Chattanooga-based insurer Unum navigates a post-pandemic work environment with flexibility, technology

Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Unum Chief Executive Officer Richard McKenney points out some of the renovations inside the insurer's Chattanooga headquarters on April 12.
Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Unum Chief Executive Officer Richard McKenney points out some of the renovations inside the insurer's Chattanooga headquarters on April 12.

For the first time since the pandemic started more than three years ago, insurance giant Unum this month saw more than 1,000 employees gather in its huge atrium at its Chattanooga headquarters for a town hall meeting.

"We haven't seen that many people in a location since the pandemic," company CEO Richard McKenney said.

Unum, which employs about 2,800 people from its Chattanooga home office, is managing through a post-pandemic work environment in which flexibility is a key element, though occupancy of its office space companywide has significantly gone up, McKenney said in an interview this month.

Unum sells benefits for the workplace, such as disability, life, vision and dental insurance. The company has 2,100 employees on a hybrid schedule and about 700 home workers operating from Chattanooga.

"We still maintain a very flexible work environment," McKenney said. "People are not expected to be in every day. Some people are in five days a week, some two days a week and everything in between."

According to the company, Unum's hybrid expectations are the same for all employees assigned to a campus with most employees working in the office two or three days each week.

McKenney said the workforce situation has adapted over time for the company that employs 10,600 people in the United States and Europe. Even before the pandemic, the company had full-time employees working remotely all the time.

In 2019, before the pandemic hit, Unum said it was spending upwards of $40 million in Chattanooga to remake its workspace. The aim was to create a more open and flexible work environment, and most employees didn't have assigned spaces, according to Unum.

As part of that change, employees were given a laptop computer from which to work, McKenney said. So when the pandemic hit, people were sent home seamlessly, he said.

"That was the good side of some of those renovations," McKenney said. "Now as we've brought people back to the office, we've been able to leverage the technology we have here. The open space, the energy of having a good open environment, we're really excited how that shifted in 2022 and 2023."

McKenney said seeing workers in an in-person experience and collaborating is "wonderful."

"But also in our new world, given our technology, and allowing flexibility and people to work remotely works well, too," he said.

McKenney said Unum took a building from the 1950s and turned it into modern architecture.

"It's a very different environment," he said.

Amid the pandemic and thereafter, companies across Chattanooga have grappled with how to manage their workforces, with the results crossing the spectrum.

At Chattanooga accounting firm HHM CPAs, the company said it brought its staff back into the office in the summer 2020, and 95% were on site by the end of that year.

Trip Farmer, a partner at HHM, said in an interview that when the pandemic hit, the initial thought was that the firm's business moving forward would stay even, or less. But HHM was busy, and revenue was up by double-digits in 2020, he said.

Farmer said the firm discovered its clients needed more help due to changes in tax laws. The company that has about 238 employees is growing its office footprint in the largest expansion in its 42-year history and adding a 30,000-square-foot structure on King Street.

For BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, when the pandemic forced it to move thousands of workers out of its Chattanooga headquarters in March 2020 and to their homes, it changed the way the insurer did business.

Earlier this year, the company that has more than 4,000 employees said it's now a remote-first organization with 88% of staff working from home.

"We've made the switch fairly dramatically, and I think we have found a successful model," said Roy Vaughn, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at BlueCross.

Surveys of BlueCross employees found 96% of workers believe remote work is working for them, Vaughn said.

Unum in 2022 had a record year, with revenues climbing to $12 billion and total earnings hitting $1.3 billion, according to McKenney.

"The pandemic was a challenging time," he said. "When we look back, clearly we've come out with a very strong trajectory."

McKenney said Unum paid out three-quarters of a billion dollars in life insurance claims for people who died of the coronavirus.

"The scale of the company taking care of people ... was critical," he said. "That may have been the only source of life insurance some people had."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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