Although many insurers had already given staff a certain level of flexibility before COVID-19 struck, moving 100% of a workforce into a home environment has undoubtedly been one of the industry’s biggest challenges.
Catherine Dixon, executive general manager of people experience at Suncorp New Zealand says that every employee has a slightly different home environment, and, as such, insurers have had to account for many different requirements - and in some cases, an inevitable drop in productivity. However, she says that already having a strong flexibility policy in place has undoubtedly helped Suncorp’s own transition.
“The biggest challenge for us was the rapidity of the move into lockdown, but 80-odd per cent of our people were already used to working from home, even though it wasn’t on a full-time basis,” Dixon told Insurance Business.
“What we needed to do was move that to 100% of our approximately 1,100 headcount.”
“We managed to get virtually everyone up and running at home about a week after going into lockdown,” Dixon continued.
“The vast majority of people were working from home from day one, which we were really pleased with and which demonstrates the strength of our business continuity planning, and the benefits of having had a flexible working approach in place for a long time.”
Dixon says that for many people, working from home during lockdown has meant balancing childcare and homeschooling, often with a partner who has the same commitments to family and work. She says that, for some people, it has simply been impossible to maintain the same level of productivity as they would have had in the office - and they have had to be fine with that.
“Inevitably, the other major challenge was how to rapidly respond to people who have those varying demands on their time,” Dixon explained.
“We wanted to ensure that they still felt they could add value from a work perspective, while at the same time being able to support their family. We implemented flexible working hours, ability to take special circumstances leave, etc. We wanted to ensure they weren’t suffering too much or feeling they had to do a standard day.
“We also had to be conscious that, for many people, they simply can’t be as productive as they normally are in the office, and making sure that they feel OK about that.”
When it comes to communicating with customers, Dixon says the insurance sector was given a little time to prepare in the first weeks of lockdown, as calls and email volumes decreased significantly as people focused on their own personal circumstances.
“We didn’t hear nearly as much from our policyholders or our intermediaries in those first weeks, but that did start to ramp up again as we headed into the last phases of Alert Level 4, and that gave us the opportunity to settle the technology,” Dixon said.
“We had increased support from our tech teams who put all kinds of resources in, and we shipped additional equipment out to our frontline people - second screens, headsets, chairs, etc., which was quite a logistical exercise. By the time we were back to more normal volumes of calls and emails, our staff had a much better technological and ergonomic setup.”
Martin Stokes, CEO of MAS, says that implementing a ‘distributed workforce’ was a significant concern for him in the first weeks of lockdown. Although MAS had tested its ability to perform the vital functions of its business before New Zealand went into Level 4, it had not had experience with 100% remote working - and there were many external factors to contend with.
“Initially, our biggest challenge was standing up a distributed workforce with quite short notice,” Stokes said.
“About a week out from going into Level 4, we were testing our capacity to stand up the critical parts of our response - claims, call centres, and so on. But when we realised that we’d have to go fully remote with everybody, we were concerned about whether our own network could carry that load, and also whether the wider national networks would be able to deal with the increased traffic.”
“There were a number of concerns for us around whether we would be able to provide continuity of service, and we had a small team doing a remarkable job in organising that,” he continued.
“Each of the homes of our staff are quite different environments, so we needed to take an inventory of what was required in each of those locations, assess their ability to connect to our network, and their setup from a health and safety perspective. Those were all elements where we needed to be able to answer questions quite quickly, and being able to do that was the point of greatest satisfaction for me. Our team was able to do pretty much everything that they’d been doing previously.
“Ultimately we reached operational stability quite quickly, and being able to do that had been my biggest concern.”