Jérôme Itty knows all too well the challenges of onboarding new hires in a remote work environment.
“I’ve experienced it myself,” said AXA XL’s chief operating officer in the Americas.
“I joined this company a year ago, I was appointed COO of the Americas, and I worked from my bedroom in Paris. I wasn’t able to meet with my colleagues, I wasn’t able to sit down with them and create this trust with them. It was a big challenge for me. So, I can understand for more junior people joining the organization, how you get onboarded and trusted as a team member can be a big challenge.”
Speaking at Reuters’ The Future of Insurance Conference, Itty told his virtual audience about his organization’s smart working initiative, something that more than 70% of AXA employees will adopt this year with the goal of all employees being on board by 2023.
Essentially, smart working is a hybrid way of working, one that combines remote work and an office presence. While it will not preclude eligible colleagues from working in an office full-time if that’s what they want, it recognizes that many of AXA’s employees have expressed the desire to choose what their workday looks like and to find a balance that works for them.
Itty – who is overseeing the implementation of AXA’s smart working strategy in the US, Canada, Bermuda and Latin America -- says his organization was already moving in this direction before the pandemic, with pilot projects in France and Belgium offering up some valuable lessons for the company to roll out globally to its workforce of roughly 10,000 people (with one-fourth of that in the Americas, including 30 cities across the US).
And when the pandemic hit and it forced everyone to work remotely (not just the 38% of the workforce that worked remotely before the pandemic), Itty said it greatly accelerated the company’s transition to the more hybrid approach.
“I think we learned two main lessons from this giant remote working experience,” he said.
“One is that we were ready from a technology perspective…. But the second lesson is the more important one, and that is everyone felt trusted and empowered to perform their responsibilities while working from home.
“For instance, maybe in the past when people said, ‘Oh, I’m going to take Friday and work from home,’ their manager might have thought they were taking a day off, or a half a day. But with this COVID experiment, we realized that everyone is empowered and trusted to perform their duties.”
While Itty discussed the successes that AXA has seen so far in its smart working efforts, he was equally candid about the challenges that all insurance companies contemplating a more hybrid approach to managing their employees are likely to face in a post-COVID future.
“I see three main challenges,” he said. “One, you’re managing hybrid teams, meaning when you’re working remotely and half your team is in the office and the other half is collaborating from different parts of the world… How do you prevent biases, for example, in your performance assessments when you’re talking about bonuses or promotions?”
Finding the best way to welcome and onboard new hires can also be a challenge in a hybrid environment.
“All of those informal conversations around the water cooler or the coffee machine, you lose it when you have this hybrid system” – but for him the biggest challenge is finding a way to maintain a corporate culture when teams and colleagues aren’t always occupying the same physical space.
“How do you create a culture, how do you create an identity, how do you maintain this sense of belonging if you are decentralized and working from your bedroom or your spare room or your kitchen or your dining room?” he said. “How you maintain and foster a corporate culture in a hybrid environment is one of the biggest challenges we face.”
Still, he’s confident these are challenges that companies can overcome, and he says so far the response from his people about smart working has been positive.
“I think they’ve grown comfortable having this balance and working remotely,” he said. “At the same time, they are seeing the benefits of going into the office, meeting with their colleagues and their clients. So, I think there is also huge support for that.
“They have been very supportive, lots of questions, and really what we want is for them to be part of the solution when we answer these questions. They came up with very good questions that we (the executive team) hadn’t thought about, and we want them to be involved in finding the right solutions.”