AXA's People Team are facing the next phase of the pandemic

In this interview, we talk with AXA's Group Head of Inclusion, Diversity and Employee Experience: Kirsty Leivers.

Wolff Olins: Here we are, slowly starting to move out of lockdown. From a people perspective, tell us what is going on right now at AXA?

Kirsty: We're in 60 markets and we’re 160,000 people, so there are very different things going on in different countries! But I can speak at a global level and give an overall picture.

An extremely large proportion of our workforce did indeed go straight to working full time from home which is a massive change. And we’ve found that it’s not only been possible, but it's also been reasonably sustainable over a short term. We've been moving towards a more flexible working culture for a few years now, so this has been a positive cultural shift.

There are a minority of people that still do have to come on site, either because they volunteer or are obliged to do so for their job so we do have to be very mindful of this when doing company-wide communication. But those that have been instructed to work from home have reacted, in the most part, very well. We made a commitment globally, to protect employment during the crisis, and of course people appreciate this.

Wolff Olins: What sort of support have you put in place for people?

Kirsty: The first wave of support was really about comms at the broadest level. So making sure that people knew what was going on. And that they got what they needed and also still felt connected to their teams. Quite quickly we moved into thinking about what the new situation means for managers, and how we can best support teams.

It’s also opened the door for us to talk about mental health more, which is something we’ve wanted to do. So we have a weekly global newsletter which always includes an article linked to mental health. It might be about getting enough sleep, the power of exercise, or helping others. It’s not necessarily overtly about mental health, but it is always with that theme. We also have podcasts talking about positive psychology and a whole series on resilience. We have covered anxiety, coping with working from home or working with children. There are also local examples, like running live cookery classes via Teams, or reading books for children, all around the idea of providing support.

“It’s also opened the door for us to talk about mental health more, which is something we’ve wanted to do.”

Most of our employees have access to an employee assistance program. So if they want to talk to somebody about any issues that they might be facing, there's a free confidential number. And as a result of everything that's gone on, we're going to run a mental health campaign. Of course this has been a stressful time, but going back to the office will be another stressful phase and one that we shouldn't underestimate. To a certain extent, we were thrown into the last change, but this will be different but equally as stressful.

I was talking to someone in my team from Paris, and despite the lock down being lifted, she'd still been carrying on as if she was still under lockdown, it takes some time to get used to it. And people could suffer from anxiety when it comes to things like getting back into public transport, being in the office again, or leaving their children with somebody else. For those reasons and many others, our employees will need to be supported. We want to be there for them and will maintain our efforts around mental health.

Wolff Olins: It sounds like supporting your managers first and foremost has been key to helping them in turn support their teams?

Kirsty: Yes. We’ve been doing a lot of work with our managers. Previously it was easier for managers to pass on messages or make announcements, as people were physically in close proximity. But once you put people in a remote working environment, you've lost that by-accident advantage. So we did a lot of work with the managers reminding them that they need to have a regular dialogue with their team. Not necessarily formal, it might just be a coffee break. It wasn't necessarily the natural reflex of all of our managers. But we've certainly put a lot of effort into installing this idea of it being a requirement to have at least two check-ins with your team a week.

It was important to consider that everybody's personal situation is very different and that there were some people who needed more support. For example, people who aren’t in their country of origin, people who live alone, or people with small children. We needed to make sure these people felt listened to, and that we were aware of their situation. We wanted them to know that their role and hours of work could be adjusted.

This means that managers have found themselves having a much closer relationship with their teams and have taken on a more active management style. When you, quite literally, see into someone’s home when you speak to them it changes the dynamic and really puts the human element front and centre.

Three or four weeks ago, we did a global survey where we just asked specifically, questions like ‘is the communication sufficient?’, ‘Do you still feel connected?’ and ‘How do you feel?’. We wanted to gauge a global feeling of how employees are doing.

Wolff Olins: It sounds like the pandemic has accelerated a number of big agendas and culture shifts that you've been working on for a number of years. Are there things that you found really, really tough?

Kirsty: Well what we observed from the survey we took was that - on average - people are pretty happy. I think as a very large company that continues to pay and employ people, people recognise that they are in a good situation so far as they're still being paid and that they are able to continue working in spite of the situation. So there's been generally a very good feeling, I would say from people.

Although the average for our survey was extremely good, like any average, it hides a lot of things. And there are obviously some people who are having a hard time and are finding it hard to be engaged. I think that there are probably two extremes. There are people who are flat out because this is a human crisis after all. But then there are people that may be finding themselves less busy because there's less urgency around their work. And of course that brings its own issues, when you're not quite occupied enough. Otherwise, I would say we've coped with this part very well. I'm more concerned about the next phase

The survey we did was three weeks ago. I wonder how that might change over time. There was the shock of the change and the novelty of working from home the whole time, but all of these things are wearing off now and people are starting to question the idea of going back or indeed for some countries there is still a lack of clarity for the timing of the next phases. So I suspect there could be a flag in the future. I think as the changes sink in and new routines are less exciting, we can expect a bit more of a rocky ride ahead.

“There was the shock of the change and the novelty of working from home the whole time, but all of these things are wearing off now and people are starting to question the idea of going back.”

WO: So looking ahead, are you starting to think about the kind of new tools or policies or investments AXA can make to create a new experience for people? Or do you think it's too soon to be thinking about that sort of thing?

Kirsty: It’s absolutely not too soon to be thinking about it. A powerful lesson that I learnt early on in my career is: when you break something, you get a chance to create change. When you don't break something, it's very hard to make any change.

So with this “break”, we’ve embraced changes like more flexible ways of working, different management styles and opening up a discourse around mental health. The risk now is that we go back to how it was before. And that's definitely not what we want. So we're really trying to make sure that we keep everything positive that has developed in this time. We want to keep the trust and the autonomy that has grown. Even though the move to new ways of working will take time, there are some things we can put in place immediately. We’re still in post-crisis time, but this moment is actually a gift; it’s a moment to make sure every good change is cemented and set to last.

The situation also brings into sharp focus the benefits of technology, the more we leverage platforms and apps to support our employees the better we can provide continuity in any circumstance – maintaining the ability to exchange, increasing internal mobility and taking care of our health and wellbeing are just a few examples.

“We’re still in post-crisis time, but this moment is actually a gift; it’s a moment to make sure every good change is cemented and designed to last.”

Wolff Olins: To what extent have things like your Employer Value Proposition been helping you get through this pandemic? Or has the focus been less on the strategy and more on just doing what’s right for people?

Kirsty: I think this time has given us the chance to reinforce some of these messages and actually roll these ideas out. It’s been great to see some of our values in action. Customer First is a value and we’ve definitely seen this come to life. In terms of integrity, in the crisis mode our managers had to use their values as the compass to act and, in many cases chose to close our offices before governments told us to act – their instinct was to protect our employees. 

Keeping connected when you’re at a distance, means that resonating with our purpose is important. In crisis mode, everybody turns a little bit inwards and focused because you have a lot going on. This means you can lose sight of the bigger picture, which is natural - it’s a protective mechanism. But we’re now starting to bring back the strategic view and the bigger picture. Providing as much clarity as possible and responsibly guiding our teams will mean we stick to our goals and keep focused while doing what’s right for our people.

Wolff Olins: We’re entering a new phase where leaders are starting to think about what the future looks like. Do you have any advice for your HR peers in other organisations?

Kirsty: I think that in a crisis, work is still an important part of people's lives, so we have a responsibility at that point not to abandon our people and to keep them occupied in the right way. So we have to be mindful of their situation and mindful of the pressures and the different lives that they might be leading. But I think keeping a little bit of normality and keeping people occupied is good. Keeping people focused and working is not just good for business, and it's also good for people who feel valued for their unique contribution. But you need to do that in a way that they can manage. So I think you need to keep that front and center.

My advice would probably be do what you were supposed to do before but now, do it better with a change of perspective. Situations like this can expose weaknesses, so if you didn't communicate well before but you still managed, that weakness will now become exposed. So look at what you don't do well, whether it’s proximity, being clear on objectives or communication; grab those weak spots, and do your best to improve them right now. And equally, recognise your good spots and strengths. Make them even better and don’t take anything for granted.