A beautiful mountain scape with a forest below and a lake, with the mountains and forest reflecting in the lake.

Reflections of the past, present, and future, with John Ilias

June 14, 2022 / Sarah Manley

To say the last 2+ years have been challenging is a massive understatement. In March 2020, the world closed – businesses, restaurants, offices, schools all shut their doors. Then things started to open up again in the summer… and then they closed again… and then they opened… and then they closed.

But finally, things seem to be returning to normal, or should I say: ‘the new normal’. While restaurants and shopping malls are getting busier, many offices are still trying to determine what working arrangements should look like going forward – including CAA Insurance and, I’m guessing, many of your brokerages.

With this hot topic on everyone’s mind, I reached out to John Ilias, Underwriting Manager, to gather his insights on the past, the present and the future, and the resulting impact to his team.

Q: In March 2020, CAA Insurance closed its office doors and sent everyone home to work. What did this mean for your underwriting team?

J.I.: Thankfully we were very prepared to shift to a work from home environment. Our organization had completed a substantial amount of work that aligned with our Business Continuity Plan and, while no one could’ve anticipated this pandemic or its length, we were able to action the plan from day one. Prior to the pandemic, many on my team would work from home once or twice a week anyway, using their laptops and a secured Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection. We had already tested a hybrid working model and saw that it worked. So, in March working from home just became full time.

Q: What challenges, if any, did you and your team encounter at the onset of the pandemic?

J.I.: Because of the somewhat hybrid arrangement that was already in place, we were very prepared to conduct business as usual. Having virtual training and secure meeting capabilities ready, the only difference became that everyone moved 100% online.

However, one of the benefits of being in the office is that if you had a question, you could tap on your fellow underwriter’s shoulder. We had a ‘buddy system’ in place, and we wanted to ensure these conversations could still happen. So, at the onset we set up team huddles twice a week, to check in and ensure everyone was comfortable working from home, that technology was functioning, address questions, etc. We also set up dedicated chat rooms where the team could ask questions to the group. I’ve found that if everyone on the teams knows what’s expected of them, they will continue to perform well.

We also had to work with our vendors to ensure business would continue as normal. For example, when the pandemic hit, people didn’t want inspectors going into their homes. The good news was that one of our vendors already had virtual inspections in place, and the other vendor we work with launched this functionality during the pandemic. This method of home inspections continues to this day.

Q: How did you keep your team motivated over the past two years?

J.I.: Certainly, keeping in touch with the team was, and remains, critical. Taking pulse checks to ensure everyone was okay occurred regularly. We also recognized that much of the comradery that occurred in the office was diminished – no more water cooler chats or group lunches. So, we would hold a ‘no-business’ meeting on Fridays with different themes. Funny hat day, team spirit day, Kahoot games, etc. In the absence of being able to have potluck lunches, we organized a day where everyone ordered their lunch, and we ate together on screen. And while it wasn’t exactly the same as the in-person experience, I've found we actually got to know each other a little better – we met people’s kids and pets, we found out what sport they were passionate about, and what they liked to eat most.

Q: CAA Insurance has seen tremendous growth over the past two years. How did your team manage and what challenges did you face?

J.I.: Our call volumes increased by more than 100% a month, compared to prior to the pandemic. Some days the team handled up to 500 calls a day! I think one of the reasons for the sharp increase in call volumes was the Brokers were facing the same challenges of not having a nearby colleague to ask, “How does CAA handle this situation,” and in the absence of that would pick up the phone. We took this opportunity to educate our Brokers on where they could find the information and resources, while spending the time on the phone to support their immediate needs. To assist with the increased call volumes and meet the needs of our Brokers, we hired new team members, and continue to do so.

We also launched several initiatives, including an online Broker payment portal and an online customer self-service portal. We increased Broker underwriting authority to help streamline new business. We created a billing queue, where Brokers with billing inquiries were directed to a dedicated team to assist. We also recently launched online registration for training through our Learning Management System.

I’m very proud of the things we’ve created to support Brokers, such as the launch of our Insurance Guidebook along with our health and wellness resources which include live stretch and meditation sessions. The Broker Marketing Academy had to take a mini hiatus at the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s back and available through online, self-paced learning. Throughout the challenges brought on by the pandemic, I feel we’ve continued to offer great Broker support while continuing to grow our relationships.

Q: Now that things seem to be returning to some kind of normal, some businesses are bringing their staff back to the office, while some are offering a hybrid working arrangement. What approach are you taking with your team?

J.I.: Our office space is limited – we have 30 desks in the underwriting department, and these were being shared pre-pandemic when people would occasionally work from home. Now, with our new hires over the past two years, we have over 80 Associates and counting; we clearly can’t all go back to the office full time. Many of the new underwriters were hired to work 100% from home. As for the rest of the team, we have said ‘work where you want’, meaning they can work from home or the office.

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that location no longer matters. We are open to hiring staff who are located far from the office, because we know we can train and support them remotely. Also, because of our great training program, we don’t always hire experienced insurance staff - we’re happy to take a person right out of school, and train and mentor them. Instead, we look for people who fit with our current team and organization culture. I like to think we’re building underwriters of the future.

Bottom line is we are continuing to offer our team flexibility and ongoing support. We ensure that successes are celebrated, and that we still find time for ‘no-business’ interactions. The past two years has taught us that we work well together as a team and are productive, even if we’re not sitting next to each other in an office. Why fix something that isn’t broken?

John Ilias

John Ilias is one of CAA Insurance's Underwriting Manager, overseeing both the direct and Broker channels across all provinces. With over 30 years of experience in the industry, the last 9 at CAA Insurance, John's passion is building his team of underwriters to support Broker relationships.


There’s a growing library of articles just for Brokers, from CAA Insurance.
Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn so you don’t miss any great upcoming topics.