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American Family Insurance group announced that thousands of employees, including some hired for remote jobs, will soon be required to spend half their time in the office. The move has sparked outrage and confusion among the ranks, which include around 13,000 people at five companies.

American Family Insurance group announced last week that thousands of employees, including some hired for remote jobs, will soon be required to spend half their work time in the office. The move has sparked outrage and confusion among the ranks, which include around 13,000 people at five companies.

In interviews with the Cap Times, Madison-area workers said the decision conflicts with the messages the American Family Insurance has been sending for the past two years, in which it emphasized flexibility, asked employees where they’d prefer to work and touted its successful switch to primarily remote work during the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, about a quarter of American Family Insurance employees worked primarily remotely, many of them in customer service roles, said Tracy Schweitzer, American Family Insurance chief people officer, in a Wednesday meeting with employees. A video recording of the meeting was posted to YouTube and shared with the Cap Times. 

But the pandemic prompted the company to allow remote work for nearly all its employees, and unlike some other large employers, the company did not stipulate that the move would be temporary, employees say.

Those employees were surprised when rumors of the planned policy change began circulating on Reddit in late August. The post was met with hundreds of comments expressing concern.

Then, late last week, company leaders formally announced the new rules: All employees in non-customer service roles must work from the office at least 10 days each month if they live within 50 miles of one of the company’s “talent hubs.” 

The change takes effect Oct. 3 for managers and Nov. 1 for other employees at American Family Insurance based in Madison; CONNECT in DePere; Homesite Group in Boston; The General in Nashville, Tennessee; and Main Street America Insurance in Jacksonville, Florida. 

Employees who don’t comply are subject to disciplinary action, including possible termination, according to an internal document shared with the Cap Times. The company has told employees with concerns to speak to their managers.

Two employees spoke to the Cap Times about the new policy on the condition that their names not be published because they say the company bars employees from speaking to the press, and they fear the consequences of violating that policy. 

One employee was internally promoted during the pandemic to a job that was listed as remote. “It felt very much like a bait-and-switch,” she said, noting that the company distributed multiple surveys during the pandemic asking employees whether, in the long term, they’d prefer to work from the office, at home or in a “hybrid” combination of the two. In their human resources system, employees were given the option to select their preferred option.

She always selected remote work, and the company appeared to her to be embracing that option. That’s a big contrast, she said, from what happened at Verona-based health records giant Epic Systems, another major local employer, where some employees pushed back on plans to require employees to return to the office in 2020.

“The difference between Epic and AmFam is it was always made clear to Epic (employees) that (remote work) is a short-term thing. For AmFam, it was always made known to us that this is something we will support long term,” she said. 

Based on that understanding, she said, some employees moved further from Madison, while others, like her, sold one of their families’ two cars. 

“So it's just all very confusing and different from what we were told.” 

‘Uncharted territory’

In a 2022 New Year’s email, shared with the Cap Times by an employee’s family member, American Family Insurance CEO Bill Westrate told employees that “while the duration of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants plays an ongoing role in the evolution of our work environment, we know there will never be a corresponding return to office event.”

“In fact, we are committed to a flexible work environment that involves primarily work from home for many employees and primarily work from company offices for others. While we’ve advanced our work from home capabilities, we have not fully experimented and learned how best to bridge the at-home virtual experience with the in-office, in-person experience,” Westrate wrote.

“We will continue to prioritize safety while accelerating experimentation and understanding of in-person practices for a more effective hybrid work environment.”

Still, much of the company's workforce has been permitted to work exclusively remotely in the months since.

In a Wednesday meeting about the company’s new “hybrid strategy,” Schweitzer, the chief people officer, said that while some of the company’s goals can be accomplished through remote work, “we believe it is enhanced through in-person experience.” 

The switch will help employees and teams have “moments that matter,” she said, adding that the company had discovered that “extreme flexibility” was causing inconsistency, including that some employees didn’t know when to expect that their colleagues would be at work. 

“Often a moment that matters or an important breakthrough or problem solving, critical thinking conversation happens just because we're together.

“I recognize that this is uncharted territory,” Schweitzer said before taking employee questions on how the new policy would affect employees’ COVID risks, commuting costs, caregiving responsibilities or the company’s diversity and inclusion goals. 

In an email Friday, company spokesperson Clare Hendricks said that the new policy aligns with the flexibility shown by leadership and employees during the pandemic. 

“We’re continuing that theme of flexibility, while also making an intentional move to create more consistent in-person time for our employees,” Hendricks said, noting that employees would be able to work with their managers to choose their office days.

“We know this will be an adjustment for employees. That is why we are giving them time to prepare and make any arrangements at home. As we have always done, employees and their managers will work together in situations when there are personal circumstances to consider — such as caring for a sick loved one at home,” Hendricks said.

“Many other companies are taking on this challenge of hybrid work, but we are determined to do it the right way, including following our established COVID-19 protocols, adapting workspace and doing what we can to make time in the office — and outside the office, too — enjoyable and productive.”

According to an internal FAQ document, the policy applies even to those employees who have no teammates at the local office and thus would generally be driving to the office to attend Zoom meetings or work alone. The document says that, for those employees, the policy will promote “networking … innovation and cross-team collaboration … improve well-being and mental health and alleviate feelings of burnout and isolation.”

Employees ‘scrambling’

The aforementioned employee told the Cap Times she’d now be “scrambling” to buy another car before the policy takes effect in just under two months, while others are scrambling to arrange care for their children for before and after the school day. 

Returning to the office, even just part-time, will also make it less convenient for her to pump breast milk for her baby, she said, noting that at home she’s been able to pump while taking calls or making lunch. “It's allowed me to be a mother and an employee and do both of those well,” she said, calling it a “night and day” difference from doing those things in the office. 

The company hasn’t provided “any concrete evidence” that remote work isn’t working well for the company, she said, adding that she thinks the company should have asked employees for feedback if it was planning to change the policy, and perhaps tested the policy in “pilot” rounds first. 

If the company wasn’t planning to listen to employees, she said, they shouldn’t have sent all those surveys and messages implying they would. “Honesty up front would have helped,” she said.

Some consider quitting

Another employee, who was hired in April 2020 for an in-person job but has worked exclusively remotely because of the pandemic, said she moved during the pandemic, buying a much larger house in a different part of the Madison area so that she and her husband could both work from home. Her daughter, who didn’t get into her school’s afterschool program, is old enough to entertain herself when she comes home mid-afternoon two days a week but too young to be in the house alone.

“It just feels like the rug is being pulled out from under us,” the employee said. 

She said she’s more productive at home than she would be in the office because there are fewer distractions, and the office won’t have assigned desks. 

She suspects that there’s some unspoken reason for the company’s change of plans, but she’s not sure what it is. She wishes company leaders would have acknowledged that the new policy was a reversal of previous statements and explained why that reversal was necessary.

She plans to request an exception under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a move she said her psychiatrist supports, and she’s hoping her manager, who’s expressed disagreement with the policy, will “protect” her. Meanwhile, she’ll also be searching for other jobs.

“I've lost so much trust in the company because of this that I'm like, ‘OK, even if I like my manager, do I really want to work for a place like this?’” she said. “So I am also looking (for jobs) so that if it turns out I want to jump ship in November, I'm at least kind of ready to do so.”

The other employee is planning to try out the plan and reassess at the start of 2023. “I'm hoping the leadership starts to regain our trust by listening to us and pivoting, maybe changing the policy to what the employees want, to better support us and what we need,” she said. 

But she’s also watching for new opportunities elsewhere. 

“I've always said I'll work for AmFam forever because they support me. But I’ve definitely been having my eyes peeled just because … we just don't know what's next. Is the 10 days (requirement) gonna go to 20, to 30? … I think everyone has their eyes peeled on the job market, just to have our best interests at heart.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the first name of American Family Insurance spokesperson Clare Hendricks. We regret the error. The story has also been updated to include additional excerpts from the email from CEO Bill Westrate, and to note that the company has told employees to discuss concerns with their managers.

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