Actuaries and Virtual Work: Part 1

Work from home emerges Lisa Bull


Throughout my company’s 42 years of actuarial recruiting, the overwhelming majority of actuaries have worked in the office. Working from home or working fully remotely was not even a glimmer in an actuary’s eye until the last decade or so. Then, along the way, a few actuaries wanted the flexibility to work from home due to their travel schedules or personal situations, and they started asking for it. Although there’s been a (very) gradual evolution, most actuarial employers staunchly opposed work-from-home or fully remote arrangements.

Enter a global pandemic, which accomplished in one week what actuarial employers had resisted for much of the profession’s existence. All actuaries were suddenly mandated to work virtually. Now, as some employers are summoning employees to return to the office, what does the future of work look like for actuaries? In this two-part series, the remote-work journey of the actuarial profession will be examined along with what it could be going forward.

First, let’s establish a few definitions:

  • “Working from home” is defined as living near the office (same city or broader metro area) while having the flexibility to work from home as desired or more frequently as allowed by one’s supervisor or company policy.
  • “Fully remote” is defined as living wherever desired, often not near the office at all (multiple states away, for example), with no requirement to be in the office except for the occasional visit (perhaps quarterly or every few months).
  • “Virtual work” encompasses both working from home and remote work and represents working away from one’s physical office.
  • “Hybrid” is defined as a combination of work from home and work in the office.

What the COVID-19 Pandemic Revealed

The pandemic peeled back the veneer of actuaries’ professional and personal lives. For many, what was exposed was a lack of balance and control over one’s life and a sense of trading today’s personal priorities for professional success/stability/future promotion. Actuaries experienced joy (along with a sense of wonder) in reclaiming the time formerly spent commuting for more time with their children or the chance to pursue a hobby, do yard work, temporarily live somewhere else or simply have the gift of downtime to calmly enjoy a cup of coffee in their kitchen or on their patio before the workday sprint begins.

The virtual work environment everyone was thrust into overnight put many actuaries into a reflective mindset, prompting some soul-searching around their personal and professional priorities. Many actuaries—from actuarial students to C-suite professionals—discovered a lack of alignment of their priorities. Consequently, many felt a newfound desire to find a way to achieve alignment—or at least move in that direction. There was a boldness of desire to take back control over their lives—in where they live, how they show up for their children and aging parents, and the pursuit of causes that reflect their values. One actuary said: “If you’re not happy with who you are at this moment, you won’t get there later. Peace of mind is an inside job.”

Many actuaries voiced that they no longer feel the need to acquiesce to the norm of being in the office lest they suffer the negative career consequences of being perceived as less committed or available. Actuaries now feel they can steer their lives where they want to go and that because the pandemic validated that virtual work can be done with success, they’re not necessarily putting their careers on hold if they pursue fully remote positions.

The Evolution of the Actuarial Workplace

Era 1: Everyone’s in the Office

This was simply the way actuaries worked. There wasn’t any other workplace arrangement, probably because few folks envisioned such a possibility. Being in the office was the workplace norm for knowledge workers in any industry. Also, computing power—a big component of actuaries being able to generate calculations, models and endless scenarios—was generated by behemoth mainframe computers (not exactly the size to fit in an actuary’s guest bedroom). As personal computers took over, household internet hadn’t yet been developed, and once it had, early modem speeds certainly weren’t conducive to handling the huge file sizes of a typical actuary’s work output.

Era 2: Everyone’s Still in the Office—With Exceptions

Exception A: The first work-from-home roles emerge.

Everyone’s still in the office, but actuaries in heavy travel roles, typically consultants, started asking to work from home occasionally to offset long hours away from home. These actuaries were typically senior-level business developers, not rank and file, and they lived in the same geographic areas as their home offices (not distant remote locations).

Exception B: The first fully remote roles emerge.

In 2012, Jenny Young (name changed for privacy), a then mid-level ASA candidate, was employed at an insurer in the Midwest for six years when her husband landed a terrific job in New Jersey. Jenny approached her employer, explained her personal situation, and because she had a good track record and was well-regarded, they allowed her to work from home rather than losing her to the move.

Jenny represents a classic example of these early days of fully remote roles, which were quite rare and generally limited to a particular scenario: a current employee, highly regarded and highly valued, has a personal situation requiring relocation and approaches their manager to ask if there’s any way they can remain with the company versus quitting due to relocation. The manager goes up the food chain to make a case for this one-off remote arrangement to retain a valued employee, obtains approval and works out how this particular employee can do their job from afar while everyone else is in the office.

One characteristic associated with such one-off remote arrangements is they served to “plug a hole” for either the candidate, who moved on once they secured a job opportunity in the new locale, or sometimes the employer until it could find another employee who could work in the office and take over the remote employee’s duties. In Jenny’s case, within one year, she quit her employer once she secured a position with a local insurer. Her new position was not remote or work from home—she went into the office to better advance her career.

Exception C: The first job postings offering “telecommute/work from home/remote” emerge.

As time went on, jobs began to be advertised with alternative workplace language. Such roles were few and far between, but the fact employers were willing to hire a new employee directly into a non-office arrangement signaled a new way of thinking.

The drawback of these early remote jobs was they were production-oriented—they involved heavy calculations, modeling, rote “button-pushing”-type work. As a result, they were also generally career-limiting due to the perceived low-value work combined with an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, which effectively took these employees off the radar for plum assignments and promotions. Ambitious actuaries who were trying to advance their careers recognized that not having face time with senior executives and other key business leaders would take them off the fast track, so such actuaries tended to avoid these roles.

Multi-campus employers were early adopters of these telecommute/work from home/remote work arrangements. Organizations with a global market (versus strictly domestic) seemed to get comfortable with this more quickly. Over time, the types of actuarial roles offered as remote or work from home expanded modestly to include some managerial responsibility and higher-level decision-making.

Exception D: Actuaries become “firsts” at their employers.

What really seemed to nudge employers to expand their thinking on the whole remote work thing were the actions of individual actuaries. These pioneering actuaries had the courage to ask for a different arrangement, and in the process, started breaking down barriers and challenging long-held assumptions of how actuaries can be productive—both in their individual performance, as well as in driving and influencing the performance of their team, department or practice; other departments and functions; and the overall organization.

In 2008, Jim Miles, FSA, MAAA, was living in Indiana when an opportunity at the Society of Actuaries (SOA) became available. Jim proposed a hybrid arrangement where he’d work remotely from home 40 percent of the time. This arrangement was declined due to the organization’s preference for everyone to work in the office. After another suitable hire was not found, Jim was reapproached and offered the position on a fully remote basis, which he happily accepted (he ultimately retired from the SOA in 2020).

Jim explains: “Something has to give. Either the organization accepts lesser talent, or the organization modifies its view of workplace arrangements to get the talent they want and need at the time.”

This, too, was the case for a large multiline insurer with global reach. In 2016, Alex Faynberg, FSA, MAAA, was recruited to serve as the new chief actuary for one of the company’s subsidiaries in the Midwest. Alex and his family were firmly established on Long Island, New York, and relocation was a nonstarter. Alex’s workplace arrangement began as a weekly commute with four days in Chicago and one day in New York, and the clear preference (of the organization) was that Alex would relocate to Chicago eventually. Fast-forward a few years, and Alex consistently delivered sought-after results and demonstrated location may not be as critical as the organization had assumed. Today, this actuarial organization employs several remote actuaries.

Actuaries and Virtual Work: Part 2

Want to know more about how the evolution of the actuarial workplace unfolded? Read Part 2 of this article!

The cool thing is that the collective action of these individual actuaries who had the courage to ask, to simply put it on the table even though they may hear “no,” not only secured a better balance of personal and professional priorities, but they paved the way for other actuaries who came after them to gain access to more flexible workplace arrangements, too.

Lisa Bull is president of Lechner & Associates Inc.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.