Q&A: Allstate goes all-in on remote work while building company culture

Prior to the pandemic, 20% of Allstate's employees were remote; today, 75% are remote.

video conferencing / remote work
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Allstate, a 90-year-old American insurance company, had always been an office-centric company, even if most of its employees were technology workers. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than two years ago, however, the company didn't fight the inevitable; it embraced remote work, even closing its 5,000-plus employee headquarters campus in Northbrook, Ill.

Before the pandemic, only 20% of Allstate employees worked remotely. Now, 75% of them are home-based, 24% are hybrid, and 1% are office-based workers. Hybrid and remote employees can choose when they'd like to use the offices, which are morphing into more localized spaces for collaboration and innovation and not 9-to-5 work from behind a desk.

For Allstate, the pandemic became an opportunity to experiment with new ways of accomplishing its established business goals — so the company is trying new ways to build and maintain a common culture. For example, most meeting rooms have "smart gallery" technology, which gives equal visibility to employees in a conference room and those at home. When remote workers join a Zoom call, they see each in-office participant in their own square on the screen. 

btoohey preferred photo1 Allstate

Allstate's Chief Human Resources Officer Bob Toohey

Allstate's Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) Bob Toohey spoke with Computerworld about the company's various efforts to maintain and even grow company culture, train managers to be better hybrid work leaders, and engage employees to ensure they're being validated and informed. 

The following are exerpts from that interview:

You shuttered a lot of your offices through the pandemic. Of the space you've retained, how has the layout changed? We want people to be together; we want to create connections. We don’t want people to come to the office to just work. We want people to come to the office to collaborate, to do purposeful work, to do things that matter, and to engage together as teams. I can go home, back on my computer, and do Zoom and my online work without having to sit in an office.

One of the things we're trying to change right now is the footprint; what does that office look like? Is it set up more for collaboration with social space? Chairs, couches in the corner, whiteboards all around, different setups with different seating arrangements?

I'm in our downtown Chicago office right now, and we're preparing to change this because the configuration was what an office used to be — a bunch of desks, lots of computer boxes. We want to open it up now. Put in high-top, bar-type stands where you can sit in a café-style and grab stuff and pull people around you — collaboration centers. Bigger conference rooms with the right technology with Zoom inside of them because everybody's not going to be [physically] in there.

What are some of the existing concerns with hybrid work? We don't go back five years, because we all remember the day that we were in a conference room and if you were the person at home, you were the one outside of the box. Now, how do we create that 'inside of the box' experience so everybody's in the same place and the playing field is level? I think that's where technology is key, and the setup of the office makes a difference.

They're not everywhere, but we're in the process of installing a similar-type thing [to Google], where you have the screens [at face level] there. Where we don't have it, one of the things we tell people who are [physically there] to do is flip open their laptop screens, and that way everyone gets the same experience. It's one of the things that has worked.

Some of the conference rooms we're putting in that have videoconferencing capabilities are dynamic, where you could have Zoom look at the conference room, but it's panning the room and it's interactive with a multi-camera setup — where you're seeing multiple views, but as people talk, it zooms in to you and then back out, and it's really bringing people together in the room. We haven't gone as far as using VR with headsets and glasses yet.

What's changed and what does flexibilty in the work environment look like? The days of being able to monitor your employees [because they're in the office] are over. You've got to trust your employees. The productivity will show in the output of the company. The productivity doesn't need to show through checking on an employee to see if they're online.

Oh, and by the way, if someone needs to take two hours off in the morning and take their child to school or take two hours off in the afternoon, that's the kind of flexibility we're building in. That's helping people manage their life and manage their work in a way I believe will ultimately bring greater engagement.

Prior to the pandemic, a large majority of your employees were in office, and a minority were remote. Today, that's flipped. As a global company, how have you addressed the needs in different regions? I like to say we have global standards but with local applications. Different offices like to do different things. We have more of our staff in India going into the offices because that's how they like to do it there. We have less in other areas. It's just what makes sense for each group.

One of the things we're proud of doing is putting out flexibility. We want to be flexible. There's a balance between wanting to work from home all the time and those times when we need you to be in the office; so, how do you strike the right balance?

What other ways are you building company culture? It's easy to come together when you're in the office, but we have to come together a lot more through communications. So, how do you create more frequent communications? We do quick pulse surveys to learn what's on people's mind. And, then we quickly go back to them to say, "here's what we've learned," and we use those surveys to find out if we're missing anything — if people are feeling they don't have that connection.

We're also investing a lot in enabling our managers... to have the information they need to manage their teams. I think we have to double down that the information is getting out to our leaders so they can talk to their employees. Every day, someone is talking to their manager; that's the person who needs to know those answers because that's who your employees call.

What has the pandemic taught you about employees? We've learned a lot about each other. This idea that the pandemic put us back into our homes — that really opened up the differences in all of us, and how we work, and what we do away from the office. It's great hearing those stories. You start to know people's families and their dog, and all of that. That's OK. People still apologize for their dog barking during a meeting. Who cares? It's OK to have a dog.

You know, we have to remember before COVID, we all went to work and pretended everything was perfect. Nothing's perfect. And I think helping people be comfortable with that builds a much better environment. It continues your culture. Look, is it perfect? No. We have to really work at it, and I'm putting a lot of energy into making sure as we go forward we have that [right].

Have you determined certain days or a number of hours employees should be in an office? We just had a meeting with all of our senior leadership and said, "Here's what we're going to do: we're going to build connections, we're going to think about how we work," but one of the main messages was: "We don't have a rule." We're not setting up a rule that every Monday and Tuesday you must be in the office. It's really about doing what makes sense for your group.

Tom [Wilson], our CEO, gets the management team together and has frequent meetings. We set a standard on how we'll collectively come together. That dosen't mean the 55,000 other employees do the same thing. So, how do you take the marketing team and make sure our CMO builds that culture, and then make sure cross-functional teams collaborate? We're building tools around that. 

And then we're going to give managers learning in real time. How do you train and develop all of our people leaders to mange in a remote environment? That's going to change the culture and continue to enhance it. The more we give them, and the more we help them, the more everyone will learn from this and make the culture what it is.

Have you seen any really bad examples of hybrid work policies in other companies? A company I won’t name, my counterpart there and their CEO decided one of the days they're going to require people to come into the office is Friday. And their reason for that is because nobody will be able to take the day off because they're remote, and we don't trust them. I said, "That's good. Make sure you tell them you don't trust them in the announcement, because that's what you're saying."

Friday? Really? You and I know no one wants to come into work on a Friday because the commute and travel and vacation. So what? Let's call it what it is. Friday away from the office would be a relief, because they don't have to commute home Friday night to get to some event with their family.

It's interesting when you hear people's philosophy around this. Employees are customers, too. You have to treat them like customers. They don't come to work to do a bad job. They don't come to work to fail. Trust the system; it's going to work.

One of the metrics I see a lot in surveys is "people don't quit jobs, they quit their managers." In other words, they don't like how their managers treat them. How are you dealing with helping managers do a better job? Again, that's a "test and learn" model. One way is we do surveys to discover how people are feeling, and you get a good pulse. We have to be visible and ask the questions and learn and listen to employees — besides just an online survey. We have to give managers those tools in how to manage and do things in the workplace.

Lastly, if I was telling you we have all the answers, I'd be crazy. We don't know what we don't know because we don't see all the managers. So, we have ways people have a voice and make sure they can reach out to somebody if they feel they're being pressured or feel the wrong things are happening with their manager.

What other issues do you deal with in training your management? We just did our employee engagement survey, and it was at an all-time high. And when we look at our employee engagement surveys, we unpack that all the way down to our managers — we don't just look at an aggregate. And we see hot spots, we start to focus on those and help to train and help the managers.

I've talked to managers myself who've said, "I want people in the office, but they don't want to come in." I'm like, "Well, that's something we're going to have to help you with, not them." The manager who says, "I don't like it. I like to see my employees," we have to train that manager and give them different tool sets. We're going to launch pilots or live simulation trainings that use different examples to help train managers. That way we can learn from each other.

On the flipside, you have the manager who just says they're struggling with employees who won't come in when they actually do need them to. So then, how do you help that manager get that employee in? That's more of a company strategy around "how do we collaborate and bring people together?" If it's one time in a quarter we need you to come together for a meeting, how do we help that manager bring people in?

Or if they still choose not to, don't ostracize them. Don't make them feel like an outcast if eight of the employees came in and two didn't. How do you make sure the two who choose not to come in, we at least gave them a choice? Now we have to make sure their career, their manager still moves along appropriately and they're not disadvantaged.

I know you closed your headquarters, but how many square feet of office space did you shutter during the pandemic? The campus in Northbrook had 5,000 people. It was a half mile wide and a mile long. It was enormous. That's gone. Around the country, 50% of our real-estate portfolio has moved on. We're a very distributed workforce throughout the globe.

As an example of what we're doing, we sold the buildings in Northbrook and then turned around and... opened a new one that can fit 500 to 800 people. Do we ever expect to see that building at full capacity? No. But it's space we put in place so people can get together, socialize, collaborate, and then go back home and do their job.

And that’s what we're doing around the country. We're looking at "what's the space we need?" and if we need more, we’ll go and get it. We're not sitting here saying we don't need any office space. If we see a need for collaboration or more need to get together, we're going to open it.

It sounds like you've gone from more regional offices to local offices to accommodate areas where there may be a confluence of employees in a metro area. How does that work? Yeah, we've got two spaces in downtown Chicago. We're just looking at where there are groups of people who may need to get together, and where there is no space or a smaller group of people, you can rent space for a day. 

The one thing we want to make sure as we continue to evolve with this, [is that] we let people have places to collaborate and that people have the ability to use the right technology to make hybrid work. Ultimately, we're a hybrid workforce, and we have to keep learning and building on that.

It's actually wonderful to see. People are energized when they get together. They miss seeing each other. They miss in-person interactions. Do they want that every day? No. Do they want to have flexibility to do that when they need to? Yes. 

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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