Engaging Employees – During Pandemics and Other Crises

Companies around the world are facing one of the biggest crises of the century. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, it presents new challenges for business leaders to navigate. Creative communication becomes essential to maintaining company morale and engaging shareholders and clients.

“This is a classic time when you’ve got to really step back and say, ‘Where can I add the most value during this period of immense challenge for our people?’” says Matt Harris, group head of international operations.

Listen to the podcast to see how flexibility and clear communication translate to success during this challenging time.

Gordon Bass: So Matt Harris is group head of international operations. What is your key leadership responsibility at Argo Group?

My responsibilities extend to the delivery of our target business goals across the international operations for the company. And those businesses include our Syndicate 1200 insurance business, which is part of the Lloyd’s platform, which is primarily based in London. We have a Bermuda insurance operation, which focuses on casualty professional lines and property insurance. We have a couple of legal entities in Europe. We have one based in Malta, and we have one based in Italy. We also have people in Dubai who are effectively part of a servicing company that issues policies and supports customers on behalf of our Syndicate 1200 operation in London.

Gordon Bass: Okay. So Argo Group, like every other company in the world, is managing through one of the biggest crises of our generation. And as this pandemic unfolds, what do leaders have to focus on first and foremost?

I think this is a classic time when you know – certainly as a leader of an overall business unit – you’ve got to really step back and say, “Okay, where can I add the most value during this period of immense challenge for our people?” And I think in our business, we have several senior underwriting folks, we have claims leaders, we have people that are really into the weeds of trying to understand just how this pandemic is going to impact us in terms of the claims outcomes that we’re ultimately going to have to pay, but also what it means for future underwriting endeavors across the business. So we have quite a lot of people that are focused on that.

And I try and make sure, as the leader of the International business, that I’m staying across all of those major developments, but trying to get out of the way and make sure that I can focus more on engaging our people, making sure that we’ve got good solid and informative communication initiatives underway. And also making sure that we’re finding creative ways to reach out to our external audience. Again, the nature of our business is such that it’s very personal relationship driven, and clearly when you cannot sit down face to face and engage with a broker, for example, you’ve got to find creative ways to do that. And it’s not always as simple as just picking up the phone. People are – the reality is – having an immense number of phone calls on a daily basis. So it’s about coming up with fresh topics and relevant ideas in order to be able to engage with people.

Gordon Bass: What do you find the most challenging, both as a leader and for Argo as a company right now?

There’s a couple of things. I mean first of all on the business side, it’s challenging really to get a read on what the financial implications are likely to be as a consequence of the pandemic. And the main reason for that is because we don’t know – it’s not like it’s something that’s got a clearly defined end period. So there’s obviously considerable uncertainty. Obviously we’re aware of the sorts of exposures that we have across our different portfolios. But the reality is that we don’t yet know what this event is going to ultimately cost us and, of course, the rest of the industry. So that poses a challenge when you have a constant barrage of interested parties, whether they are board directors or whether they are shareholders or whether they’re our own people, who have a thirst for the information that we really can’t quantify it at this point in time.

So I think the other part that’s a challenge at this point in time for us is to keep our people motivated and engaged. I think, there is so much information coming through the media ¬– I think we all know that. It can be quite depressing if you just remain glued to news outlets every day. But again, our people, I think quite fairly, expect someone in my role to be able to interpret what a lot of these external discussions – whether it be when we return to work or whether it be some of the stories they’re hearing about economic implications – they expect me to be able to translate that into, What does it mean for us in our business and what does it mean for me as an employee?

So I try and spend a lot of time watching the media and making sure that I can interpret things that are happening in a way that I can then communicate to our people so they understand what it means for us, because I like to try and make sure that I’m answering questions almost before people start to think of them. If that can kind of make sense.

Gordon Bass: It does. Because you just got to my next question before I could ask it, which is what employees most need from leadership in terms of action and communication. I think that that clear sense that you have your finger on the pulse of things is really important. What else are employees looking for from leadership at a time like this?

I think above anything else they’re looking for empathy. And it sounds cliché, but at a time like this the reality is that no two people really have the same circumstances. For example, I’ve been ¬– outside of the regular communication I have with my own executive team and I’m part of the group executive, so there’s regular dialogue there, and we have incident management council’s meeting every couple of days – but I’ve tried to reach out directly to as many people as I can across the international business. I think I’m up to calling and talking to about 120 people at the moment over the past couple of weeks. And you know, the conversation really is about me checking in to make sure that first and foremost they’re healthy and well. Secondly, to make sure that they have all of the infrastructure, particularly around the IT piece, working effectively so that they can undertake their job.

And then the third point is – I guess a little bit more subtly – but just making sure people are clear around their immediate goals and what’s expected of them. ’Cause I think what we’ve experienced, as I’m sure many companies have, is that first two weeks, the realistic focus people have is making sure that they can – you know, their IT can work. And then secondly, that they can adapt and get their daily kind of pattern together. But then from me, you’ve got to move into that genuine business as usual mode pretty quickly. Because again, in our industry it’s all about taking care of our customers in times of need. And there’s no greater time of need for many of our customers, or there hasn’t been, like now.

So again, I think it’s about, you know, are people wanting to hear from leaders, they want to hear empathy. And I’ve found it quite interesting that in many of the conversations that I’ve had with people, you get very different preferences, or views, coming through about how they feel about working from home. I mean a lot of people are really struggling with it because some people like routine, they like interaction face to face within a team situation. Other people that arguably are more introverted tend to relish the situation that we’re in now. So I think it’s about respecting that people have different work preferences. But at the end of the day, whether someone wants to really embrace where we’re at now or someone wants to just sort of wait for the day where we get back to the office, it’s really important to find a way to encourage people to focus on their deliverables.

Gordon Bass: So we’re talking a little bit about that there’s the practical aspects of working from home. There’s also the aspect that a lot of people have been directly affected by Coronavirus. How does leadership affect that, or address that, the really sort of the personal and close-to-home aspect?

Yeah, I think again it comes back to the point around empathy that I was saying before. Obviously, I mean again, throughout those phone calls that I’ve made, we’ve had people that have had extended family members that have unfortunately lost their lives as a consequence of the virus. So you know, obviously talking to those people with a huge degree of sensitivity is essential, but most importantly to make them feel like the company is going to support them by giving them all the breathing space they need as they kind of deal through all the challenges.

And you know, frankly you hear some pretty sad situations where people – due to all sorts of constraints that some countries are applying – aren’t able to really make the traditional funeral arrangements and things like that. So I think as a leader, if you really engage with your people and hear some of their stories … it is phenomenal just how this situation has challenged us in so many different ways, but I would strongly encourage our leaders to take the time to call and talk to as many people as they can, because I know ultimately those calls are really appreciated from our people.

Gordon Bass: When you look back on this a year from now, what will you have learned? What is the biggest takeaway from this?

I think our ability to really work more flexibly successfully is a definite takeaway. I think most companies like ours, you know, we all had our best-laid business continuity plans around these sorts of events happening. But certainly, I don’t think many of us contemplated putting them to the test like we are currently. But I think it’s proven that our organization at least can very successfully have large numbers of people – in the current climate, that’s all of us – but you know, large numbers of people working remotely. So I do think that if we’re 12, 18 months down the line, it is going to start to reshape the thinking of organizations in terms of how they think about corporate real estate, how they think about rostering teams. Because the reality is, gone are the days where we need to have everyone anchored to their chair from 9:00 to 5:00 Monday to Friday.

Gordon Bass: It’s going to be a really interesting new world. Matt, thanks so much for all this insight, and stay safe and stay well.

Yeah. Thank you. Hopefully it was helpful.

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