-state basis,” she said.

Ewing said he's tried to strike the right balance as he serves a large organization that operates hotels and casinos and recently bought the Palms Casino in Las Vegas. They have guests and customers coming in all of the time, he said.

“We are one of the most well-attended venues in Southern California. We've got to be very cautious not only to our employees, but as well as our guests. We're open 24 hours, 365 days a year,” he said.

Ewing said his business has a lot of compliance issues he has to take a look at, as well as protecting the individuals.

“Then, in the entertainment side, you also have the artists. Whoever's going to get up there, you got to make sure that they're protected, rooms cleaned, all those kinds of things,” he said. “Some artists may or may not want to adhere to the 'you've got to wear a mask.' Some of them may.”

Somehow, they've made it work by making sure that, wherever they are, the rules are followed and the needs of the employers, the entertainers and the customers are met, Ewing said. “We have done an exceptionally great job.”


Tom Davis is managing editor. He can be reached at tom.davis@ambest.com.



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