Man walking on path into cell phone screen The time may come when brokers look back at thisdifficult time as a pivotal point in their businesses. (Photoillustration by Chris Nicholls)

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Navigating the coronavirus epidemic has presented unprecedentedchallenges for benefits professionals. And although brokers acrossthe nation are eager to return to a sense of normalcy, they agreethat they will never again do business exactly as they didbefore.

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"I think this will change business forever," says Ben Conner,CEO of Conner Insurance, a third-generation agency located inIndianapolis. "I think many employers were afraid of the concept ofa remote workforce, and this pandemic allowed—or forced—everybusiness to give it a try to experience the successes andchallenges of what this looks like.

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Related: How brokers are making the best of their new workenvironment

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"Our organization has found great efficiencies with theadjustments we have had to make, and we are thinking ahead abouthow we can implement those discoveries on a consistent basis in thefuture."

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In recent months, brokers have had to make significantoperational changes with little advance warning. However, thetransition was fairly smooth for Tanya Boyd & Associates inSunnyvale, Texas, where the eight employees of the benefits-designfirm already had a rotating work-from-home system in place.

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"Half of us were used to working remotely two days a week andgoing to the office three days," says Tanya Boyd. "Before we weretold to shelter in place, I gave my employees the option to go inor stay and work from home. They all chose home, of course. Ourclients did not know anything had changed. We did not miss a beat,but our focus quickly became COVID-19 and helping clientsunderstand how to handle the new crisis."

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The 15 employees of The Benefits Group in South Township,Pennsylvania, have also been able to make the transition asseamless as possible for clients while working from home.

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"We have been huddling face to face via Zoom meetings eachmorning," CEO Jim Blachek says. "I feel we have been able tomaintain normalcy for our clients and team. Currently, it hasn'thad much negative drag on revenues, and we have been able tocontinue to work on new opportunities for growth."

Internal realities

Brokers have had to balance the safety and productivity of theiremployees with the fast-changing needs of their clients, all whilelooking for opportunities to grow their business when possible. Onebasic hurdle for many is simply integrating work life with familylife. "The biggest challenge is working at home when the rest ofyour family is now home, too," says Ken Stevenson, vice presidentof employee benefits for the Earl Bacon Agency in Tallahassee,Florida. "And since school is being done from home, parents aremanaging schoolwork along with our work, all with no opportunityfor escape, because everyone is required to stay at home."

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He works proactively to help the 42 staff members manage theirstress. "We have been having weekly Zoom meetings just formorale," Stevenson says. "Very little business is discussed. I wantto make sure everyone gets a chance to see each other, talk, vent,laugh and escape for a bit. In addition, I call everyone on Fridayjust to see how they are doing."

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The employees at Your Benefits Partner in Glen Allen, Virginia,had also already been accustomed to working remotely. "Ourstaff had been working from home one or two days a week before theoutbreak, so there was little disruption with this requirement,"managing partner Debbie Stocks says. "A couple of years ago, Iinitiated systems in my business to allow employees to telecommute,such as a secure file share, CRM software with online access,online quoting software tools, a secure email server, and a secureonline enrollment portal for our employer groups. I'm thankful wehad these in place when the stay-at-home order went intoeffect."

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The challenge for many brokers is not that employees slack offwhile working from home, but that they may feel pressure toover-perform. Scott Wham, director of compliance and innovation forKistler Tiffany Benefits (a OneDigital company) located in Berwyn,Pennsylvania, makes sure employees don't feel they have to be gluedto their chairs all day.

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"It's been astounding how well our employees have handled thetransition to working remotely," he says. "We're all dealing withthe stresses of our new normal. Working remotely can increase thestress, as there is often a feeling of always 'being on,' which canlead to burnout. As such, we are being as flexible as possible toenable our employees to take steps away from the computer when theyneed it to focus on their own health or the health and well-beingof their families and friends."

External adjustments

Brokers are trying to make procedures as normal as possibleduring a time that is anything but normal, which Boyd says can bedifficult.

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"It's heartbreaking to watch our economy crash and see clientshaving to lay off employees who are like family," she says. "It isnot OK. But due to the uncertainty and sensitivity of the matter,we all just put a smile on and try to act normal in a strange,messed-up time."

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To help cope with the new reality, Blachek relies on procedureshe put in place before the pandemic. "The service side ofthings had been managed remotely, so I don't think clients arefeeling much, if any, change," he says. "I had been performing mostmeetings for the last eight months via Zoom, so the totaltransition to it hasn't really caused me many issues. I have had totrain my team and staff on it, though. We haven't had muchdisruption to client size or benefit offerings at this point."

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The same is true at Conner Insurance. "We have been on thevideo-conferencing platform for several months now, so we have justdialed up the usage to cover for meetings that we typically wouldhave had in person," Conner says. "We have been working withclients across the country for the last several months, so that hasallowed us to get familiar with doing business in thisfashion."

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In addition to technological adjustments, many brokers also findthemselves redefining their job descriptions. "Our rolesnow include a lot of consulting and HR support," Boyd says. "Wehave adapted to what they need from us right now. We want them toknow they can come to us, and we will provide the guidance andsupport with empathy and compassion. If clients must lay employeesoff, we guide them through how that works, what the carriers aredoing and how to stay compliant. And because we work withindividuals as well, we can help them transition from group toindividual coverage. We want to do what we can to help peoplemaintain some type of health coverage."

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"At the end of the day, we are consultants," Wham says. "We havenever viewed our relationship with our clients as merelytransactional. We strive to be true business partners and hope thatwe are one of the first calls our clients make whenever they arefaced with a business challenge. I think the pandemic has provideda resounding affirmation that our clients view us as an essentialbusiness partner.

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"It's been weeks since I have had a conversation about aspecific line of coverage, absent its relationship to COVID-19,"Wham adds. "We're answering questions about loan programs, paidleave, unemployment benefits, CDC and OSHA worksite guidelines, aswell as a variety of employment law matters that really have littleto do with placing benefits. Our only objective is helping ourclients stay afloat any way we can. I think this experience thusfar has strengthened our bond with our clients, and I'm sure manyin the industry feel the same way."

Brave new world

Even as brokers adjust to this new reality, many are alsolooking ahead to how their business will operate in thepost-pandemic world. Several anticipate making significantchanges.

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Increased telecommuting. "My intent had alwaysbeen to look at increasing our footprint via remote offices andemployees," Blachek says. "This sped up that process and confirmedthat it was possible and that I would be able to manage a workforceremotely. We had been contemplating a build-out of unused space inour office, and I think we will seriously look at just addingremote employees to eliminate those additional fixed costs."

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Strategic collaboration. "I think that our teamsees the value of being together, that the idea of working fromhome may not be 'rainbows and sunshine' all the time and there ispower in being able to get together in person to strategize andproblem-solve," Conner says. "We have been in constantcommunication with our workforce and just completed a survey withour team.

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"One of the things that stood out to me in the last survey wasthe overwhelming feedback that our team is looking forward togetting back into the office to see each other, solve problemstogether and enjoy the office environment with co-workers who havebecome friends," he adds. "We have worked very hard on creating aculture of family and excellence, and it is validating to see thatwe truly have."

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Greater efficiency. "I currently have an officespace that I've been leasing for the past 13 years, which expiresJuly 31," Stocks says. "I had already decided to move into asmaller space, having sold my P&C agency five years ago, andwas trying to decide if I wanted to lease another space or moveinto more of a shared space. Since we've proven that we can workefficiently and effectively from home on a regular basis, I likelywill move into a shared space."

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Contingency planning. "If a benefitsconsultancy didn't have a disruption plan before the pandemic, theycertainly do now," Wham says. "This will benefit them greatlyshould they encounter a similar type of disruption at any point,and potentially help them anticipate all the different species ofdisruptions they could encounter in the future."

A silver lining?

As disruptive as the pandemic has been, many brokers believe thehard lessons learned now may be beneficial in the future.

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"It is hard to talk about the positive side to all of this whenthere are so many Americans hurting, but I believe that we all needto look to the positive side so that we can have hope that we willrise up from this stronger and better," Conner says. "There is anold quote that comes to mind that says, 'A smooth sea never made askilled sailor.'

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"I believe the 'squall' we are experiencing right now willultimately make us better. We will come out of this sharper, moreresilient and ready to forge ahead with a new perspective and newskills. I know that our organization and our team have improvedgreatly while we have been working remotely, and it seems we havepositioned ourselves for our next growth phase."

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Change undoubtedly will be part of this future. "Thishas been a good reminder that change is inevitable," Stocks says."Planning for the future can mitigate some of the shock of changeand help us to be more prepared. At the end of the day, my staffand I are healthy and working, which gives us reason to bethankful."

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The time may come when brokers look back at this difficult timeas a pivotal point in their businesses.

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"I think this is proving to be our industry's finest hour," Whamsays. "We, as an industry, have elevated our game to adapt andoffer the information and guidance our clients urgently need andare having difficulty receiving from other outlets. Everyone whoworks as a benefits consultant should feel very proud of the valuewe're delivering."

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