Insurers Adapt to the New Normal of COVID-19 and ‘Social Distancing’

Carriers around the world are reassuring their customers and implementing policies to protect their associates while providing a high level of service and advancing projects in flight.

(Image source: AIG homepage.)

Insurers across the nation and across the world are prioritizing communication to help their customers in the variety of ways they may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also reassuring the public that they are conducting business as usual; to ensure that remains the case, insurers are undertaking a variety of measures, including changing travel policy, encouraging associates to work at home, instituting “social distancing” policies for associates who must work onsite, reinforcing applications and infrastructure to support remote work, and helping internal and external partner teams to remain productive while physically separated.

Charles F. Lowrey, CEO, Prudential Financial.

AIG’s (New York) website messaging exemplifies a common response to the pandemic. “As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, AIG remains focused on protecting the health and safety of our colleagues and those around us, as well as continuing to serve clients, policyholders, business partners and other stakeholders,” says a message reached by a prominent COVID-19-themed illustration on its homepage. Having made the basic point, the statement stresses, “AIG is open for business.”

The message goes on to say, “The company has activated its Business Continuity Plans and colleagues across our General Insurance and Life & Retirement businesses remain available to help meet the needs of clients and other business partners with both in-force and new business. Our call centers also remain accessible to provide support and information.”

Other global insurers broadcast similar messages, often directly from the leadership. A message from Prudential Financial (Newark, N.J.) CEO Charles Lowrey that the company “stands strong and ready to serve its customers,” is followed by click-throughs to articles on relevant subjects, such as how to manage finances in uncertain times, the critical role that employers play in managing the effects of the coronavirus, and the importance of taking a long-term perspective as an investor.

Thomas Buberl CEO AXA Group.

A message from AXA Group (Paris) CEO Thomas Buberl addressed both basic response and the firm’s special resources in a post on LinkedIn: “As insurers, it is our role to care and act for our customers in difficult times,” he writes. “This is what we have been doing in our different markets ever since the beginning of the outbreak, thanks to our distribution network and agents, expertise and support provided by our medical and assistance network, as well as emergency measures such as specific coverage for caregivers or access to telemedicine services. As a long-standing philanthropic funder of scientific research, we have reinforced our partnership with the ‘Institut Pasteur,’ supporting the taskforce set up to accelerate the research on the diagnosis and treatment of the virus. And we will need to be present to help our SME and corporate clients get back on their feet, once the sanitary emergency is under control.”

Keeping the Back Office Working

Across the United States and many other countries, “social distancing” policies have been implemented to lessen the transmission of COVID-19 through the simple expedient of limiting contact between individuals. In many states, governors have forbidden the assembly of more than 50 people for any purpose, schools and universities have been closed, restaurants have been restricted to takeout, and taverns have been closed. Businesses have been encouraged to let their employees work remotely where possible.

Insurers are among businesses who are equipped for remote work and also more sophisticated in general with regard to business continuity measures. Insurers began implementing work-at-home for large numbers of associates without receiving a mandate from government.

For example, last week Nationwide introduced a 50 percent work-from-home staggered schedule for its associates, Todd Lukens, SVP, Chief Information Security Officer tells Insurance Innovation Reporter. “This allowed us to begin implementing social distancing and ensure operational readiness for a broader work-from-home approach,” he elaborates. “On March 18, we had more than 90 percent of our associates working from home.”

Todd Lukens, CISO, Nationwide.

Lukens describes Nationwide (Columbus, Ohio) as well-equipped technologically and operationally, and confident that we the company accomplish the transition to mass remote work without negatively impacting its business and or service to its members. “Our systems and infrastructure can manage the ups and downs of a volatile market or a surge in call volume and systems traffic when customers seek additional service,” he explains. “Because of prudent preparation, we’re ready to serve our members with extraordinary care—from the office and our homes.”

Encova, a Columbus, Ohio-based property/casualty insurer doing business in 28 states and the District of Columbia, has implemented a remote work policy across its entire geographical blueprint, including its five major offices. About 80 percent of the workforce is now working remotely, according to John Kessler, Executive VP and Chief Strategy Officer. “We’ve identified mission-critical roles and responsibilities that require some people to continue to report to their offices, though some locations have been shut down because enough associates could do their jobs remotely,” he reports.

Social Distancing 

Encova is practicing social distancing to the extent possible, Kessler relates. “We’re encouraging all meetings to be either virtual or conference call, eliminating face to face altogether where possible,” he explains. “Where face-to-face meetings unavoidable we ensure that there are only ever a limited number of people in a given location, and they are instructed to observe protocols of social distancing.”

John Kessler, EVP and Chief Strategy Officer, Encova.

In an illustration of the arbitrary disruptiveness of COVID-19, Kessler notes that Encova had recently completed the construction of a state-of-the-art cafeteria. “It was more than just a cafeteria, really—it was designed for people to not only dine but to meet and collaborate,” he says. “We tried to go takeout-only, but over the last two days we had to make the decision to close it completely.”

Encova has altered its travel policy to end international travel and strongly discourage non-essential domestic travel. “We’re also sending a strong message that if you’re among the associates who report to a location, if you’re sick, stay home,” he adds. “We’re also discouraging outside visitors for meetings or any other purpose.

In addition to work-at-home, Encova is exploring ways to maintain a high level of productivity in its development teams. “We have pretty significant projects in flight, and so we’re adapting internally and encouraging our strategic partners to implement similar policies,” Kessler relates. “No contractors are permitted onsite, so we’re working to sustain our partnerships through video and tele conferencing.”

As of Kessler’s conversation with Insurance Innovation Reporter, the insurer was only two days into its new policies. “We have high hopes to minimize impact, but the fact of matter is there’s going to be one,” he acknowledges. “If you don’t have people together in one location they can’t be as responsive as they usually are—they can’t walk across the floor as needed as they would normally do. Certainly, we have technology in place to help them to collaborate under the current constraints, but there will still be an impact.”

Ramping Up a Virtual Environment

Ramping up a virtual environment for Encova’s workers’ compensation operation in Charleston, W.Va. was simply a matter of scaling existing capabilities, according to Tony Laska, Executive VP and CIO. The company’s effort to enable its Columbus headquarters was in progress when the virus struck.

Encova is using the Okta (San Francisco) security framework to enable secure access to applications for remotely working associates. “For the majority of the people that don’t need transactional systems access, that works fine, and those who have it can connect through any browser,” Laska says. “We have about 40 percent of the organization connect through VPN or Citrix [Fort Lauderdale, Fla.].”

Laska estimates that 80 to 85 percent are now able to do their jobs, but there remain challenges for some associates owing to the constraints of legacy systems they use. “We’re accelerating providing solutions so that they can work from home,” he says. “Of course some associates, such as for mail and print, must work on site because they have to use equipment in our facilities. At our data center we’re keeping some staff to run nightly batch processing or in case we need to reboot a server.”

Tony Laska, EVP, CIO, Encova.

Last Friday about three-quarters of Encova’s workforce worked remotely without any significant infrastructure challenges. “We noticed a few spikes in the Charleston data center, but the duration was so brief, nobody seems to have had any issues,” Laska reports. “We had recognized that we would need additional capacity, and our local network provider increased our bandwidth.”

About half Encova’s employees use Cisco’s (San Jose, Calif.) Jabber to enable a virtual phone on their desktop, allowing them to maintain anonymity with their personal mobile phones. The insurer is working to increase the number of employees who have some kind of “soft” phone capability, according to Laska. Encova is also working to enable its offshore vendors to work on laptops remotely with appropriate security.

Overall, Laska describes Encova’s systems response as having been robust and effective, leaving some details to be ironed out for the longer term. “There are things such as accommodating individuals who need a password reset, and creating specific steps to get them functioning again within a reasonable timeframe.”

Laska participates in a cross-industry CIO forum with roughly 200 CIO participants in Central Ohio. “Everybody’s been communicating and their actions have been fairly consistent,” he says. “Everybody’s taking a measured approach to getting people up-and-running remotely, and dealing with issues such as phones, passwords, and security.”

COVID-19, the Economy, the P&C Industry, and Technology Spending

Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For nearly two decades, he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at or (503) 936-2803.

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