“Without digital innovation, the impact of the pandemic would have been harder. There were constraints and restraints in operations and efficiency initially, but never a complete shut-down,” shared Sunita Rath, Chief People Officer, Aegon Life Insurance, in a recent interaction.
Amid the crisis it is technology that has ensured that businesses are not completely shut down and people aren’t disconnected. For many organizations like Aegon, the strides in technology and digital innovation done over the past few years have been helpful in battling the COVID-19 crisis.
Rath shares how digital innovation is now at the core of the business and people strategies to thrive in the present and the future of work.
How has the current global health crisis impacted your business priorities and people strategies?
Owing to this global health crisis, our ways of working, collaborating, commuting and many other aspects that involve in-person interaction have changed dramatically over the last few months. Globally, people are in search of services with minimal in-person interaction. This has placed organizations like us in a unique position to leverage our strengths in digital insurance solutions and serve far more people than ever before.
We have transformed our business expeditiously to augment our focus on the digital channel with renewed vigour and aligned our business processes, manpower, infrastructure, and resources accordingly. We intend to capitalise on our early mover advantage and be the leader in the digital insurance business. We are proud to say that we also offer COVID-19 hospital cover as part of life insurance.
In this journey in the uncharted territory, people remain our key assets and attracting/retaining/motivating the right people with an innovative approach to work is critical to our success. Therefore, we have broken out of the industry practice to go ahead with our annual increments, bonuses as well as promotions while many organizations have resorted to pay cuts and retrenchments. We are also actively recruiting, upskilling our people with an aim to enable them to build a digitally-enabled organization. Besides, cognizant that every aspect of the work relationship now needs to be sensitive to the work from anywhere (‘WFA’) concept, we have made significant efforts to address this change.
To facilitate work-life-balance in a situation where the concept of “working hours'' has blurred, we have introduced the concept of “Core Hours”.
All managers and teams are encouraged to plan e-meetings and con-calls during these hours so that employees can arrange/use the balance day-time as per their family/home situation, while keeping the overall daily working hours in mind. We have also initiated multiple initiatives to stay connected with our employees and their families virtually through town halls, formal/informal get-togethers and celebratory video calls to congratulate the employees who got promoted.
We, from HR, have also connected with each and every employee to engage and to understand their concerns/ difficulties and to tweak our processes/ policies to help them overcome the same.
What are some of the key people challenges you face right now and how are you dealing with them?
Our people's demographics are varied and diverse. Many of the challenges that have emerged are related to the life-stage they are in. For those in the early stages of their career and staying away from home/ family, it has been disconcerting to not have the familiarity of the ‘office community’ to relate to everyday. They have had to re-adjust their life schedule to factor in basics that were taken care of by their work environment – such as meals during the day from an office cafeteria.
For those at a later stage in their career and life, systems which were in place for homes to run and children/parents to be taken care of have fallen apart, especially with the sudden non-availability of support systems (house-help, day-care, home nursing, and medical care, schooling/ coaching, etc.).
Our “Core Hours'' policy aims to offer a flexi-time WFA thus allowing people to arrange the work hours as per their personal/home/ family convenience. “Emotional wellbeing” is another challenge we are addressing through people connect initiatives specifically designed to cater to the post-pandemic environment. We have been encouraging frequent ‘manager connect’ engagement sessions, online quiz, dance/ song/ yoga programs, etc. and conducting surveys from time to time to ensure all our employees can work at their optimal best, without compromising on family time.
Through our email communication to employees, we asked them not to be apologetic for the surroundings and disturbance during the meetings and official calls. We encouraged them to attend to their toddlers, elderly when in need, even between work/calls.
What new technologies have you incorporated in the recent three months to operate in the new reality of work?
More than having to incorporate new technology, we realized that we already have quite a bit of technology preparedness to deal with new ways of working. For instance, the wide-spread use of online collaboration tools such as MS Teams has been a discovery by itself – we have had it for some time but never felt the need to use it as extensively as we do now. We are realizing each day that certain aspects of work can be done better through these tools, whether you work from office or home or anywhere. Most of these tools and the way we work with them are here to stay.
Currently, we have almost 95 percent of our employees fully enabled to work from home.
Which of the HR processes has seen more digitization in recent months?
Many of our people's processes were already digitized. However, online processes such as performance reviews which had the element of physical / face-to-face meetings, are now effectively done over video calls. We have also successfully adopted “virtual on-boarding”, enabling the new employees to be fully operational to work from any location, without a single walk-in to a physical office or meeting anyone in face2face in a physical environment! Also, hosting of celebratory events and training/workshops/meetings is completely digitized.
Are you looking to further accelerate digital innovation as you now operate in a more virtual/physical hybrid work environment? Share your plans.
Yes, of course! Digital innovation is at the core of what we do. We have been at the forefront of digitally enabled products, sales, customer service, operations, and anything you name it in the life-insurance space. While our vision seemed futuristic only a few months ago, our research, preparation and readiness for the digital business experience stands us in good stead now. We possibly have the widest range of digital-ready life-insurance products. We have pioneered digitally enabled products and have accelerated our plans to serve the emerging need for products with minimal people interface. Our teams are constantly focused on innovation around products, technology & innovation.
Specifically, in the work environment, we have embarked on a journey where we want to make “working from anywhere” a part of our way of life.
Therefore, we will continue to accelerate our digital innovations to make this vision a reality, sooner than later.
Lastly, how are you dealing with this crisis? What are some personal challenges you think leaders often face in these tough times? How are you ensuring that you keep calm, sail through, and help others also in these tough times? Share your tips.
We have been hit by a storm and all of us are trying to find our feet in this unprecedented situation. However, it is important for us as leaders to understand that while it is the same storm, each of us are sailing in a different boat. Accordingly, we may be facing different challenges and learning and processing them differently.
I keep assuring myself that as bad as it may be, this storm will soon pass, and the fun days will be back again, and this challenge has also brought in several opportunities along. This optimism along with some self-discipline and a good dose of planning has helped me to cope with the situation, I have also managed to take out some time to focus on my long-lost hobby of singing. The leadership team that I work with and my family too, have been very supportive.
As leaders, we are always in a unique position as we are called upon to balance growth as well as business needs with employee morale. We need to be conscious of what we’d like to change and should be able to make and maintain that change.In these difficult times, it always helps to start with ensuring your own wellbeing – both physical as well as emotional.
Be empathetic to yourself while setting goals or solving business problems as these are times for accomplishing balance in all our endeavors.
Be an optimist, reach out to your team, family and friends and be empathetic to them. Understand the workspace constraints, acknowledge diversity, stay connected and promote wellbeing. Give Hope and Spread positivity!