From the very outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis, Aviva took the decision to remove as much uncertainty as possible for its 29,600 people working around the globe. It is perhaps not surprising because, until the insurance giant recently launched an updated version, its corporate purpose had been to Defy Uncertainty.
As Andy Payne, creative solutions lead, puts it: ‘We said Let’s not let Aviva, certainly for our people, be the reason for anyone’s confusion. Let’s make sure that we are really clear on our position in terms of what does this mean for you and what you need to do.’ He adds: ‘We made the decision early on that, as soon as there was any kind of government guidelines or anything like that, we would communicate that out to all our people so that they knew where they stood. And, from a comms perspective, we were also there to communicate the directives coming from within the leadership team.’
John Bernard, director of group corporate security and operational resilience, who was leading Aviva’s response to the crisis was keen to ‘show an abundance of caution’. His approach was backed by Aviva’s executive committee. ‘Care More is one of our values and it’s probably the one that you could point to most within the business,’ says Payne. ‘There was, there is, a palpable sense within Aviva that we wanted to show we were [are] thinking about our people. This was a very human-to-human reaction. We could see that our people were nervous. We knew people were nervous, not least because we were feeling it ourselves as a comms team. We were watching the 5pm Boris briefings with a degree of What does this mean for us?’'
Aviva has ‘always had good networks within the business’, such as Yammer, which provided some insights into the areas about which people were particularly concerned or nervous, such as potential school closures, childcare issues or working from home.
‘It was a challenging, few weeks. If anything, we went early. We also wanted people to feel they could make their own decisions, so we were not telling them they had to [work in the office] if they preferred to start working from home or didn’t feel comfortable coming in.’
The comms team created a dedicated Covid-19 page on Aviva’s SharePoint and launched a hotline, so that people could call or email with their questions.
But mindful that most people prefer to see things written down in black and white, the team created a Frequently Asked Questions section, which was updated daily. ‘Inevitably something would come out of the woodwork, and we’d get asked a question and say Oh yeah, volunteering. What do we do about volunteering? And very quickly, we would make a decision on a Group view or certainly a UK view, and, if necessary, a Wales and Scotland view, and put it in writing for our people,’ says Payne. ‘It was very much driven by the sense that our people will feel reassured if they have got information and know what they need to do. But equally, it [also demonstrates] that the business has got their backs. We are thinking about them.
'We are prioritising our colleagues’ needs and their health and wellbeing alongside those of our customers. Those were the two main things: look after our people so that they can look after our customers.’
He adds: ‘In those first few weeks, it was about survival. It was about understanding what was happening, to try to process and package that and get it out in front of people. It was relentless. It was about making sure that everybody knew what they needed to do, but you couldn’t step back to think too broadly about the long game. It was a few weeks before you were able to make more conscious, strategic decisions to do things in a certain way.’
In common with most businesses, Aviva had to enable its entire organisation to work from home – with the enormous challenge that poses to its IT infrastructure and telephony – while making sure there was no break in service. More than 3,000 laptops and 2,500 headsets were built and distributed within four weeks.
‘Working from home has been challenging from an engagement point of view because I would argue that members of a team value being in a team and in the same environment. Call centres are quite a dynamic environment where, if there’s a customer query or you’re dealing with a difficult call, you have the ability to turn to others around you or to say Can I just put you on hold? while you talk to your team leader,’ explains Payne.
‘We had to make sure that the team leaders were given guidance on how to check in with their colleagues, and that they felt supported. But interestingly, we found that [the situation created] a connection between our colleagues and the customers. If our customers heard a dog barking in the background, say, it brought them to the same level. It helped to break down barriers from a relationship perspective.’ Indeed, Aviva’s customer satisfaction levels went up during the period. ‘From a comms perspective, I was really grateful that people felt they had the support and the information they needed and the network around them to just get on with doing things that needed to be done.’
The comms team created interactive PDF guides on leading remotely, setting up home offices, working remotely and, importantly, working securely. And they also wrote, edited and starred in a short, light-hearted film on how to lead remotely. ‘We did think about doing it in a really dry Call them twice a day sort of way, but who is going to watch that? The film didn’t take itself too seriously,’ says Payne. Such was its success, with more than 3,000 views, that a series of ‘film’ guides are in the offing.
Payne believes that Aviva’s response to its people during the pandemic has truly embodied its new corporate purpose – With you today for a better tomorrow. ‘When I look at the decisions that were made, and the support that was given, it was about going that extra mile and doing the right things. There was a sense that we want to be a good corporate citizen and to play a positive role at a difficult time. 'I remember the Exco asking people for good ideas. They said If you think we should be doing something, tell us because we won’t necessarily have all the answers.’ he says. ‘They were always asking the question: What else? What else do people need? And, for the most part, if people asked for it, they would say Yeah, get on with it.’
And that’s how Aviva’s chief financial officer Jason Windsor came to run a series of maths lessons for his colleagues’ children. The first 30-minute lesson, when he was assisted by colleagues Lorraine Brown, an actuarial analyst, and internal comms team member Pete Marshall, took place over Teams and explained fractions through baking. It was attended by 98 people, while a further 184 downloaded the supporting packs and almost 3,000 people viewed the video. ‘There already was a home-schooling group on Yammer, which was massively popular, where people would share lesson plans [or highlight resources they had found],’ explains Payne. ‘We have used Yammer a lot to get our people to engage directly in chats with members of our senior team. We have done everything from industrial relations to the share price all the way to data security.’
The leadership team also appeared on a weekly live video show #Uncut when they responded to colleagues’ questions. (When there was not enough time to answer live, these were provided as follow-up Frequently Asked Questions.) They also trusted the counsel of the communications team, which led to a strong working partnership. Similarly, the comms team learned to trust instincts and work fast, which led to less polished but more authentic communications from their leadership, such as a low budget film, pulled together at short notice in the early days of the first lockdown, where each member of the executive committee sent messages of support and appreciation to their colleagues.
They also took part in an entirely new weekly radio show. (Almost 4,500 people tuned into the first four shows, requesting more 200 songs and making 400 ‘shout outs’ to colleagues.) Some members of the management team also participated in Aviva’s new Buddy programme, an optional scheme to match people with colleagues from around the business, to help them combat feelings of isolation. he scheme matched ‘work buddies’ at random, regardless of grade, location or team, and recommended they chatted at least once a week for 30 minutes. As the promotional material said: ‘We’re trying something new, so we’d love to know how it goes.’ In the event, 80 per cent of those offering feedback valued the buddy scheme.
Payne adds: ‘It’s a real testament to the organisation that, when it’s got its bit between the teeth and has that sort of mandate, decisions were made quickly. We got out of our own way. We can really be agile, move quickly and get things done. And now with our new chief executive, Amanda Blanc, it is helpful. She points to the fact that we cannot make use the excuse that we can’t be that organisation, because we can. Look at what we’ve shown this year in how we’ve responded.’
The arrival of a new chief executive inevitably brings a wave of uncertainty to any organisation, but the arrival of a new chief executive during a national lockdown presents its own challenges. Blanc’s appointment in July 2020 was unexpected and accompanied news of the abrupt departure of her predecessor Maurice Tulloch, after just 15 months in the role, for personal reasons. ‘We had to land our new CEO in such a way that our people would really embrace this change, as opposed to feeling like it’s just another thing to worry about: what is the shape of the business going to look like? What about jobs?' explains Payne. ‘You want to make sure that your new CEO gets off on the right foot, that they don’t feel like they are having to fight a PR battle or wade through treacle or anything like that. That was tricky, but Amanda has got really good candour. She has got real energy and is easy to listen to. People have really bought into her. She has been a tonic for the business at a time when you want to look beyond this tricky period to wonder what a more settled world will look like, and what does Aviva’s role in that settled world look like.’
On the day of her arrival, the comms team organised a takeover banner for Aviva’s intranet homepage with links through to a personal message from its chairman George Culmer, revealing the personnel changes, plus a personal note from Blanc on her excitement and ambition for the role. In keeping with Aviva’s promise to keep its people informed, they received emails about the announcement the second the market heard. Just over a year earlier, Aviva had welcomed Tulloch as chief executive with a Day One film, documenting his first day in the role. Blanc received a similar welcome, joining a livestream programme for employees around the world as well as hosting Teams calls to her leadership team. The welcome events also preceded a 100-day campaign, that allowed Blanc to virtually meet more people and listen to their views on Aviva. The arrival of Blanc has given the business a fresh impetus to look to the future and to feel engaged with that.
‘We’ve worked hard to make sure that, even in these tough times, Aviva is a strong business. It is a resilient business. We are not immune to the market challenges that everybody is facing, but we are a strong business. We are a good business. But we have to balance the realism of a difficult time, when people feel genuinely quite exhausted because of the sheer weight of the world and the work they are doing. We try to paint a picture of positivity and get people thinking further ahead – we’re a business with big, growth ambitions – because I think, in the main part, people really enjoy working for Aviva,’ he adds. ‘We’ve tried to keep storytelling at the front of all that we have done.’
It is an ongoing process. The virus has not gone away, and with lockdowns occurring during the darker days of winter, the comms team recently republished all the wellbeing pages on its Covid-19 site to remind people of the resources available.
‘I don’t want to undersell the fact that the organisation has worked very hard to keep our people feeling connected and supported, and we continue with that,’ concludes Payne. ‘I think people feel that they’re being listened to, and that the business is trying its best to build its future around their needs.’