Covid-19: an interview with Benoît Dourte, HR Director of Foyer
How has leading insurance company Foyer fared during the pandemic? And what practical steps are they taking to minimize impact?
Interview with Benoît Dourte, HR Director of Foyer, exploring how the company is dealing with Covid-19.
KPMG: What measures did Foyer take to prepare for the lockdown?
BENOÎT DOURTE: I would say that we were able to anticipate the lockdown, insofar as we set up a crisis committee on 2 March, which I lead, composed of a representative of human resources, and of our legal, communication and IT departments, representatives of our various activities, as well as a member of the staff delegation.
The objective of this committee was and remains to coordinate preventive actions and to ensure business continuity.
From 9 March, we decided to allow 80 of our employees to work from home, whereas teleworking had not been used at all at Foyer until then. We wanted to give priority to those identified as being at risk, as well as one person from each department, so that we could get feedback on the future deployment of teleworking for all our employees.
In addition, we had taken preventive measures, such as closing the gym, stopping face-to-face training and closing our canteen, all while maintaining sustained preventive communication on hand washing and social distancing.
When the government announced the lockdown, we sent all our employees to work from home.
KPMG: What problems did you encounter during this preparatory phase?
BENOÎT DOURTE: As explained earlier, we did not have a remote working policy at Foyer.
So, with the exception of our sales representatives, a few managers, some employees working on projects and the management team, our employees were not equipped with laptops or tablets. Our biggest challenge was therefore to equip them with laptops and VPNs in record time.
In this context, we also had to get our teams to sign contract amendments, but we were able to get all this done quite quickly despite the distance and inherent difficulties.
Once our employees were at home, we all had to learn to familiarize ourselves with the remote communication tools, which we knew only very little about before this crisis.
Our hotline was therefore quickly overloaded due to the many questions and connection problems encountered in the first few days.
From an HR point of view, we had to identify who among our employees were teleworking and who were on family leave.
The question of monitoring arose via our crisis committee, but we were soon positively surprised to see that the teams were working a lot, and even more than when they were in the office. On a side note, we even had to cut off some VPNs after a certain time ...
KPMG: Is the company 100 percent operational today? Are there differences between departments?
BENOÎT DOURTE: This new way of working has obviously had an impact on our business and our departments. Our sales momentum is currently declining, and we are seeing, for example, a sharp drop in claims.
However, the projects side is working very well, thanks to the time freed up by the operational teams who are now more available to devote themselves entirely to the development of our projects.
Some of our teams have had to quickly review their operating methods. This was the case for our training teams, who had to replace all existing paper media with video modules in a very short space of time. The pace of training has therefore dropped sharply despite the exceptional work of the teams to digitize our modules.
Overall, we can say today that the company is indeed operational but with a lower activity rate.
KPMG: How has the crisis impacted the operation of your sales representatives?
BENOÎT DOURTE: The agencies effectively had to close their doors the day of the lockdown, which resulted in a significant drop in their business activity.
However, our agents quickly organized themselves for teleworking in order to maintain the link with their clients. Thanks to tools such as Skype, WhatsApp and Webex they were able to continue to provide advice remotely and to keep in touch with their clients on a regular basis and check on their health.
KPMG: What is the impact of the crisis on new business?
BENOÎT DOURTE: As mentioned earlier, we have noted an overall decline in our commercial momentum, with the exception of LPS life insurance (for example, our WEALINS entity collected more premiums in the first half of 2020).
As regards motor claims, the workload has remained high, as the crisis made it possible to process claims that had been delayed.
Our legal protection business had to cope with a sharp increase in calls concerning, for example, advice on travel cancellations or in relation to employment contracts. This can be explained by the fact that people have a lot of questions about their professional future in times of crisis such as this one.
Activity remains significant for our Healthcare business. Even though people have postponed their non-urgent medical visits, there were a large number of Covid-related treatments that continued to boost activity.
KPMG: What initiatives did you take to help your clients?
BENOÎT DOURTE: It was important for us to offer real solutions to our customers during this crisis.
As an example, for our individual customers, we wanted to drop the usual waiting periods for hospitalizations. We extended the periods of cover abroad for repatriations, as well as the availability periods of rental vehicles.
Our desire was to reassure our clients as much as possible by reminding them that the pandemic was well covered by health and life insurance.
We also offered our professional clients a free monthly payment option for future premiums, as well as a postponement of the payment deadlines for premiums due until the end of the lockdown period. We are also offering free cover for office equipment used for teleworking and we have implemented an extension of all-risk insurance cover for construction sites, taking into account the fact that their duration will be extended with the lockdown and government measures.
All of this is an example of the many initiatives we have taken, which have been complemented by a series of other measures on a case-by-case basis depending on the situation of our clients.
KPMG: Has Foyer decided to change the priorities of the projects that are in progress? Have any projects been postponed or stopped?
BENOÎT DOURTE: We did not want to stop any projects, but we had to postpone some.
For example, we had to postpone the move of former GB Life employees into our premises in Leudelange, which was initially planned for the end of April, until after the summer holidays, in order to comply with the new measures.
In general, all our strategic projects are continuing normally, and I would say even faster, because our teams are now more available to get involved in large projects due to the slowdown in operational activity.
Moreover, our employees had no difficulty getting used to teleworking and new technological tools, which made it possible to continue developing these projects, even remotely.
We did not launch any new projects, in order to devote ourselves first and foremost to those already under way.
KPMG: Has Foyer identified new needs in terms of governance, products and projects following Covid-19?
BENOÎT DOURTE: It’s obvious that we need to set up governance on teleworking first of all, and to put a strong emphasis on everything to do with IT security and cyber risks.
We now have to meet the new expectations of our employees and a new “Anytime, Anywhere, Any device” mindset.
This crisis has reassured us of the adaptability of our employees, and we saw that teleworking, which was the subject of long discussions in the past, was quickly implemented when we no longer had the choice. Nevertheless, we saw that there was a need to train our employees in the use of new collaborative tools.
In addition, we also identified new customer expectations, one of which was the subject of a working group between the ACA and the Ministry of Finance: the desire to provide for an operating loss following a pandemic. Our management team and managers are also working on the new customer needs that have emerged with this crisis and which will be discussed with our teams in the coming weeks during business reviews.
KPMG: What will the consequences of the pandemic be, in the short, medium and long term?
BENOÎT DOURTE: It seems to me that it is still a little early to draw conclusions, but we are seeing some trends emerge:
It's obvious that teleworking has now won fans. Questions are now being asked about the well-being of employees, the mobility of workers and even office real estate. We will then have to look at the issue of social security, particularly in Luxembourg with its large number of cross-border workers.
Distance learning has also shown its advantages and we have seen that, even remotely, it can be interactive. In the past, we got our agents from all over Luxembourg to come to our headquarters in Leudelange to follow our training courses, but this will fundamentally change in the coming years.
Our customers’ mindset is also changing, and we must take this into account. The aggressive commercial approach is increasingly being rejected. Customers expect more empathy, service and advice.
Before the crisis, Foyer had already put the emphasis on all digital processes, something that will need to be further strengthened in the coming years in order to optimize the customer journey as much as possible.
In addition, we are noticing new expectations, particularly in terms of developing prevention services (cyber risks), services related to people’s well-being and, lastly, everything regarding raising community awareness of climate risks and other societal issues.
The big unknown is still this phenomenon of globalization with all the questions that the crisis has raised, and we will need to take a step back to draw all the conclusions from it.
KPMG: How are you preparing for the post-Covid-19 phase?
BENOÎT DOURTE: We are working with our ACA partners a lot and we have prepared for this phase in agreement with our colleagues.
As a result, the agencies and counters of the insurance companies in the local market reopened on Monday 11 May.
At Foyer, we are opting for teleworking for the time being, but we are beginning a gradual return of our staff by asking each staff member to come and work on site for at least one week during the month of May (except for our at-risk staff and those on family leave).
In concrete terms, since Monday 11 May, we have 200 people who have returned to our premises, 200 more who will return next week and so on in team rotation.
We will assess the situation at the end of May based on our own experience at Foyer, but also based on the evolution of the pandemic in Luxembourg and in neighboring countries. We will then see if we’ll stay with this rhythm (1/3 of staff on site and the rest at home) or if we’ll move on to half staffing.
However, we are convinced that there will not be a return to normal for many months.
Since the start of lockdown, we have put a major communication plan in place.
For the return to site, we have organized masks and made a manual called “Le petit deconfine” available on each of our employees' desks. Only large meeting rooms are available. The canteen and gym currently remain closed, but we have organized a lunch pack for each of our employees so that they do not have to go out to find something to eat on their lunch break.
For the time being, the return is going well and our crisis committee is continuing to monitor current events and is communicating transparently with our employees.
KPMG: What are the main lessons learned from this crisis?
BENOÎT DOURTE: In my view, the first and most important thing is that urgency makes things happen. I will take as an example the lengthy discussions we used to have at Foyer on teleworking. Experience has shown that in a very short period of time, our employees have been able to work and train remotely and thus to develop new skills.
Secondly, we have found that in difficult times like this, certain personalities assert themselves, take on more responsibilities and remain positive.
Another element for me, which I noticed while leading our crisis committee, is the crucial importance of communication. We wanted to communicate daily with our employees, to explain and reassure, and we involved our staff delegation at all times and from the very beginning. We do everything in total transparency and this, I believe, has helped to reassure our employees during this lockdown phase.
Finally, I have noted the importance of being able to exchange views with my peers in order to share our ideas with those who have the same responsibilities as us in other companies and with the same issues. In the future, it would therefore be desirable to strengthen these exchange groups to optimize our decision-making.