Aviva guides staff through restructuring with self-help HR system

In June 2009, over 200 years after it began trading, the insurance giant then known as Norwich Union changed its name to Aviva.

The rebranding was accompanied by a high-profile promotional campaign that included what is reported to be one of the most expensive television adverts to date.

However, the change under way at Aviva was not simply cosmetic. The company, which today employs around 55,000 people, cut over 1,000 jobs in both 2008 and 2009, having made 4,000 redundancies in 2006. At the same time, it restructured its UK organisation into 12 ‘centres of excellence’. In short, the company has undergone radical change in the past five years.

Naturally, throughout this period Aviva’s employees had plenty of questions. “When you go through major organisational change, people want to know what opportunities there may be within the organisation, what their redundancy packages might be, what kind of support they may receive after redundancy,” explains Catherine Tausney, head of HR advice services at Aviva UK.

The company did have a specific department, named Employee Services, whose responsibility it was to answer employee queries over the phone. But as the restructuring began to take effect, the volume and diversity of calls outstretched the department’s capacity.

“It became clear that we could not sustain that system,” recalls Tausney. “Despite the fact that we increased the staffing levels for that department, we still had employees complaining that they couldn’t get through on the phone.”

Even when they did get through, it was not always possible to give them the answers they needed, she adds.

As it happens, some of the information employees typically need is already available on the company’s intranet in the form, Tausney says, of policy documents and guidelines for managers. “If you are the kind of person that likes to read through copious pages of policy, it’s there for you,” she explains. “But we wanted an HR system to draw out the key information that employees needed.”

Taking a software approach

The idea of addressing this problem with a software solution had been introduced to the company by a particular vendor, but Aviva felt that vendor lacked the stability that it requires of its suppliers. It later turned to self-service software provider Transversal, which Tausney explains “had a strong customer base that made us feel they had the reliability we needed”.

Together, Transversal and Aviva developed a searchable repository of frequently asked questions, called AskHR. The Employee Services department produced a list of questions that it considered the most important to employees, along with the answers. Transversal then helped reword those questions to allow its language analysis technology to match search queries to the right question and answer.

Tausney acknowledges that this is a project that Aviva’s own IT department could perhaps have undertaken. However, the internal IT function prioritises systems that impact paying customers, she says, so while she could have asked IT to do it, “they would have agreed to it, but it would have been delivered much further down the line”.

“Transversal offered us a hosted system for a price that we thought was reasonable,” an offer she accepted, says Tausney. This exemplifies an increasingly common occurrence, whereby functional departments provision software-as-a-service offerings without the involvement of the IT department, often to get things done quickly.

Aviva rolled the system out with little fanfare, a policy Tausney says she now regrets. “If we did it again, I would put much more emphasis on marketing the system internally. Rather than waiting for [adoption] to build up momentum, I would spend more time explaining to people why we did it,” she explains.

Without that explanation, some employees reacted negatively, saying they would prefer to speak to someone on the phone. “But when people understand the decision, most of them accept it,” she says.

Since its launch, AskHR has successfully answered 83% of employee queries, a figure Tausney says she is amazed by. And when the HR department introduced flexible employee benefits earlier this year, all resulting employee questions were answered by the system.

Tausney believes that a similar system could be applied in other departments of the business, ranging from health and safety through to IT support. “Any situation in which employees have questions, you could use this system,” she says.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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