NCCI conducted interviews with risk management and insurance professionals to get their perspectives on managing risk both during and after a pandemic. The views and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to those interviewed and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of NCCI.
In this time of uncertainty, one thing is for sure: the workplace of the future will look different than it does today. With a worldwide pandemic impacting how people work, employers are forced to navigate a new norm in the workplace, shielding their workers from an “invisible risk,” while also keeping them employed and maintaining business operations. For some companies, offering telecommuting continues to be a viable option. At the other end of the spectrum, some employers will likely continue to require high physical proximity working environments for the foreseeable future.
NCCI conducted interviews with several industry professionals to better understand what the future workplace might look like and how new challenges are being addressed.
Before we look at the future, it may be helpful to talk about the current state of the workplace and workforce.
The pandemic had a significant impact on the workforce in 2020, in part, driven by mandates for social distancing. Jobs in the “big four” service sectors (leisure and hospitality; retail trade; professional, business and other services; and health services) were among the hardest hit.1 These service sectors are dominated by jobs that require high physical proximity among workers. The following chart illustrates the relationship between changes in employment levels and physical proximity by sector.
This chart highlights that more than 70% of workers in accommodation and food services, healthcare, and retail trade experience high physical proximity. Similarly, this is true for approximately 60% of those in educational services. These industries are not only those most impacted today, but they are also likely to face the biggest challenges confronting similar workplace threats in the future.
While this chart generally shows that the largest declines in employment occurred in industries that require high proximity, there are a few exceptions. Employment in the healthcare and retail trade sectors fell less than other high-proximity sectors because they include many “essential” workers such as nurses and cashiers.
NCCI conducted interviews with two employers (education and shipping) and three insurance companies to get their insights on the current and future environment for high physical proximity jobs. The focus was on how employers and insurance companies are:
- Addressing COVID-19 exposures in the current environment
- Adapting to the new outlook for the “post-COVID-19” world
In speaking with interviewees, we consistently heard that employers have taken similar measures and developed multifaceted risk mitigation strategies, such as:
- Working remotely when possible
- Applying social distancing
- Conducting health/symptom screenings
- Cleaning and disinfecting
- Implementing workspace layout changes
- Limiting visitors
Yet each company had a unique approach to addressing its own specific risk challenges.
Some employers were able to move to a full telecommuting model within a very short time, while others used what might be called a “hybrid” approach; that is, implementing safety controls for jobs that must be performed onsite, while encouraging telecommuting for employees who can effectively perform their jobs from home. This hybrid approach has worked well for Tropical Shipping, an international cargo shipping company based in Riviera Beach, FL. Tropical Shipping has operations in Florida and the Caribbean, employing about 1,900 people to provide scheduled and on-demand air cargo service throughout the Caribbean. Approximately 20% of its employees work in the office.
During the early days of the pandemic, Tropical Shipping implemented a companywide
work-from-home program in addition to its existing teleworking program. This resulted in more than 400 employees in over 30 locations working from their homes. For employees working onsite, Tropical Shipping scheduled office staff to work in staggered shifts or alternating days to reduce the number of people in one place at the same time. Even with this change, the company reported that it has been able to continue supporting its customers and provide uninterrupted service.
Orange County Public Schools
Private sector businesses are not the only ones experiencing challenges in the workplace; the same can be said of public entities, such as school districts. The Orange County Public School (OCPS) system in Florida is faced with several difficult hurdles. With the governor’s mandate to offer face-to-face instruction for the 2020–21 school year, that means managing potential COVID-19 exposure for more than 200,000 students and 25,000 team members at over 200 locations.
Several efforts have been put in place including a
health monitoring and screening program. Under this approach, each school received funding for a licensed healthcare professional to oversee an onsite clinic. The clinic has two separate rooms to serve students. The “well” room is for injury/treatment of accidents, while the “sick” room addresses fever, cough, sore throat, etc. Healthcare staff conduct periodic temperature screenings and/or symptom checking of staff and students. Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms is immediately taken to the sick room. PPE is required and the assigned staff does not float between the two rooms.
Another program implemented by the OCPS addresses communication, which is a key element in managing exposure. In order to track exposure to COVID-19, the OCPS developed a dashboard and posted it on the OCPS.net homepage. The dashboard is refreshed daily and shows overall confirmed COVID-19 cases and active quarantine cases by employees, students, visitors, and vendors. The results are displayed by school, so parents/students can see how their school is doing.
Insurance companies have many interactions with their customers in various ways, which are critical in this time. Insurers’ roles involve exposure assessment, claims mitigation, loss prevention, audits, etc. Insurers indicated that they are taking similar proactive approaches and have already started to develop new evaluation methods to address physical proximity exposures, while simultaneously providing education and services to their customers. Examples include using telesurveys and virtual visits for analysis, loss prevention, and audit services to cut back on in-person activity. One insurer noted that policyholders have expanded the duties of their employees to an all-hands-on-deck approach due to workforce cutbacks.
Future Environment (Post-COVID-19)
Now that employers and insurance companies have taken action to address the safety of workers today, will there be more changes to the workplace of the future? We asked the employers and insurance companies for perspectives on what may be driving changes in their own industries, as well as changes in their customers operations. Not surprisingly, the companies we interviewed indicated that yes, various jobs and occupations are likely to change.
One insurance company reflected that “workplace safety concerns around COVID infections have ignited an innovative spark.” Employers are looking for ways to reduce travel and human-to-human contact, which may impact workplace congestion, shift work, group training, overnight travel, and the use of cleaning chemicals and tools/equipment. New technologies are enabling more physical distancing to address infectious disease prevention. Examples include virtual meetings and training sessions, as well as touchless transactions, touchless printing, and wearable technology that supports contact tracing and signaling to prevent close physical proximity.
Another insurance company representative indicated that changes to jobs and occupations may feel temporary now but could potentially become permanent. Technology was mentioned again as likely playing a role in changing jobs going forward; however, this may depend on overall costs, as expenditures are focused on keeping workers safe from COVID-19. There are certain jobs that cannot avoid physical proximity and, ultimately, those may return to more normal levels due to economies of scale, especially as the impact of the current pandemic lessens over time.
A third insurance company noted that it is looking ahead and anticipates some industries shifting toward more automation to protect employees from future pandemics; however, it is still too early to tell which industries those may be. The company also noted how manufacturing technologies have shifted to support production of new products to improve safety, such as hand sanitizers, PPE, physical barriers, touchless doors, and ventilation systems. Additionally, advancements in technologies such as automation, robotics, and drones may facilitate larger shifts in jobs; however, overall costs and availability were again noted as a concern.
Companies like Tropical Shipping will likely continue some version of its telecommuting programs given the greater flexibility and employee safety benefits they provide.
The impact on both the frequency and severity of workplace (or work-at-home) injuries remains to be seen. Will there be a change in the mix going forward, such as an increase in ergonomic injuries as workers adapt to their new home offices, or a decline in motor vehicle accidents as more of the workforce works from home? NCCI’s recent publication, “Telecommuting and Workers Compensation: What We Know,” explores this in more detail. Even less clear is how the types of injuries could change in the future. What proportion of the risk/injuries that occur will remain the same or close to it? Will burns from food handling be impacted? And what about slip and falls in outdoor settings? These questions, among others, can only be answered by collecting detailed injury data.
It was clear from our interviews that both employers and insurance companies are focused on the broad array of issues they face during this pandemic. The employers we spoke with were quick to address these concerns and implemented risk mitigation strategies.
There was broad agreement among those we interviewed that the future of some jobs and industries will change, that technology will play a role in communicating information, and that maintaining physical distancing will remain a priority.
NCCI is committed to understanding the impacts of COVID-19 on workers compensation and the workplace and we continue to expand our analysis as new data becomes available. For more information and the latest news on COVID-19 implications for workers compensation, check out our
COVID-19 Resource Center on
Special thanks to the participants who generously shared their thoughts:
Robert “Mark” Chapman, vice president, business operations, Tropical Shipping and Construction Company, Limited
Melanie A. Stanisic, former senior manager, risk management, Orange County Public Schools
Matthew Zender, senior vice president, workers compensation strategy, AmTrust Financial Services, Inc.
Chris Thurman, senior vice president, workers compensation and commercial auto underwriting, CNA
Chris Smith, senior vice president, corporate safety and health, Zenith Insurance Company
This article is provided solely as a reference tool to be used for informational purposes only. The information in this article shall not be construed or interpreted as providing legal or any other advice. Use of this article for any purpose other than as set forth herein is strictly prohibited.