A physical office location has pros and cons. The costs of rent, utilities, and furniture add up. These days, fewer customers come in to make payments and more customers are comfortable working with their agent through phone and email. Long before the COVID-19 virus hit, Firefly has enabled new agents to run their agency from home. We know that starting your own agency is challenging, so if you can reduce your overhead costs without reducing your effectiveness, you will increase your chances of success.
When we first wrote this article, the entire Firefly team had been working from home for seven weeks. We had prepared ourselves by getting the right tools (which are described below) and practicing with them in the office and at home so we could do it over the long term. Now (19 months later) we are all still working remotely – and it’s going great!
In case you’re wondering how you could run your insurance agency from home, here are some of the tools that we’re using. (All product links will open in a new browser tab.)
SET UP AN EFFECTIVE WORKSTATION:
Start with a laptop computer
A good computer is the foundation of your setup. But if your computer is a tower that’s stuck in your office, it’s very difficult to bring it home. Yes, you could set up software on it to connect to your office computer from home, but we’ve found that if you have the same computer wherever you are, you work more productively. That’s why everyone at our home office uses a laptop.
As you can see in the photo above, of Jay’s home workstation, we like the kind of laptop that allows you to flip the keyboard around behind the screen. This gives you extra space on your desk. In case you noticed, his laptop is also elevated on a small stand, which frees up additional desk space.
We always buy laptops with a touch screen and a stylus. This allows us to use the screen to write on digital documents, or to sign documents without printing and scanning them.
Protect your data with BitLocker with Windows PRO, and require a password when your PC turns on
Your computers have sensitive data on them, which you need to keep safe. Start by setting up your PC so that it requires a password when you turn it on. Otherwise, anyone could steal your computer, turn it on, and steal all of the data on it.
A related and important thing you need to do is encrypt your PC’s hard drive. Encryption makes the information on your hard drive unreadable to anyone who doesn’t have your PC’s password. This means that even if someone takes the hard drive out of your computer, they can’t read any of the data without your password.
You can upgrade any computer with Windows Home to Pro by following these instructions from Microsoft. It will cost you $100 per machine. An alternative is to buy a PC that comes with Windows Pro preinstalled. Sometimes the simplest way to do that is by buying a PC directly from the manufacturer. For example, adding Windows Pro to an HP computer costs only $70, which saves you $30 compared to upgrading.
Then turn on Bitlocker encryption. As part of this process, be sure you backup your BitLocker recovery key. When you see this screen, you’ll know your data is much safer than it was before:
We strongly suggest that you protect both yourself and your customers by taking these steps.
Add external monitors
We can’t emphasize enough how much it helps to have multiple monitors. Laptop screens are portable – but small. At Firefly’s main office, everyone also has two external monitors connected to that laptop at the office, and at least one external monitor at home, for when they’re working there.
If you’ve never added external monitors, you are missing out! One study showed that adding a second monitor increases productivity by 25%, and three monitors increased it by 35%. But we don’t need a study to know tell you that when you’ve gotten used to three monitors and then have to work on just one, you can tell that everything takes longer to do.
We’ve found that 27 inch monitors are the best value. They make it easy to see everything, and you can usually find them from $115 to $150 each. Shopping around can save you lots of money. Best Buy and Microcenter often have better prices than Amazon.
Here are two articles to help you set up multiple monitors:
Get an external keyboard and mouse
When you have one or two external monitors, your laptop may not be directly in front of you. (Look at the photo at the top of this screen to see what we mean.) Using an external keyboard and mouse makes working with this setup much more comfortable. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Microsoft Bluetooth Desktop (keyboard and mouse combo)
- Microsoft Surface keyboard (Many of us feel this is the best keyboard we’ve ever used.)
- HP x500 wired mouse
- Logitech MX Anywhere RECHARGEABLE mouse
- Microsoft Surface mobile mouse (works with any computer that has Bluetooth)
Easily connect everything with a docking station
Most laptops have a few USB ports to connect a keyboard or mouse, and they often have an HDMI port so you can attach one monitor directly. But to make it super simple, we use this USB docking station. It lets us easily connect two external monitors, wired Internet at work (and at home if there’s a CAT 5 cable nearby), and anything else that connects with USB.
Only one USB cable goes from the docking station into your laptop, so it’s easy to open your computer, connect to everything, and get to work!
Don’t run out of power outlets
With your PC, monitors, and docking station on your desk, you’ll have more things to plug in than you probably have in one outlet, so a surge protector/power strip is also a must-have.
What about a scanner?
These days, you can run an agency almost entirely without paper. As an agency owner, you’re probably the person who gets the mail. Sometimes you’ll receive something that you need to digitize, which is where a scanner comes in.
You could have a multi-function device that lets you both print and scan from it. If so, you’re set.
But if you want a small scanner that you can easily fit in a home-office workspace, you could try the Epson Perfection V39 Scanner. It’s small, gets its power through the USB cable (so you don’t have yet another plug to deal with), is easy to use, and at the time we write this costs only $100.
Protect your devices from the bad guys
If any of your work computers are attacked by a virus, malware, or – heaven forbid – ransomware, you’ll at least lose a lot of time. Time is money. But you could also lose files, sensitive data, and your reputation could be severely damaged in your community. Do your part to prevent that by installing a quality antivirus/antimalware program on your computers and phone.
They’re coming – but you can stop them!There are lots of good solutions you can choose from. Some are free. But you might be surprised how affordable a more robust paid solution can be.
We use a business version of BitDefender that’s probably more complex than you’d want to deal with. But you could get BitDefender Internet Security for 3 computers for 3 years for one payment of $104.99 at the time we write this. Prices will change, but you can check them yourself here at BitDefender’s site.
You don’t have to use the same tools that we do – but install something to keep your devices and data safe.
Write and type on PDF files
When you’re running a paperless insurance agency, you’ll frequently be working with PDFs. Sometimes you’ll need to type on a PDF that doesn’t have preset typing fields. Or you’ll want to write, sign, or draw on a document that you’re sending to someone.
Xodo is a free PDF program that lets you easily do those things on your PC or phone. You can upgrade for additional features, but the free version lets you write, sign, type, rotate pages, and more. With a program like this, you won’t be printing out documents only to scan them back in again. How much time would that save you and your team every day?
Manage your passwords with a program like LastPass
Almost all Firefly agents use LastPass. It saves your passwords securely in a cloud account. You can access those passwords on your computer by using a browser plugin, and on your phone by using the phone app.
Stop re-using the same passwords in different places by using their password generator. Then don’t worry about remembering it, because it’s in your account.
You need a program like this for both safety and convenience. But one of the best features is that you can share passwords within your organization. When one person changes a shared password, everyone else automatically has it there in LastPass.
That’s a perfect lead in to our next area . . .
COMMUNICATE WITH COWORKERS:
If you’ve done everything above, you’re almost ready to get to work. But you won’t be much use unless you can communicate with other people at your agency, and with your customers!
Work with your team
Microsoft Teams is free program that lets you send chat messages, share files, and have audio and video calls with anyone on your team. It’s also very handy when you need to share your screen, or see a coworker’s screen to work on something together.
We love Microsoft 365 and we use teams extensively at Firefly. It’s amazing how connected to people you can feel when you can have a video conversation with them in seconds.
You can also see in Teams whether your coworkers are in a meeting, away from their computer, or available based on the color of the dot by their name. And the phone app is great for when you are way from your desk and still want to be connected.
Another very popular service for intra-office chat and collaboration is Slack.
Share files and folders
You need a place to share files and folders with your team. Of course, your management system is the best place to store customer-specific information. (We use EZLynx for this.) But you also have letters, documents, presentations, spreadsheets, and other things that are NOT customer-specific and that everyone on your team needs to be able to access.
Rather than emailing files back and forth, or accessing files on a physical server using a VPN (which is complicated) we love using Microsoft 365.
You can get subscriptions for $5- to $20 per month, per user. They include things that you’d expect, like the latest versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, and other programs. You can also easily share calendars with your coworkers, and access all of these things on your mobile device.
But with most subscriptions you also get OneDrive and SharePoint. The most helpful thing is that you can save files in the cloud, and anyone in your team can access them and work on them – even at the same time, in the same document! No complex VPN is needed. And yes, you can access and edit these files right on your phone with Microsoft’s apps.
Once you start using OneDrive and SharePoint, you’ll wonder how you lived without it. And if you prefer a Google alternative, you can use Google Drive.
Use an online calendar and share it with your team
Whether you work from home or at an office, it’s helpful for you to 1) use an online calendar to keep yourself organized and 2) share calendars as a team so you can work together more easily. Microsoft 365 includes the Outlook on the Web, which stores your calendar events online. Most subscriptions also include the desktop version of Outlook, which is another way of interacting with your cloud calendar.
You can access your calendar on your PC, on the web, or using the Outlook phone app. But, once again, the best part is that you can share your calendar with your coworkers. (Don’t worry – you can keep certain calendar events private if you want.) If a colleague invites you to a Teams meeting, that event will appear on your calendar. To join in, just click it!
If you prefer Google, you can use Google Calendar.
TALK WITH YOUR CUSTOMERS:
Use the same phone numbers whether at the office or at home
Most customers won’t care where you’re working from if they can reach you by phone. At Firefly we use a voice-over-Internet phone service. (You may see this abbreviated as VOIP if you want to research it online.) When we were all in the office, we had physical phones on our desks, but now we all use a software phone to make and receive calls on our computers. (See the nearby image.) We can also use an Android or Apple smartphone app to take and make calls on our mobile phones.
The important thing to our customers is that they call the same number as usual and we take the calls wherever we are. Our outbound caller ID shows our office number too.
We use AT&T Office@Hand, but there are many companies that offer this kind of phone service, so you should check around. Another great feature is that you can tell whether coworkers are on currently the phone by the color-coded circle next to their name.
Note that this service also lets us send and receive faxes using our individual phone numbers. We don’t use it that much these days, but it’s handy when you need it.
If you don’t have any staff, you might get by with a free service like Google Voice. It gives you an additional phone number that rings to your own phone (a landline or mobile phone). You can set hours that the phone rings (or not) and record a business message that people will here when they go to voicemail.
Friends, family, and others can still call your current mobile number just like usual, and they’ll get your regular voicemail message. The great thing is being able to use your mobile phone as a business phone number and keep your work life separated from your personal life.
Sound your best
If you use a VOIP phone system from home, your calls will run through your computer, and you want to sound your best. Your laptop’s built-in microphone and speakers might be okay, but a quality headset will make you sound amazing.
These two headsets work with software phones on your computer, and we’ve had success with both:
- Wired headsets like this can be great. You don’t have to worry about it being charged and the audio quality is excellent.
- Wireless – Honestly, we’ve had mixed results with these out of the box. Two haven’t charged, and two sounded crackly at first. But the ones that worked (or that were sent to replace the bad ones) sound incredible. With free returns, we think they’re worth trying.
Final thoughts about making this work
To us, one thing that makes working from home both possible and productive for us is this: We use the same hardware, software, and tools no matter where we happen to be sitting. We unpack our laptop, plug it into the docking station, and we’re off!
We can focus on the work we’re doing with each other as a team, and also with our wonderful agents and customers. We don’t have to stop and try to remember how to make a call or access an important file.
This has worked really well for us, and we hope the information here helps you, too.