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Keeping Your Staff Happy

Providing the proper channels for ongoing interactions is essential, especially indifficult situations.

The effects of the poor economy will be felt financially and emotionally by information technology personnel, especially employees of companies in the process of downsizing. This is true also in insurance, even though this industry segment has not been hit as hard as other verticals, such as high-tech or even other financial services verticals. As carriers and CIOs focus their attention on maintaining IT budgets or making the most of smaller budgets, they should not overlook the value of striving to maintain—not to mention improve—morale among their employees.

According to Maria Schafer, program director, human capital management, META Group (Stamford, CT), the best way to improve morale in any situation—regardless of economic climate—is by having a good communications policy in effect. "Many things that companies can do aren't complicated," says Schafer. "Insurers need to take time out to find out what is important to employees. I am really astounded just how little is generally done with regard to communications."

Discussion Forums

Although it seems obvious, having a proper communications process is important to maintaining morale in difficult situations, and can actually give carriers a competitive advantage. "If your company is barely surviving and you have been keeping employees informed taking their input will put a company in a much better situation than the company that doesn't do this," Schafer says.

At American Family Mutual Insurance (Madison, WI, $10 billion in assets), communication is vital for the IS team, says Byrne Chapman, vice president of information services. "Communication is the most important component in improving morale," says Chapman. "Everything we do requires that the division be in synch."

The personal lines insurer has a number of forums, including anonymous channels, for employees to voice their concerns and opinions. Besides having an open dialogue with members of the IS organization, Chapman says he receives feedback and comments through e-mails. (According to Schafer, employees often feel freer expressing themselves through email.) American Family also distributes an electronic newsletter to employees, and holds all-IS division meetings every three or four months.

META Group's Schafer points out that when comments are received through company-suggested forums such as chat and discussion rooms, managers "must take time to go through them and be responsive." Although this can be difficult, since many companies are worried about legal liabilities, "communications must be bi-directional" in order to be effective, Schafer adds. And employees don't necessarily have to be directed to human resources in order to resolve their concerns. "If a manager responds in person, it demonstrates a caring attitude. There may be a time issue, but it's important to do."

No Nonsense Rewards

Although tangible rewards are sometimes used by employers to keep up morale, says Schafer, "there has been a move away from nonsensical rewards. In the throes of dot-com mania companies would allow their employees everything from use of the company jet to things like dry cleaning vouchers. That is not how you keep a good employee." A more effective way of maintaining morale, suggests Schafer, is through recognition. This can be done through things like awards dinners and publicly announcing individual or team achievements in a company newsletter. Tangible gifts of recognition for achievement, such as gift certificates and cash, also are effective.

At American Family, in addition to publicly recognizing achievements of individuals and teams through newsletters, e-mails and personal thank-you notes, the insurer rewards its employees monetarily. "American Family has programs in place that allow the company to provide financial rewards to employees who have done something exceptional," Chapman says.

Post-September 11

Management also needs to bear in mind that psychologically devastating events—such as the September 11 terrorist attacks—can dramatically affect the work employees do, even if their responsibilities are not directly changed by the occurrence. In the wake of the events of September 11, says META Group's Schafer, "communication is critical. Insurers must evaluate benefits programs to make sure that employees needing psychological help are compensated and given time to pursue that type of benefit."

For those workers who were more directly affected by 9/11 (for example, those whose companies were located at the World Trade Center), it is likely that as time goes on the reality of those days' events will become more real, Schafer notes. "Downtown Manhattan is a somber place," says Schafer. As summer approaches, the magnitude of the events will be more apparent. "Especially in the nice weather the World Trade Center was a very dynamic place to be," says Schafer. "As time goes on it's becoming more apparent that it's not coming back."

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