Article: ‘Remote work’ is a profound trend that lays the foundations for a new working environment: AXA Group’s Global CHRO


‘Remote work’ is a profound trend that lays the foundations for a new working environment: AXA Group’s Global CHRO

Our plan for the future is to combine the best of remote and office working to offer our employees a hybrid organization, says Karima Silvent, Chief Human Resources Officer, AXA Group, in an exclusive interaction with People Matters.
‘Remote work’ is a profound trend that lays the foundations for a new working environment: AXA Group’s Global CHRO

Karima Silvent, Chief Human Resources Officer, graduated from Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP) in 1995 and from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA). In 1997, she entered the French Ministry of Employment and Health as Deputy and then Head of the National Fund for Employment, working on employment reforms as well as helping private companies implement HR policies. 

In 2002, she joined the French state-owned Health Service (Assistance Publique - Hôpitaux de Paris) as Deputy Human Resources Director. In 2007, she moved to Korian, a private health group (clinics, retirement homes), first as Group HR Director and in 2011 as COO for the French Business Line. In April 2012, she joined GIE AXA as Global HR Business Partner for COO functions (Operations, IT, Marketing, and Distribution). September 2013, she became Global HR Director in charge of workforce transformation, culture, employer brand, and recruiting and also in charge of talent and executive career management for support functions professional families. 

Karima was appointed Human Resources Director and Member of the Executive Committee of AXA France in July 2016. Since December 2017, Karima Silvent has been the Chief Human Resources Officer of AXA Group and a member of AXA’s Management Committee since September 2019.

Here are the excerpts of the interview.

There has been a lot of discussions and predictions on the future of work trends - from remote work, decentralized workforce, increased focus on innovation, to employee well-being. What trends would you bet on most?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tipping point in our working methods. This unprecedented crisis has dramatically accelerated the transformation of our working habits, redistributing trends that we thought would take much longer to materialize. 

The remote working transformation is not a parenthesis, it is a profound trend that lays the foundations for a new working environment. A global survey of our employees revealed that 90 percent of them now want to work from home on a regular basis. But the crisis has also reminded us of the importance of having places in which we can meet and work together. This is why our vision for the future of work at AXA – which we call Smart Working – combines remote working and regular office presence so that our teams can get the best of both. All our entities will adopt this hybrid organization by 2023. 

This crisis also put employees’ physical and mental health at the top of the corporate agenda; a trend that we believe is here to stay. All our entities around the globe are currently implementing a global health and well-being program to provide our employees with the best solutions to preserve and improve their health conditions. This includes medical check-ups, free access to telemedicine, vaccination campaigns but also a free psychological platform, accessible 24/7. 

The pandemic has posed new opportunities amid challenges. The crisis for sure has also forced organizations to embrace "purpose ". Should purpose be at the core of every sensible organization adapting to a post-COVID world?

The COVID-19 crisis has shown that insurance has a critical role to protect societies and drive economic growth. This conviction has become clear to us all in our reflections on our purpose, which we presented during our shareholders’ meeting last June. Encapsulated in one sentence, "Acting for human progress by protecting what matters", it expresses who we are and defines our mission as insurers. 

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As we navigate a complex and unprecedented crisis, this purpose acts as a compass. It reflects our commitment to support our customers and help societies meet the major challenges of our times. It also expresses our unwavering faith in science and progress, which we believe holds the solution to the pandemic challenges.

It’s widely acknowledged that organizations pursue diversity and inclusion not just for ethical reasons, but also to gain competitive edge. Do you think CEOs and boards globally are not taking cognizance of this in the true sense?

Diversity is a strength and an opportunity for companies. It is a key priority for AXA as we want to build an organization that truly reflects who we are and where individual differences are valued. Our top management is fully aligned with this vision, with concrete targets on diversity topics and gender equality in particular. 

For instance, we have made significant progress these past years in terms of having more women in senior executive positions. We moved from nine percent of women in senior executive positions in 2009 to 34 percent in 2020. We now aim at reaching gender parity by 2023. We also committed to removing all unjustified pay gaps and reach full pay equity across all geographies by 2023 at the latest.

Beyond gender, inter-generational bridges, disability inclusion, and diversity of sexual orientations are key to our “One AXA” culture. Throughout the year, our employees across the globe engage in awareness campaigns and positive actions to create an inclusive workplace for all. Creating a supportive and diverse workplace is key to our success as a company.

What was the trigger behind your strategy of remote working in the pre-pandemic days? Did the experience help you during this crisis time?

Remote working was not new at AXA. Before the COVID-19 crisis, 38 percent of our employees were already working remotely on a regular basis, and in some entities, this rate was as high as 60 percent. Most employees already benefitted from a 100 percent digital work environment, remote access to the Group’s IT systems, and collaborative tools. 

This experience and digital maturity were key to ensure the continuity of our operations during the crisis. In just a few days, we were able to move our entire 160,000 employees to remote working, while leveraging our digital channels to assist our clients. At the height of the crisis, we recorded nearly three million virtual calls per week and 75,000 simultaneous remote connections to our servers. That's unprecedented.

We live in a world that’s been built around working from the office. Now all of a sudden, the world of work transitioned to remote work. Can it be sustainable in the long run? If it works out, what would that mean for employers?

At AXA we firmly believe in a hybrid organization, keeping the office as an anchor for social interaction and community building. Complete remote working is, I think, not sustainable for a company such as AXA. The crisis has proved the need for human interactions, collective creativity, and team spirit. And I believe there is no better place than the office to achieve these. Our plans for the future are therefore to combine the best of remote and office working to offer our employees a hybrid organization. 

But having a hybrid workforce with some employees in the office and others working from home can be difficult to manage. It might also put the remote workers at a disadvantage. Do you think managing the hybrid work style will add complexity for leaders?

Smart Working is not just an evolution of working habits. We know it is a cultural change that requires adaptation and new management styles. Our Smart Working program includes specific training for teams and managers. Particular attention will be paid to the autonomy and responsibility of teams, and the cohesion and well-being of employees. Inclusion will also be a key focus as we need to create awareness among managers on the importance of including all employees – both working on-site and remotely – in the meetings and driving effective collaboration. 

Based on the early successes of our most advanced entities (AXA France and AXA Belgium for instance are already in full hybrid mode) and the strong demand from our employees, we are confident this cultural change will benefit the whole organization and enable us to thrive in the post-COVID-19 era. 

COVID-19 forced organizations to double down on employee well-being. What does the future of work mean for our mental health?

We know that the lockdown period has been difficult for some people on a personal level. We have paid particular attention to our employees’ mental health condition during the crisis and will continue to do so as we move forward. We deployed specific online training to give employees the right tips to navigate this complex period and launched a global #HowAreYou internal campaign to destigmatize mental health issues and encourage employees to ask for help when they need it. As part of our global health and well-being program, all entities will deploy dedicated psychological support platforms, accessible 24/7, to help employees who encounter difficulties in their personal or professional lives.

Will the job market heat up soon? Do you see a battle to attract workers as things get normal?

Despite the economic context, we maintained our recruitment targets to meet our business needs. AXA France, one of our main entities worldwide, recruited 5,000 people in 2020, mainly in our sales teams. We have also maintained our internship and apprenticeship policies, as we know young graduates are among the worst hit by the crisis.

In an interview you said, the COVID-19 crisis marks the beginning of a new era for human resources. How does the future of HR look like five years down the line and what would that mean for a global talent leader like you?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tipping point in our working methods. As we move towards the post-COVID-9 era, I believe HR leaders will have a key role to play to adapt companies to the new world of work. This will mean developing hybrid organizations, but also adapting corporate cultures and catering to the new needs of employees, with a new emphasis on health and well-being. These are exciting times for the whole HR community.

Read more such stories from the February 2021 issue of our e-magazine on 'The Moment to Fix the DE&I Equation'      

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Topics: C-Suite, Life @ Work, Diversity, #HybridWorkplace, #BigInterview

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