Virtual reality, other digital tools help Cigna reinvent workplace amid pandemic

If you visit a Cigna conference room in the health insurer’s Bloomfield headquarters you might see employees wearing virtual reality headsets.

They aren’t playing the latest VR games; They’re in a virtual staff meeting that brings together employees working both remotely and in the office.

The use of Oculus headsets to conduct meetings in the metaverse is still only in the experimental stage, but it was brought on by pandemic-induced changes to the way most company operate officer, according to Cindy Ryan, Cigna’s executive vice president and chief human resources officer .

Although Cigna has reopened its offices to fully vaccinated employees, about 90% of its workforce continues to work remotely part- or full-time. That’s required innovative ways to keep employees connected, Ryan said.

Ryan recently spoke with the Hartford Business Journal about the future of work and how the pandemic has changed the way the health insurer conducts business, including how it recruits employees and the technology it’s adopted to keep workers engaged, no matter where they are located.

She is a longtime HR professional who was named Cigna’s top human resources leader in August. Prior to that she spent 23 years at Cigna in roles of increasing responsibility, most recently as senior vice president and human resources officer for the company’s US businesses, responsible for talent management strategies, employee engagement and leadership effectiveness.

Ryan talked to HBJ in December before the omicron variant spread rapidly during and after the holiday season, and once again heightened the state’s and nation’s attention to the pandemic.

She said Cigna — one of Greater Hartford’s largest employers with thousands of local workers and 70,000-plus employees globally — has a standing advisory group of business and HR leaders who constantly discuss return-to-work strategies. The main priority of any decision, Ryan said, is maintaining the safety and well-being of the workforce. That’s particularly important for a health services company, whose revenues and profits are directly linked to its customers’ health.

“It’s a really fluid and agile environment and I think flexibility is super important for every employer at this time, and I know we are keeping it front and center,” Ryan said.

Here’s what else she had to say:

What is Cigna’s current back-to-office strategy?

We’ve been super responsive to our employees’ needs throughout the pandemic and since it began we have had more than 90% of our employees working from home. The remaining 10% have been considered worksite dependent — they are either providing patient care or dispensing medications.

By allowing the majority of our people to work from home it allowed us to keep everybody safe but also gave people the flexibility to handle the myriad challenges brought about by COVID-19.

Since then, we have the ability to physically reopen our offices so any of our employees who are vaccinated and wish to do so have the to come on-site.

Amidst all that we are piloting a few projects at our headquarters to create more collaboration spaces and even test out some virtual reality technology.

The Oculus headsets are particularly important when you have a mixed group, or a group of people who are in a physical place together and then you have other participants who are joining remotely.

The Oculus allows you to see each person and interact with them on a one-on-one level, so it’s a level playing field. It takes away the difference in terms of being physically present and virtually present.

We also have some collaboration tools that allow people to do virtual whiteboard sessions and other things that would have taken place in a physical workspace.

In general, we know expectations of the workforce are rapidly shifting, so we are continually assessing how we provide flexibility in terms of where, when and how our employees work.

Looking beyond the pandemic, how do you think Cigna’s workforce will operate?

In a post-pandemic environment we project that 60% of our workforce will work at home full time, and 30% will have a flexible role, meaning they split their time between the office and their home. The remaining 10% of our workers are those worksite-dependent employees.

When did Cigna reopen its offices?

We started to reopen in a partial fashion in September 2020, just a limited number of sites, including our Bloomfield headquarters.

But the large majority of the sites have been open just in the last four or five months and are now available for people to come in.

We used the early pilot sites to shape our approach.

Are you still at 90% remote or has that number shifted as you opened up more of your offices?

It’s shifted, but it depends on the week and the day. It’s highly dynamic.

The large majority of our workforce still remains in that full-time work-from-home or flexible category.

But I should point out that before the pandemic, we had about 35% to 40% of our workforce that worked from home permanently.

What does a flexible or hybrid workforce mean to Cigna?

Employees who are on a flexible schedule can pick and choose, based on business needs and their personal needs, when they come into the office and when they work from home.

We are starting to see some new patterns, where people are coming into the offices usually Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for group meetings, collaboration purposes, innovation, for a variety of different things where the work is better done together.

There is no requirement at this point of how many days a hybrid employee must be in the office.

Have the variants — delta and omicron — changed your office rules at all?

They have not. In order to be in the office someone has to be fully vaccinated so that has remained unchanged in spite of the variants. In addition, we strongly encourage employees to wear surgical-grade masks or better when in the office.

How will a larger remote workforce influence your recruitment efforts/strategy?

I think the boundaries that used to exist geographically have changed because you are able to access talent in different locations than you were before.

Being able to recruit people who are able to work from their homes or in different locations allows us to continually meet the business needs both locally and from a national standpoint.

In terms of recruitment strategies, we’ve remained grounded on a few things that have served us well over time and continue to during the pandemic. One is our overall company mission and values, which are focused on improving peoples’ health and well-being. We know that helps bring people to the company and helps engage them.

Second is our focus on diversity and inclusion and our employee value proposition. We have a variety of people who have been here for a really long tenure, 20, 30 or 40 years. We also have a high boomerang rate of people who have left us but later came back.

We’ve continued some best practices like our employee referral program that offers a bonus and incentive. Our employees are actually one of our best sources of hire.

We’ve stepped up the pandemic all of our college recruiting, which I know a lot of employers have abandoned during the. We had 283 interns this past year from 110 schools and our hope is to have all of our interns back in the office this summer if it’s safe to do so.

We’ve also done a lot of social media to reach candidates in different ways.

There’s been a lot of attention paid to the Great Resignation. How has the pandemic impacted employee retention and how is Cigna responding?

So while we’ve seen a rise in employee turnover we’ve not seen the high levels that have been reported in other industries. We think it’s largely because of the focus and care we have taken to keep people safe.

We’ve also offered some additional benefits during the pandemic, like emergency time off, caregiver leave, tremendous amounts of flexibility for people to really balance their personal and professional needs.

And we’ve really prided ourselves on strong communication but we took that to a new height during the pandemic. We’ve hosted all-employee town halls, regular calls with our managers on pandemic-related matters, business updates, etc.

Has the pandemic changed Cigna’s office space needs?

In conference rooms we’ve removed chairs so it’s easy to have social distancing, and we have limits on how many people can be in the rooms.

We still have collaboration spaces, but we’ve made them more spacious to allow for social distancing.

We’ve recently renovated our headquarters building in Bloomfield. We have this beautiful space now for people to come back to with modern technology and really flexible and ergonomic workstations and great collaboration spaces.

It includes some private desks as well as shared offices.

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