IBX: The Cover Story: What Will the Post-pandemic Office Look Like?

Title: IBX: The Cover Story, Episode 2- The post-pandemic workplace

In episode two of IBX: The Cover Story, I talk about returning to the workplace with my guests Caryn Noble, vice president of benefits at TMNA Services, a member of the Tokio Marine Group, and Jeanie Heffernan, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at Independence Blue Cross.

We first take some time to reflect on the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic and the work Caryn, Jeanie, and their respective teams have done to keep their employees safe, informed, and supported. We discuss how the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine influences a return-to-workplace strategy, and we share workplace considerations and other thoughts for the next six to 12 months.

Listen to our conversation here:

A transcript of the episode is also available below.

Episode 2 Show Notes

Below you will find some of our favorite quotes from the second episode, sources that were mentioned, a segment breakdown, and various considerations about returning to the workplace. Thank you for listening!

Quotes

“We’re polling people to see what they’re comfortable with in terms of the future and their workspace. We’re looking at some return-to-work software that will not only help us with the daily health attestations, but some have functionally through Bluetooth to more easily facilitate contact tracing.” – Caryn Noble

“Out of crisis comes opportunity. My hope for the future is that we can take all the bad and put it to the side, take all the good and bring it with us so we’re able to use it as a springboard for a better company and a better culture.” – Jeanie Heffernan

“In some ways we’ve found that this remote approach has actually brought us closer to some of the clients we’ve been serving. And being more engaged in ways we never thought capable of doing in the past.” – Peter Panageas

Episode Segment Breakdown

0:00 – 7:51: Caryn and Jeanie reflect on the workplace changes their HR teams made in the past year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

7:52 – 15:05: Jeanie and Caryn respond to how the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine affects a return‑to‑workplace strategy.

15:06 – 29:48: Peter, Jeanie, and Caryn discuss workplace considerations and other thoughts for the next six to 12 months.

More Information on Returning to the Workplace

For more considerations about returning to the workplace, visit smarterbetterhealthcare.com. If you have a question about returning to the workplace that we have not addressed in the podcast episode, email us at thecoverstory@ibx.com.

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Full Transcript

Episode 2 Transcript: What Will the Post-pandemic Office Look Like?

Full podcast episode transcription 

Peter Panageas: 

Hi everyone. This is Peter Panageas, and welcome to episode two of IBX: The Cover Story. In episode one, we talked about how the pandemic changed the way we receive care through telemedicine. In our episode today, we’re going to be talking about how it’s changed the way we work day in and day out. A year ago at this time, we were just starting to adjust to working from home. Many of us had challenges in working remotely, contending with new technologies, balancing work at home life with caregiving, and the needs of school age children. As the vaccine’s now being rolled out, employers and employees alike are asking a lot of questions about returning to the office. Many of my own colleagues are asking, “Do we have to go back to the office? What if we want to keep working from home? What if employees don’t want to get the vaccine?” Many questions I know I’ve asked myself as well. 

Peter Panageas: 

So I’ve invited my guests to shed some light on these and many other specific questions. My first guest today is Jeanie Heffernan, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at Independence Blue Cross. In this role, she helps the organization attract and develop talent, advance a culture of engagement, inclusion, and innovation, and achieve business strategy and goals. Our second guest, Caryn Noble, vice president of benefits at TMNA Services, a member of the Tokio Marine Group, headquartered in Japan. In her role, Caryn has general oversight for all employee benefit plans for TMNA’s 3500 employees, and she also provides benefit compliance oversight for TMNA’s US subsidiaries made up of an additional 5900 employees. Please join me in welcoming Jeanie and Caryn to our podcast. So Caryn and Jeanie, thank you so much for being with us today, and welcome. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

Thank you so much, Peter. And Karen, it’s great to see you again. 

Caryn Noble: 

Thank you so much to both of you. I’m really excited to be a part of this podcast and be here with both of you. 

Peter Panageas: 

So let’s jump into it. Let’s talk about where we’re at right now and how we got here. As we’ve talked about many times individually, we’ve all shifted to working from home. Many of us were suddenly faced with additional responsibilities like managing distance learning for kids and shouldering extra caregiving for aging parents. We’ve had to reinvent ourselves and many of the colleagues who work with us. We’ve adjusted to serving clients in a remote fashion. And Karen, so what kind of changes have you and your team implemented in how to respond to how we’re working now? 

Caryn Noble: 

Sure, Peter. I mean, it’s kind of crazy when I look at today’s date to think that we’re taping this on March 12th, it’s been a full year that I, and I think both of you guys, have been working remotely. And I think when we first kind of started in this scenario, we were really braced for this unknown and this craziness that was about to come about before us. And a lot of what we did in the beginning was very reactive to the situation we were in, reactive to the pace of the virus, and cases picking up, as well as, as you mentioned, the additional needs of many of our employees with balancing working from home, so trying to just put forth resources for our folks to help them with that work life balance. 

Caryn Noble: 

Certainly, additional resources through our employee assistance program to help facilitate folks who were dealing with either grief related to loss in their own family, as well as possibly dealing with just trauma in terms of losing balance of their everyday life. So we put in a lot of programming for that. In addition, I think we tried to look at our management team, and we had a lot of folks who had not experienced remote management, so we tried to put in some training to help them deal with those challenges as well. 

Peter Panageas: 

Karen, thanks. And Jeanie, tell us a little bit about what you and your team have been doing. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

Absolutely. Overall, right out of the gate, we were focused on making sure our associates knew that we cared about them, that we were going to support them, and that our main goal was to really help them stay safe. We didn’t know what we were up against, so the main thing was to reinforce that they are at the center of all that we do because our mindset is if we take care of our associates, our associates will turn around and take care of the members. So with that, we jumped into significant increased communications, predominantly from the CEO at first, so that he could provide the leadership, the comfort, the empathy around the fact that we were all out of sorts tied to this. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

And then we moved into have the rest of the executive team and the officers engage in discussions with our associates. The other thing we wanted to do was make sure we provided very consistent messaging on what our plans were and reentry timelines. I mean, many of us thought this was only going to be maybe for two months, and here we are a year later. So we wanted to just make sure we were consistently communicating about what we were doing, how we were doing it. We applauded our associates over and over again for their resilience and encouraging them to remain focused on themselves and their emotional wellbeing and their families, so that this way, they could really hear and see and feel from us, the executive time, that they were front and center of our minds. 

Peter Panageas: 

Yeah, Jeanie, I’ll offer that the video output that we’ve done at an executive level to our associates, I know for me and for many on the team that work alongside of me, those weekly videos really sent a really positive message, reinforcing we’re all in it together. We’re trying to work through it. This is a changing environment as we move forward, and that level of open communication has been an incredible thing that Independence has done. Karen, from the lens when we’re talking about communication from top down in your organization, can you share with us a little bit about some of the things the TMNA and maybe even from a global perspective, Tokio, has been doing? 

Caryn Noble: 

Sure, Peter. I think from a global perspective, we’ve always had a lot of traction with the leadership in Japan in terms of messaging and sending us regular broadcasts to share with our employees, not only within TMNA, but in the larger US group. I think that our executive team did a really good job of shifting kind of the way they delivered their messaging as well, and we started having more quarterly town hall type meetings, as well as individual functional town halls. So within TMNA on a whole, we have different groups, human capital services, IT, accounting and finance, each of those groups started having more frequent just all hands on meetings in terms of communicating to employees, doing regular check ins and the like to make sure that everybody was feeling productive, was feeling secure, and taking questions from the employees, whether it be via email or drop box before a town hall meeting, or whether it be opening up the floor at the end of a meeting just to field those questions and making people feel, as Jeanie mentioned, cared about, and that obviously, our people are also our most important resources, and just continuing to message that throughout this past year. 

Peter Panageas: 

Jeanie, Karen, one of the things that we’re starting to get a lot of questions on right now from all of our clients is the actual, the vaccine’s top of mind. Right? The actual administration of the vaccine and there are obviously some states that are a little bit ahead of other states, relative to the vaccine. I live in New Jersey. I’m proud to say I got my first vaccine shot last week, and going to get my second one … Or two weeks ago, I’m getting my second one next week. Can you share with us a little bit, Jeanie, from that perspective, in regards to vaccines? And there’s a lot of variability, and we as Independence being a major employer in the local area, and the uniqueness of that from a local perspective. And then Karen, if I can ask you from a national perspective, there’s probably a lot more complexity there just based with the variability that you’re facing. So Jeanie, if you want to start, that’d be great. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

Thanks, Peter. Well, clearly, this has been top of mind for many. I mean, we are so fortunate that a vaccine actually has come into our line of sight. For the longest time, we had no idea whether or not we were going to have to re acclimate back into the workplace without a vaccine. Now that it’s here, it’s very comforting. But to your point, we have the disparate production and distribution and organization or infrastructure to distribute it has been quite the challenge. Nevertheless, we are very fortunate in our company because we have top notch clinicians that have been guiding us, educating us, coaching us around getting the vaccine, that it is safe, and that if any of us have the opportunity to get it, we should get it. We will not be mandating the vaccine in order to return to work, but rather, we are strongly campaigning that it’s the way to go. And we now have identified ambassadors throughout the company to help get the message out so that there’s a trusted partner who’s giving information that might encourage someone to go forth and get those vaccines. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

And then more broadly, as the employer, we are very actively involved in the community in the distribution process, partnering with CHOP to get teachers vaccinated. We funded that through our Independence Foundation. We have offered up to the city our location, which we call Independence Live, and distributions are happening there under the city’s guides. So we are doing everything we can to be a good employer and a great place to work, and to continue to be a top workplace. 

Peter Panageas: 

Yeah, incredible work that Jeanie, you and your team and the executive team have been doing at Independence, and really trying to get that message out to the members that we serve, and certainly the community that we serve every day, incredible work. Karen, give us some insight too. And one of the thing that I’d like to get your perspective on as well is from a benefits and HR perspective, as you navigate through it, and you’ve got people returning to work. And obviously, I don’t know if we can mandate a vaccine or not, and that whole variable. How do you anticipate you’re going to manage when you have two employees who are going to be coming back to the office, and one has agreed to go ahead and get vaccinated, the other one might just be a little reluctant? And I ask that question from the lens of, when the vaccines were originally starting to come out, I was one of those in that camp that was initially saying, “I don’t know if I’m going to get it right out of the gate. I think I’m going to hold off and just kind of see what happens.” 

Peter Panageas: 

And then you learn more, you hear more, you see the results, and you jump in. And I’m glad I did it, and I’m an early adopter. But I’m sure there’s a contingency of folks across the board who may be a little bit reluctant for a host of different reasons, which are fine. But how do you manage that from a benefits and HR perspective? Karen, love to get your perspective on that. 

Caryn Noble: 

Sure, Peter. Well, I think we have a unique challenge in that we are a company, as you mentioned, at the top of this discussion, I have 3500 employees and they’re all over the United States, including in Hawaii. So we’re dealing with so many different states who are in so many different positions in terms of distribution, as well as in terms of mindset. And trying to message out to people all the way across the population has definitely proved to be challenging. Many of us have had those conversations around if they would get a vaccine, if they wouldn’t get a vaccine. And like you said, I do think it’s a mixed bag throughout our organization. However, we also as an employer are not going to be mandating that folks do get a vaccine. We’ve actually had the question asked, “Will you be checking the CDC card? Is that going to be a requirement as folks come back to the office?” 

Caryn Noble: 

And certainly, there are concerns for putting employees in workspaces together where one person maybe has had a vaccine and the other has not. So we’re looking at just the footprints of all of our different office spaces, looking at how we might be able to configure that. Obviously, polling people to see what they’re more comfortable with in terms of the future and their working space, whether they’ll be working from home 100%, doing some sort of hybrid situation, or working entirely in an office. We are actually looking at some return to work software that not only helps us with the daily health attestation, but some of them have functionality through Bluetooth enablement, to track where a person is in the office, so that we’re more easily able to facilitate contact tracing after the fact. 

Caryn Noble: 

But it is very difficult to reach a population and to message in the same way, and I know, Peter, I’ve certainly reached out to my team at IBC for help around educating our employees about the vaccine and the benefits of getting it. I think from a global perspective, Europe and Japan, Japan specifically is in such a different place than we are right now. They’re not getting vaccinated yet. They’ve been in the office much more than we have, using kind of three shifts to get folks into the office on a full-time basis, but not there at the same time. Culturally, I think we’re just very different in terms of how even how we behaved before COVID was upon us. So I think that it’s much easier to softly mandate some of those rules and requirements around shift working, spacing out, and ultimately when the vaccine is readily available there, I think people will feel more comfortable taking advantage of that.

Peter Panageas: 

I appreciate the insight you’ve both given. And as we go through this journey here, we’ve talked about a lot of the great things, Jeanie, that you and Carynand your teams have done about where we were. Right? And we know where we’re at right now. And every day, we turn on the news, and we’re hearing more and more about the vaccination getting out there, another vaccination coming out, J and J having a one shot vaccination, a lot of positive news that’s starting to really trickle through. So I’d like to get your perspective of, we’ve talked about a lot of the great things we’ve done, but let’s talk a little bit about where we’re going. Right? So Jeanie, maybe you can talk a little bit about: What do you envision we’re going to look like over the next six to 12 months? 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

Yeah. I have a crystal ball and I am a genie, so therefore … But no, it’s really quite interesting. My team and I have been very diligent and up close and personal around assessing and evaluating. And we went through very significant work efforts around identifying our workforce, and it was called workforce designations, and we categorized every job in the company at a level three, two and one that was going to help guide us in our reentry path coming back. That was pre vaccine, so now all that work effort is kind of being pushed to the side because we may be in a different scenario where we can actually solicit volunteers possible of who is interested in returning to the office, so that we’re then maybe inviting people back that are saying, “Yep, I’m ready. I’m so tired of being in my closet or in my basement,” or whatever the case may be. So we’re really rethinking how we were approaching this to begin with. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

But at the end of the day, what’s interesting for us, and Peter, you know this very well, Independence has always thrived off of being a very high touch culture. Before the pandemic, we were together in the primary corporate building, and people engaging every corner, every nook, our innovation center, our gym, associate town halls, management briefings, associate gatherings, the cafeteria, you name it. And we thrived off of that. So one of the things that we’re contemplating is, and what we did through the virtual scenario was try to replicate all of that, just in using the video. But going forward, we’re really thinking about: What and how do we do it in a way that keeps the safety and creating a culture of safety first and foremost? So that when people do start to phase in, because we would never have everyone coming back in one full sweep, it’s really more of a staggered approach, we will assess and evaluate, make sure things are in good shape, and then invite the next wave and the next wave. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

But going forward, we’re going to continue to really look at, and I just had a meeting actually, with the president’s council of the company, talking about the fact that we’re going to need to make decisions about the future. And is it going to be where people stay at home potentially? I mean, we didn’t miss a beat, so the virtual use of technology has worked, so that’s one option. Another is a hybrid, a home and hub, IE, the office, and flexible work schedules because the world isn’t going to follow what we do. We have to follow what the world is doing. And people will still have childcare issues, elderly care issues, transportation concerns, getting on public transportation. So we have to factor all of that into the equation, and then see if we’re in a position to really meet our associates where they are, and then work through. How do we manage over time to get to whatever that new normal is? But it has to be an approach that takes everything into consideration. 

Jeanie Heffernan:

So I believe there will be a future where it’s technology and in person, and blending them together to get the optimal engagement, performance, maintain the culture of the company, and that we’re still very connected from a communication front, no matter what channel we use to get the message out, but also, more importantly, get the message back. So for us, we thrive off of hearing the voice of our associates. So in the beginning when all this happened, as an example, we did a health and wellbeing survey and solicited our associates to tell us what’s working, what’s not. What are your worries? What are your issues? What are your concerns? We took all of that data and then appropriately made adjustments to policies, procedures, protocols, hours that you work, and then made sure everything we communicated back was tied to you spoke, we heard, is what we’ve done in response to it, so that there’s this partnership relationship between the employer and all of our valued associates. 

Peter Panageas: 

Yeah, Jeanie, incredible, and it really is a lot there. Right? There’s so much because you’re so right. Our culture is very much about being around and really just being close to each other. I mean, Jeanie, you and I, some of the greatest discussions and meetings we’ve had is, as we’re passing each other in the hallway and having an elevator conversation about nailing some things down. And you miss that. Right? You lose that when we’re in this remote environment. And then, Karen, I guess from that lens, obviously, you’re one of our clients. And in some ways, we’ve found in serving many of our clients, this remote approach has actually brought us closer to some of the clients that we’ve been serving, and being more engaged in ways we’ve never thought capable of doing in the past. 

Peter Panageas: 

I know firsthand with the associates on my team, you have this mixed emotion. I want to get back to the office, I miss seeing people every day. But Pete, this is an incredible way to work, and things are getting done and our clients are engaging it. And we’re also getting this feedback, Karen, from many of our other clients. And they’re saying things like, “We’re never going to be the same. It’s never going to be back to the office 24/7 the way we were before.” We do believe, as Jeanie, you said, there’s going to probably be some type of hybrid as we move forward. But I’d love to get your perspective, Karen, from two lenses, one from a client vendor partnership. How’s it working from your lens in working with Independence? And then two, from a culture perspective, a lot of what Jeanie just talked about, how’s that going to impact you guys locally and nationally? 

Caryn Noble: 

I think as you mentioned, Peter, I think we hear so much about Zoom exhaustion, and cameras are always on, and people are fatigued. And in a way, I agree with you. We’ve had the ability to almost come together more in a way that we might not have before because while we did have in person meetings, let’s call it maybe once a quarter, or semi annually, annually, most of what we do is on a telephone with each other. So now we’ve kind of broadened that into these Zoom calls where being on a call with your camera on is really a best practice. And I think that’s done a lot in terms of relationships, very much so with vendors, very much so even internally within our company. 

Caryn Noble: 

I’m somebody who has a unique situation. I sit in New Jersey. My boss sits in New York. My team sits in Bryn Mawr. I have been managing remotely for the last eight years, 10 years. Not everybody does that, so they’re not used to being able to connect and to be comfortable, and to invite people into their virtual office, whether it be at home or in the workplace. So I do think in terms of our vendor connections, you get to know the people that you’re working with and that are supporting you on a little bit more of a personal basis. 

Caryn Noble: 

I know that you guys have seen me. My daughter’s in school in the other room. She’s going to have a test in 10 minutes. She needs to print something. The printer’s in here, she’s coming in. Right? I think that there is something to be said for the new workplace and workspace, and the way technology has enabled us to do that. I think also, when you look the people who live in metropolitan areas, I know, Peter, you and I have talked about this. It’s just the time suck around commuting. And what we’ve been able to do with that extra hour and a half on each end of your workday, whether it maybe I’m at my desk longer, maybe I’m actually taking a little bit better care of my mental health and taking a walk. Maybe I’m cooking more. There are some positives to this situation when you take a step back and you look at that. And I think people, like you said, Jeanie, we thought this was going to be for two weeks, two months. It’s been a full year. 

Caryn Noble: 

People have really changed the way they integrate their work and personal lives because they’re not leaving the house and going to an office for the most part. I mean, we certainly do, obviously, have essential people in the office. We have a group of about 200 folks piloting a back to office situation, just to kind of pave the way for when we really are ready to get more folks in there. And I know personally in interacting with my own team, there’s been a big change. I was in the office with them every other week, once every other week, we’ve transitioned into weekly online meetings. We catch up. We talk. I agree that sometimes your best conversations are in the elevator or getting a cup of coffee. But sometimes too, now we’re using Jabber, we’re using Teams, people are pinging you. So I think there is that benefit of technology continuing to bridge the gap of personal interaction. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

Peter, if you don’t mind, I’d like to add one other thing that I reflected on in preparing for today’s meeting. You are absolutely correct. There’s a lot of upside that has to transpired. I think the initial shock was challenging. Then once you got beyond that two month, three month, you start to settle in and say, “Okay, this is what it’s going to be like for however long, and I’m going to make the most of it.” So I am just so excited because many of our leaders, including Peter, found ways to connect with their associates non work related. So leaders were hosting virtual happy hours, and playing Wheel of Fortune, or doing scavenger hunts, or you had to share your pictures from when you were young, and the sports you were involved in. So there was a lot more interpersonal connection happening that may not have happened in the prior work life, not as much. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

And many of my associates and my department, but across the company, because the HR team has what we call HR business partners, and they’re connected directly to the business line areas. So they come back and they’re like, “You’re not going to believe this. We had so much fun. This is what went on, and this is what we found out. Who knew this about Peter?” So there was a lot of goodness that came out of this as well, and it kind of goes along with my mindset is out of crisis comes opportunity. I have believed that my entire life. And you’re seeing it, and you’re able to tangibly hold onto it. So what my hope for the future is, is that we could take all the bad and put it to the side, take all the good and bring it with us, so that we really are able to use it as a springboard for a better company, a better culture, a better relationship between associates and leaders, and leaders and their peers, and just really break down the silos, lock arms, and say, “Here we go. Let’s do it. Let’s go and achieve the results.” So thank you, Peter. 

Peter Panageas: 

Jeanie, incredibly well said. I don’t think I could say it better. I mean, truthfully, I think the three of us are all in agreement. Look, there’s a lot of challenging things that have come out of this pandemic. There’s certainly a lot of good things as well. And I think by combining the opportunity for us to be back in front of each other, and breaking bread and having a glass of soda, or wine, or water, or whatever- 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

Wine. 

Peter Panageas: 

Wine, there you go. And enjoying each other’s company live and in person, and then blend that with the opportunity to potentially eliminate three hours of a commute five days a week. Right? And figuring out what that very, very good corporate client associate balance is for all of us and the companies we work for, and the associates who work alongside of us every day. I think this is going to be the new norm as we move forward. And it’s going to be very interesting to see what it looks like in the next six to 12 months. And maybe as a tickler for us, maybe we reconvene the three of us in 12 months, and we do a reflection on what we’ve just went through the last 12 months together. 

Peter Panageas: 

So with that, Karen, I can’t thank you enough for the time you spent with us today. We value our partnership and our friendship. Jeanie, the same to you. I can’t thank you enough for all your friendship and partnership and support that you bring to me personally in our organization. You and your team do an incredible job every day. I’m so honored to have spend the last half hour with the two of you today. And I thank you very, very much. Thanks, guys. 

Jeanie Heffernan: 

Thank you so much. This was really beneficial, and I appreciate the conversation. 

Caryn Noble: 

Yeah, definitely. And do actually look forward to seeing both of you in person sometime within the next 12 months. 

Peter Panageas: 

Well said. 

Peter Panageas: 

What a great conversation, a lot to think about. This journey that we’ve all collectively been on is unlike anything we’ve all experienced. I think we captured earlier when we were talking about taking some good from this pandemic, combining it with what we were, the reality of what’s going to be new, bringing that together, and let’s create a new norm that’s going to make us all collectively much better.

Peter Panageas: 

I want to thank all of our listeners for joining in today. Hopefully, you found this enjoyable and helpful and resourceful. Check out the show notes for more information at insights.ibx.com. That’s insights.ibx.com. Thanks, everyone, so much for listening. And please be sure to tune into our next podcast. Thanks again, everybody. Have a great day. 

Peter S. Panageas

About Peter S. Panageas

Peter Panageas is senior vice president and market president — national for Independence Blue Cross. In this role, Mr. Panageas has profit-and-loss responsibilities focused on new business and retention for all groups 1,000+, including Large Local, National, Health & Welfare, Education, and FEP. Mr. Panageas joined independence as vice president of Sales in 2010. During his tenure with the company, he has implemented significant changes to the sales incentive program and improved the membership reporting capabilities to increase sales force effectiveness. Mr. Panageas is a respected client relationship leader with recognized expertise in new business creation, client relationship management, and innovative client solutions. Mr. Panageas received a bachelor of science degree from Rutgers University.