– Written by Elizabeth Farquhar for the Center for Services Leadership
After the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, State Farm shifted into catastrophe mode. By March 20 everyone was working at home. It was a remarkably nimble move for a large company where relatively few had been working remotely in the past. Part of the reason the move went so well is culture.
“We were extremely sensitive to the health and safety of our representatives and to the impact on our customers,” said Dave Prus, assistant vice president – customer care center. “We’re accustomed to dealing with natural disasters,” he commented, and employees rallied. “Our good neighbor mantra really came to life.”
Prus had two jobs: move out the 300 internal call center employees who are responsible for help desk support to the rest of the company, and transition 3,000 call center representatives to home or remote working locations. All had been working at State Farm’s four buildings on Tempe Town Lake in Tempe, Arizona, and similar facilities in three other cities.
What followed has been “the most interesting 90 days of my 20 years at State Farm,” Prus said. State Farm was able to fundamentally change its workspace while providing tech support to 120,000 employees, agents and their team members, and earning high customer experience scores at the call center. Unscheduled absences decreased, and productivity increased.
Demand for technology support increased dramatically due to the unprecedented company-wide move, so the 300-person internal tech support team moved out first—making the transition home in two days. The team is a resource to State Farm’s 60,000 employees and 19,000 agents, including the 40,000 more who work for the agents. That’s 120,000 in all. Prus said 800 State Farm employees volunteered to take some of the calls — a good thing, because call volume tripled overnight as call center employees began migrating home.
The 3,000 call center representatives vacated the offices in stages. Representatives packed up desktop computers or laptops, monitors and headsets. Each system had to be loaded the software to navigate the State Farm’s secure network through a VPN connection.
The vast majority set up remote workspaces at home. Some took their desk chair, too, and a few needed a table. Very few were unable to work due to conditions at home.
Beginning early in the emergency, Prus was seeing a favorable customer response in email surveys. “We received a fifteen percent response rate and our customers stated that they were more satisfied with State Farm’s service than they were before the crises,” he said. Representatives were highly empathetic with customers. “Everyone I’ve talked to has said they are working harder than ever before,” he said.
At the time of writing, Prus said the company was spending a lot of time planning for the return to the office, which will happen in small waves. Following the guidance of the CDC and social distancing will remain a priority. There are lots of details to figure out such as social distancing on elevators.
The insurance business will face challenges going forward: customers who deferred paying their premiums may find it difficult to catch up; people are driving less now, and that trend may endure if work-at-home emerges as an effective model.
Meantime, State Farm learned about the strength of its culture of caring. A senior executive at State Farm summed it up: “The pandemic did not define who State Farm is – the pandemic revealed who State Farm is.”