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‘Back to office’ strategies of APAC insurers

Asian Insurance Review journalist Ranamita Chakraborty interviews MD Ian Pollard on Delta’s ‘back to office’ strategies in light of the second wave of Covid-19.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, insurers were grappling with ensuring their digital operations ran smoothly. Now, as containment measures have eased, they are devising ‘back to office’ strategies keeping in mind the risk of a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Two insurers operating in the APAC region give us their take on this pressing issue.

With the easing of COVID-19 containment measures across Asia Pacific, companies from the insurance industry are looking forward to bringing their staff members back to physical offices in a safe manner while a large majority of them continue to work from home.

However, the ‘back to office’ situation for companies differs from country to country based on COVID-19 infection rates and national containment measures – as seen in the case of Delta Insurance Group which has offices in New Zealand and Singapore. The insurer’s employees in New Zealand have the option of working from home or from the office and currently around 90% of the time they are working from the office. Meanwhile in Singapore, staff are still largely working from home.

Managing director and chairman Ian Pollard notes that both countries are at slightly different stages of the pandemic. According to him, Singapore is probably a few weeks behind New Zealand having contained but not eliminated the threat in the community. “It is an important part of our culture to be together at the office both for work and social occasions but our people have enjoyed working from home and in future we will be providing for a mixture of both,” he said.

On the other hand, Malaysia-based AXA AFFIN Life Insurance has put in place a ‘return-to-office’ approach whereby only 25%-30% of its employees return to office each week. Its CEO Rohit Nambiar said that this arrangement will be revisited every two weeks to ensure the firm maintains a flexible approach to adapt to the evolving COVID-19 situation. “The health and safety of our employees remain our top priority. While the situation in Malaysia is under control and the government has relaxed some rules in what we call now the ‘recovery movement control order’, the battle is far from over,” he said. He also cautioned that the second wave of coronavirus infections has emerged rapidly in several countries that have eased their lockdowns.

A safe working environment

Considering the importance of a safe workplace environment, Mr Nambiar noted that AXA AFFIN has standard operating procedures in place at its office premises and branches. While the insurer has carried out sanitation procedures at its office a couple of times as a precautionary measure, it has reminded employees to practise social responsibility by observing good personal hygiene, monitoring their own health conditions and staying at home to rest if unwell. At the same time, it also adopted safe-distancing measures and limited the number of physical attendees for its meetings with most dialling-in via teleconferencing tools. Most of its internal and external company events are now conducted virtually with no visitors being allowed in office premises for the time being. To reduce physical interactions at its branches, the insurer has strongly encouraged customers to opt for the self-service option through its customer portal or contact customer service via its hotline, customer service email, chatbot or a virtual assistant.

Meanwhile, Delta Insurance is said to have adhered strictly to the guidelines for health and safety during the pandemic set down by the local governments in Singapore and New Zealand. This includes the use of PPE gear, avoidance of large group gatherings and social distancing. Acknowledging that COVID-19 still a global threat, Mr Pollard said his firm will be formalising the flexibility to work from home should it be necessary and sticking tightly to best practice around staying safe.

Making adjustments to operations

However, Delta Insurance had to make a couple of adjustments in its insurance operations in order to meet the needs of its insureds, brokers and insurance partners during the coronavirus crisis. It extended working hours into the evening and weekends given that face-to-face meetings are not taking place during the pandemic. The insurer also increased its total headcount by nearly 10% across the group and plans to hire more employees during the year.

Similarly, AXA AFFIN launched a non-face-to-face initiative for its agents and financial advisers to approach customers online and introduced ‘AXA Wealth Creator’ online via a Facebook live stream session attended by agents. “Most of our services would be done digitally, including around sales, after-sales service and most notably claims. We have always been prepping our agents and advisers to embrace the change by equipping them with digital tools, knowledge and training,” said Mr Nambiar. He suggested that strategic plans will need to be reassessed and reset under COVID-19 scenarios –including impact to intermediaries and on customer affordability and demand.

At the height of the pandemic, Delta Insurance continued with a variety of thought-leadership events, training and webinars covering topics such as working from home, personal cyber and increased director risk. Recognising the significant success of these initiatives, Mr Pollard said his firm will continue them as it returns to a “semblance of normality” in New Zealand and Singapore.

Boosting wellbeing during a crisis

Apart from ensuring smooth operations and workplace safety for employees, companies have also been urged to support the wellbeing of employees amidst reports of mental health issues cropping up during the pandemic. “We all know that COVID-19 poses challenges to our mental wellbeing. For many, working from home for an extended period was unknown territory especially for those with work-family commitment. In addition, there is another downside of working from home where people in self-isolation could also mean they are unintentionally spending more hours at their desks,” said Mr Nambiar. Therefore, he suggested that firms should study and understand their employees’ demographics and dynamics in order to understand the potential support that is valuable and impactful to the employees.

Considering that 60% of the workforce comprises of millennials, he said that it was crucial to gear its employee engagement initiatives to this segment. AXA AFFIN therefore launched virtual employee assistance programmes providing professional mental health support and telehealth services as well as helping employees with their physical wellbeing.

In Mr Pollard’s case, he felt proud of his New Zealand and Singapore employees for coping and responding well to the pandemic while he acknowledged that his firm was conscious of the lack of social contact during the lockdown period and the impact that might have on mental health and team culture.

“COVID-19 was unquestionably a shock and very stressful for our employees and we moved quickly to enable them to work from home effectively and safely,” he said. To find out how employees were faring, Delta Insurance surveyed the team and had daily team catch-ups to check that everyone was alright with how things were going. The managers also regularly touched base with their team members and fellow managers.

Noting that some people inevitably struggle with working from home, Mr Pollard pointed out that everyone chipped in and supported each other by sharing workloads and keeping tabs on their colleagues.

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