Canadian brokers forced to 'go digital' overnight due to the coronavirus

There will undoubtedly be challenges as companies switch to remote working

Canadian brokers forced to 'go digital' overnight due to the coronavirus

Insurance News

By Bethan Moorcraft

COVID-19 has spawned something in insurance that nothing has ever managed before. The coronavirus pandemic sweeping around the globe has triggered an overnight digital transformation in the industry. In response to government calls for social distancing, and in some cases total social lockdown, insurance businesses have been forced to close their offices and ask employees to work remotely.

The insurance industry’s transition towards digital has been a topic of discussion for the past decade. In many ways, this concept of going digital has been overcomplicated, with people associating it with the latest insurtech innovation around artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, and so on. All of a sudden, and as a result of the coronavirus, companies are realizing that going digital, in its most basic form, is having enough laptops and enough VPN access so that staff can work remotely. 

Even though the door to your local brokerage or branch might be shut to employees and the public, business must continue. As Jeff McCann (pictured above), CEO of APOLLO Exchange, pointed out: “Work doesn’t stop. Renewal dates go on. If anything, there’s more work to be done right now in the insurance industry as a result of this coronavirus. I know a lot of our brokers are fielding a ton of questions from clients about coverage and business continuity plans.

“I’ve spoken to some brokers who have said: ‘We don’t have enough laptops. We just had to order 500 laptops so our staff can work from home. We don’t enough VPN access. Our people have never worked from home; how can we help them? We don’t have company cell phones, so what’s the expectation for communication, both internally and externally?’ I’ve spoken to brokers who don’t use software tools like Slack or Zoom, so they don’t have interpersonal communication. There’s a lot of stress, anxiety and uncertainty out there, but if brokers focus on the practical implementations of digital, then they should be good to go.” 

One traditional insurance brokerage to tackle these challenges head on is Nova Scotia-based AA Munro Insurance (pictured immediately above). The family-owned and operated brokerage, which offers personal and commercial lines insurance in over 20 communities in Atlantic Canada, has been preparing for potential business disruption as a result of the novel coronavirus for the past month or so – ever since it looked as if COVID-19 would grow into a global problem.

“We had our first official planning meeting about this on February 27. We recognized at that time that there were developments occurring that appeared to be capable of moving the coronavirus our way due to the movement of people,” said AA Munro VP of operations Rodney Munro. “We decided at that point that if it did come our way, which it now has, we would need to look at our IT capabilities and our technology so that we could make the necessary changes to have our coworkers working from home.

“We started by taking an inventory of what devices we had that people could take home with them, whether that was laptops or complete workstations, and then we looked at whether coworkers with workstations at home could connect to our servers and our broker management system and so on. We already have the technology in place for our [internet-based] telephone system, so when the time came to encourage coworkers to work from home, all they had to do was plug their laptops or their workstations in and get going.”

Of course, nothing’s ever quite that simple. AA Munro, like many other regional brokerages has some staff located in fairly remote geographic areas with poor internet connection and other connectivity issues. Not everyone was equipped with the right technology to work from home, and this is where the brokerage’s IT team has been focusing its efforts, both for front-line brokers and back office staff.

Two topics of particular concern for the brokerage and its clientele during this period of social isolation are payments and mail delivery. Munro explained: “The concern on the payment issue was that here in Atlantic Canada, we still have a number of seniors and others that come into the office to make their payments with a check or with cash. The greatest concern there was the actual contact. We’re trying to reduce that contact and give them space, but how do we do that for customers who don’t or can’t make payments electronically? We had our accounting team put together a summary of all the payment options we have, and we armed our brokers with that information so they can keep customers fully informed.

“On the paper handling side of things, we’re fairly well situated in terms of electronic documents, but given our size, we still receive a lot of paper. We’re trying to take internal steps to maybe convert customers that are still getting paper over to an electronic format. We’re pushing forward with that at this time more than any to see if we can make that more palatable for customers, particularly our commercial customers where they have to deal with big documents. Then we’re just trying to take some precautions in our main office, where most of our paper is handled, by reducing the amount of touch points on the paper by our coworkers and trying to reduce the risk.”

Aside from the obvious practical challenges of transitioning to remote working, there are also some social and mental challenges associated with such changes.

As McCann commented: “It’s the stress, the anxiety and the other aspects around this epidemic that I think aren’t being talked about enough. It’s not so much about whether you’re a digital brokerage or whether you have a good website. It’s about your people and their welfare. Are they having dialogue? Are they at home alone feeling stressed, anxious and overwhelmed? Now’s the time for everyone to be calm, to focus on both internal and external relationships, and to be there for each other as we navigate these changes.”

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