A new CII report has added credence to widespread chatter that flexible working is harming the long-term prospects of the London market
By acting editor Yiannis Kotoulas
The London market is known globally as the premier marketplace for insuring complex commercial risks – but could this competitiveness be harmed by the UK’s adoption of flexible working practices as other markets rise?
A recent report, published by the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) New Generation group last week (2 June 2023), looked into exactly this issue.
In a survey of 260 insurance professionals working in the London market, it found that 86% of the sector were now attending the office three times a week or less, with less than 5% now attending the office five days per week.
In comparison, pre-pandemic findings show that 73% of staff attended the office five days a week, with another 17% attending four times.
In the survey element of the report, it was revealed that 41% of broker and underwriter respondents found their access to mentors negatively impacted, while nearly 60% of junior underwriters and brokers reported that their on the job learning had been negatively impacted.
The Lloyd’s model especially has always functioned as an in-person marketplace over its 335-year history, with the system designed to provide brokers easy access to underwriters and thus achieve timely and effective responses to their queries.
During the pandemic, however, this became impossible as the vast majority of those working in the market were forced home for nearly two years.
Now the pandemic is over, many of those working in the London market have maintained a flexible working structure, with the Square Mile noticeably quieter on Mondays and Fridays during the working week.
We should make no mistake – when underwriters and brokers are working from home they are still working, but the quiet consensus in the market seems to be that the work completed at home is less effective, or at least provides results more slowly.
Obviously, a market that functions less effectively for its customers will be less competitive internationally, but the impacts of this may not become immediately apparent.
In its report, the CII report concluded: ”The cornerstone of the London market’s success – unparalleled expertise and knowledge – is being challenged by the negative impacts of hybrid working on the learning and development of underwriters and brokers.”
And back in March, Lloyd’s of London chief executive John Neal made his position on the spectre of the ghost town seen at either end of the working week clear, telling City AM that there must be a move away from the ”Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday world”, adding that there would always be situations that would require people to “have to be in every day of the week”.
“Flexibility’s critically important, but that ain’t about turning up two days a week,” he explained, adding that office working was vital for the development of new talent, creativitity and innovation.
And while Neal explained that he felt Lloyd’s had a “responsibility” to get home working right, it is clear he believes the scale is currently tipped too far in the direction of home working.
The assessment that flexible working is currently weighted too far towards home working is an opinion with backing outside of the insurance industry too – billionaire British industry veteran and Dyson founder James Dyson has often been quoted in the mainstream press calling the UK’s embracing of flexible working a “staggeringly self-defeating” move that would create hesitation around investment in the UK.
Clearly, commentators believe there is a need to address this issue – and they are not alone.
However, those I have spoken to within the industry seem optimistic that an effective balance can be achieved.
During an update on Aviva’s 2022 full year financial results, the insurer’s chief executive Amanda Blanc said she felt that commentary around the decline of the UK as a global financial centre was overblown.
”The success of the UK is fundamentally important to us – I think it’s very easy to criticise the markets in which you operate, but it’s very important for us that the UK is successful, so we’re keen to participate positively in that dialogue,” she explained.
And speaking to Insurance Times at the Biba conference in May, broker Consilium’s co-chief executive Paul Richards explained that the firm was moving towards a rota system where staff were scheduled to be in the office a couple of Mondays and Fridays per month, so that their offices were staffed five days a week.
He said: ”People are, much more, going back into Lloyd’s to trade again, which is great. If we can [have conversations] face to face at the box, that’s really always been the differentiator of Lloyd’s and key to decision making.
“Is there a still a bit of challenge from underwriters working from home and behind an email? Yes, but it has improved. In 2023, we are definitely starting to see a shift – mondays are starting to get busy in the City now and by 2023 people will have found that rythm.”
What is clear is that issues remain around home working, but – to me at least – it does seem that the challenges the London market is wrestling with on this issue are simply hold-overs from the pandemic.
The explosion of hybrid working is a world historical event – one that we will look back on in 20 years with the benefit of hindsight. I believe that when we do so, we will judge hybrid working positively, with the challenges we surmounted fading into the footnotes.
For now though, the market should ensure that it faces those challenges head on.