We have enhanced our IT infrastructure to accommodate the WFH mode of working: Girish Nayak, ICICI Lombard General Insurance

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In a physical intensive industry like insurance, the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the adoption of digital for customers and partners alike. While customers adapted to digital means of being serviced, organizations like ICICI Lombard General Insurance have strived to adopt digital not only for customers and partners but also for employees, explains Girish Nayak, Chief- Service, Operations, Technology at ICICI Lombard General Insurance, in a detailed interview

Some edited excerpts:

What is your vision for HR in ICICI Lombard for the coming, and seemingly volatile, year? How are you integrating HR technology into your vision?

The Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event that has taken the world completely by surprise. While it has severely impacted economic activity and put tremendous pressure on healthcare and national resources, it has also presented organizations with an opportunity to relook at their operating model and in many ways define new ways of working. In a physical intensive industry like insurance, it has accelerated the adoption of digital for customers and partners alike. While customers adapted to digital means of being serviced, organizations like ours took a closer look at how we can adopt digital not only for our customers and partners but also for our employees.

This gave us an opportunity to first introspect and secondly redefine our ways of working. HR continues to play a vital role in this new normal as it looks at adoption of technology to help in unique ways of recruiting and developing talent, innovative ways of enhancing employee experience and enabling a new flexible working environment that helps it to achieve organizational performance. Employee engagement and motivation continue to be very critical, however, physical and mental well-being of employees carries utmost importance today.

Technology continues to play a major role in enabling organizations to adopt new ways of working. During the initial lockdown period, the role of technology was to provide employees the IT infrastructure to help them work remotely and discharge their duties in a WFH environment. In this remote working environment, enabling communication channels and collaboration using technological tools became extremely important. Similarly, digital learning tools and access to digital libraries helped in enhancing the learning experience for our workforce. During the intervening period when offices were open before the second wave, digital tools helped in health declarations and in hot-desking enabled for social distancing.

As an organization, we continue to lay a lot of emphasis on people and on processes. Our aim continues to be to make the complete employee experience from hiring to learning and development of talent to performance management and softer aspects of communication and collaboration across the organization as seamless as possible. A lot of our investments in technology prior to the pandemic have helped us significantly during this time.

Could you talk about how you chose the HR technology partner for fulfilling your vision? How did you ensure successful adaptation of the same?

Having a robust HR technology partner to help develop innovative solutions is critical for a resource-rich organization like ours. Since the last few years, our objective and focus as an organization has been to move our applications and services to the Cloud. Obviously, this journey has been happening in stages and when we were evaluating an HR technology platform, one of our key decision-making criteria was to evaluate and look for cloud-based solutions. Another key criterion was to ensure that most of the requirements of the organization was met by the system without customization. Our prior HR application was customized to an extent that we were never able to upgrade to a newer version of the software when available.

Post multiple rounds of evaluation, the decision for the movement of all our HR systems to the cloud was done. Immediately, the technology team and the HR team drafted a phase wise module wise plan with the system integrator for deployment. There were regular steering committee meetings where leadership and the project teams would meet and discuss issues that were there in the implementation process and take whatever decisions were required for a smooth transition. The entire project to completely transition from an on premise legacy platform to a modern cloud based SaaS solution was completed in a record time of less than 8 months.

We moved to a cloud-based SaaS platform. Everything from employee onboarding, salary, to performance appraisals is all done on this platforms. Since this is cloud-based, it can be accessed from anywhere. We have also deployed learning solutions on the cloud as well. The fact that employees today expect at least the same level of digital servicing that they experience as customers really helped in quick adoption of these digital solutions.

How are you integrating HR technology to keep employee experience at the center? How has the approach to employee experience changed given the recent pandemic situation? How are you utilizing the existing tech infrastructure to support your employees in the present situation?

We all know that technology plays a major role in everyone’s life today be it through the e-commerce players or even the local grocery and stationery vendors fulfilling orders using Whatsapp. Consumer expectations have clearly evolved driven by the increased smartphone penetration in the country. Employees today have similar, if not more, expectations from their organizations. This makes it extremely important for organizations to have the employee experience at the center of the HR experience platform. Prior to the pandemic, we moved to a cloud-based HR technology platform that helped in taking care of the complete employee experience from hiring, onboarding, learning & development, performance, career management right through the time they exit the company. During this time, we also created an employee specific mobile app that helped employees with a completely digital experience of various options including a wallet-based payment for food at the cafeteria, for booking meeting rooms and for inviting visitors or for hitching a ride with a colleague.

Obviously, the pandemic created newer needs that needed to be fulfilled. We had to enhance IT infrastructure to accommodate the WFH mode of working. Communication and collaboration using digital means became the need of the hour. We are proud to say that during the pandemic, we were able to design new programs for collaboration in the hybrid working environment, leadership connect sessions for communication and having that connect, helping employee with internet connections and ergonomic furniture and taking care of their physical and mental well-being through various programs and availability of dedicated programs. For the limited set of people that were coming to the office, the mobile app was enhanced to include employee health declarations and hotdesking that helped employees in using workstations that were redesigned basis social distancing norms.

We continue to build peripheral solutions around the core HR platform, our ReachMe AI Bot is an example, and this is a natural language processing enabled Bot on our collaboration platform MS Teams. This Bot is integrated with our core HR platform to help address employee queries and problems. We continue to build many such solutions around the core HR platform to help personalize the employee experience. At the end of it, collecting feedback and data around employee experiences and their sentiments is helping us in designing new solutions that meet the ever-changing needs of the dynamic workplace.

What are the different HR tech/ workplace technology initiatives that have been introduced to continue fluidity and flexibility in employees’ day-to-day activities?

As an organization, it is extremely important for us to be nimble and to understand the ever-changing needs of the workplace. During the pandemic, the needs were completely different. If we roll back the clock and look back at the previous year, there have been multiple HR tech initiatives that were introduced. While we had moved most of our HR applications to the new cloud platform prior to the pandemic, there kept arising other needs that required to be fulfilled. At the outset of the pandemic, the technology team had to ensure smooth transition to a WFH environment including assigning laptops to those who did not have them, enabling applications on mobile and laptops through VPN or cloud proxy. This was essential to allow employees to discharge their duties in a WFH environment. We leveraged the Microsoft Office 365 platform to enable Teams that helped in communication, audio and video conferencing as well as collaboration. Over time, we also started using Teams features to help us enhance asynchronous communication and decision making.

One of the key ingredients for successful organizations is the continued learning and development of employees. V-konnect, our online video platform served as an important tool for employees for learning. This tool in addition to having learning videos and content also covered live webinars by leaders, trainers, and subject matter experts. We also launched a digital library in October 2020 that consisted of an online database offering full text coverage of e-books, Business magazines, journals, and trade publications.

Another important aspect that we introduced this year was our flexi-able initiative. Under this initiative, employees were offered options for working from office, working remotely or to follow a hybrid working environment. Similarly, we have started offering, wherever possible, options to work part-time. This gives employees the flexibility to continue working while at the same time take care of their loved ones. We understand that everyone’s needs are different, and we need to give employees the flexibility and choice that helps suit their needs. Several health and well-being initiatives were run this year to ensure the well-being of our employees. Recognition, a core part of our DNA, was done using digital means throughout the year. As most of the employees were confined to their homes due to the pandemic, these digital events also included participation form their family members. This fostered an extend connect with the employee’s family members which was earlier not possible in the completely physical world. New programs of peer and subordinate recognition were introduced digitally. We continue to improve employee experience basis the feedback that we obtain through focus group discussions and frequent digital employee surveys. We are proud to state that our employee engagement scores continued to move up this year and we were Great Places to Work certified for the third year in a row.

How has your approach to employee journey changed with the onset of the new normal?

The virtual working environment brought with it changes not only in the way we carry out business but also in the way we communicate, collaborate, and deliver as an organization. New ways of working emerged, and our cross-functional team of senior leaders have worked very closely in tandem with the HR Team and the Technology team to create solutions that helped in handling the new normal.

Asynchronous ways of communication and a hybrid working model has now become the way of life for us at ICICI Lombard. New ways of working also brought in new methods of connecting and communication with the organization. Programs such as leader connects were launched for the broader organization to be connected to leaders and to make sure communication lines were widened. Pre-reads before meetings meant that meeting time was well spent on focused discussion and decision making rather than getting everyone on the same page regarding the issue to be discussed. IL social – a platform was created for informal socializing that helped in conducting digital water cooler conversations. Hobby groups were created by employees for employees and generated lot of enthusiasm in the organization. Employees having similar hobbies such as reading, music, health and fitness were a few of the most popular groups.

A lot of the above initiatives were created due to the continuous feedback obtained through regular employee surveys and focus group discussions. Technology played a key role in rolling out these initiatives as well as collecting feedback on the same. In addition to our semi-annual rewards for performance, an instant recognition platform “Champs” was created to recognize peers and subordinates. This was done through the Microsoft Teams and Kaizala platforms available both as an app as well as through the web. Over time, there are very powerful real-life stories that got captured through these initiatives and some of these were narrated through our own radio IL 24.5 “Vade Nibhate raho”. The stories that are described here epitomize the spirit of the organization, are published to inspire and motivate others. 1500+ nominations have been received in the last 6 months itself from peers, cross functional teams.

Employee data security is a core aspect of HR technology. Has the remote working situation impacted this aspect? How have you overcome the challenges?

The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that we needed to ensure that our workforce was enabled to work remotely and was able to support customers and stakeholders with minimal business interruption. One of the key things that we did even before the virus started spreading and lockdowns were imposed was to move half of our employees to start supporting business from home and we had further ramped it up in accordance with both state and national government directives. The technology teams worked round the clock to enable the larger workforce to be able to work-from-home and to support our customers and business partners in this moment of crisis. Our various teams continued to help customers in their time of need through phone, email, and chat platforms.

As more and more organizations have enabled WFH, we all know that the concept of risk has now been completely redefined. As an organization, we had established comprehensive policies and guidelines in place to ensure a secure computing environment. To transition to a WFH environment we added significant software controls on applications as well as endpoints to ensure security of the company data. We have a strong information security team that monitors these controls on a regular basis to ensure compliance. As a part of the WFH policy, there were guidelines that teams and managers follow for both tracking and monitoring productivity of employees. Similarly, the very first thing that we did as an organization was to roll out a comprehensive Work from Home (WFH) policy. The policy was created to ensure that employees were enabled to work from home and be able to fulfil their work commitments, stay connected with their managers, their teams, and the broader organization. As a part of the policy, there were guidelines on how to handle confidentiality of data and work, safety and security of personal computers and access to specific applications using VPN or cloud proxy. We continue to focus our IT spending in terms of improvement of seamless and secure remote operational capabilities.

The last year had been very challenging and now we are seeing a similar situation of extended WFH arising from our environment. What are the initiatives being implemented in ICICI Lombard for the wellbeing of the employees?

The last year has been extremely tough for everyone and we are seeing that this wave of the pandemic is even more challenging. The health and safety of our employees and their loved ones continues to be of utmost priority to us. As an organization, we had already seen benefits of WFH and had moved to a hybrid working concept for the long term. The employees were given a choice on whether they wanted to work from home completely or partly or come to office. In fact, we also saw a portion of the employees choosing to work long term from their hometown which was different from the workplace city. The current wave of infections obviously meant that most employees are back to WFH like what we had a year ago.

Since the pandemic blurred lines between personal and professional lives, employee wellness formed one of the top priorities for us at ICICI Lombard. The organization over the last many years deployed a bouquet of employee wellness initiatives to help employees in their physical & psychological well-being. In the past, we already had a bouquet of health and wellness initiatives including annual health check-ups and health risk assessments, obtaining tailored advice, giving employees flexibility to choose additional medical insurance covers, help in emergency ambulance services. We also created and activated an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) helpline and encouraged the adoption of ILTakeCare app for our employees.

During the pandemic, in addition to these services, the organization arranged expert talks & sessions on topics related to physical and mental health and fitness with regular awareness communication on the same. We also added a counselling hotline 24*7 where employees had free access to expert psychologists to cope better with various stressors (professional and personal). We were able to design during this period a ‘Wellness Fest’ where experts from different fields conducted virtual interactive sessions on topics varying from COVID safety, Pilates, Eye care, Ergonomics, Time management, coping with change, baking sessions, yoga, diet to boost immunity etc.

Feedback on each of these sessions was very positive and new sessions were requested. In fact, feedback from focus group discussions was instrumental in creating our guidelines on flexible working. Since everyone was getting overwhelmed with meetings, we incorporated a silent hour from 2 pm – 3 pm when no meetings were to be scheduled. Similarly, guidelines were rolled out to ensure that no meetings were conducted prior to 9 am and post 7 pm or on weekends and holidays. As mentioned earlier, IL Social and hobby groups were a big hit with employees and help employees connect people having similar interests.

With the uncertain situations and seemingly extended lockdown, how are you ensuring that employee burnout is kept at bay? Will integrating innovative technologies help in this regard?

Again, the health and safety of each of our employees and loved ones continues to be top priority for us. Over the past one year, we have realized that employees need to be given the flexibility to take care of themselves and their families. Our flexi-able initiative gives employees the choice of working from the location of their choice.

We also know that at times like these, communication and making sure that the organization is well connected becomes extremely important. We have a centralized quarantine assessment committee that helps to monitor and guide employees and their families that have reported positive for covid-19. During these times and the whole of last year, leaders have been in constant touch with their teams. Initiatives like Leader Connect have helped bridge the connect between senior leaders and their teams. This is an important initiative for teams that are big and spread across the country.

As mentioned before, as a part of our flexi-able initiatives, we have made sure that meetings are conducted only between working hours with an hour everyday dedicated to no meetings. This was an outcome of our focus group discussions. We continue to hold virtual interactive sessions for helping everyone to take care of their health. “Frontiers” – our semi-annual recognition of employee performance continues in virtual mode. “I-Utsav” our monthly celebration with employees also continues in virtual mode. IL Social has made sure that teams conduct fun and games in addition to normal meetings.

Technology has played an important role in putting all this together and making sure that employees have the same experience in a digital world be it in terms of recruitment, learning and development of talent, performance management or formal and informal communication. Ultimately the role of each of these technology solutions was to not only help drive employee resilience in times like this but also to enhance the employee experience.

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CIOGirish nayakICICI Lombard General Insurance
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