Personnel Today interview: embedding recognition at Aviva

Insurance group Aviva has undergone many changes since it completed its consumer rebrand two years ago. Bright yellow logos, salsa-dancing comedians and a company mantra of “One Aviva” are all part of the firm’s attempt to refresh its image.

But while these cheery ideas may be working on the customer, it might not be so rosy for Aviva employees, with the recent news that the company had announced almost 1,000 job cuts in the Republic of Ireland. However, behind the headlines, the HR team has placed a strong focus on valuing and recognising its talent. Laura Chamberlain talks to Aviva’s group HR director John Ainley about the cuts and the company’s engagement and recognition strategy.

This is not the first time Aviva has made large-scale redundancies since it merged in the UK. In 2008, Aviva announced 1,800 jobs would be cut over the following two years.

John Ainley

John Ainley, group HR director, Aviva.

This time, it has stated that up to 950 roles could be lost from its Ireland operations over two years, of which 180 will be roles at Aviva Europe and 770 at Aviva Ireland.

It is easy to assume that this is a sign of the company struggling financially, but with total operating profits up 5% in the six months to the end of June and up 21% in Europe despite the strained economy, this is a company that is overcoming the continent’s financial woes.

Merging Aviva Ireland with UK operation

So why are the redundancies needed? Ainley explains that, despite the company’s good performance, times are tough in Ireland.

“We think that there are a number of jobs that could go in Ireland and the rationale for that is that Ireland is becoming an incredibly expensive place to operate. Combine that with the tough market in Ireland and it becomes commercially very difficult.”

The company will be merging Aviva Ireland with its UK operation in order to reduce costs. Ainley says that the company is starting consultations with Unite about how they can mitigate the job losses, with the aim being that if they are to lose people, it will be through voluntary redundancies.

“We want to work with Unite to create the best possible way of making redundancies happen. The Irish business will remain part of “One Aviva” and we want to grow the Irish business but we have to make redundancies due to the problems we’ve had with the Irish economy.

“We’re not the only people who have done it, we don’t like doing it, and it’s not something we want to do, but we’ll make the best of having to do it.”

Adopting shared HR processes

Merging into “One Aviva” may have been accompanied by cost-controlling redundancies but there has also been a more positive side to the slogan for employees. As each of Aviva’s global businesses adopts shared HR processes, employees are benefiting from a global focus on individual recognition, which Ainley describes as satisfying “the mutual human need for significance”.

“This year, for the first time, we’re truly thinking as a global HR function,” Ainley says. “While in those early years we had lots of discussions about whether the nine-box grid is the right grid or not, which frankly is irrelevant, now that we’ve got through all that we’ve got into what is really important – the quality of conversations we have and the quality of succession plans we’ve got in place and things like that.

“What we’ve been able to do is say that everybody’s talented, everybody deserves the same opportunities for development and everybody should have the same conversation, irrespective of who they are. That applies to all 36,000 people in Aviva and it’s enabled us to focus the HR agenda very much on that concept of recognition as part of the brand promise.”

Global HR function

But, with Aviva operating in 28 countries around the world, getting the HR teams in different locations to act as one “global HR function” has not been an easy task.

Ainley admits that in 2007, before group chief executive Andrew Moss was appointed, Aviva “had 28 ways of doing everything” and some of the global HR teams were not eager to change.

“We haven’t had any overt resistance, what we’ve had is lots of people nodding and saying ‘yes I’m with you’ and then changing nothing. Over the last one-to-two years that has shifted considerably. I now have a team of HR directors around the world who are absolutely focused on making it happen.

“With the economic crisis and this being the second big dip we’ve had in the last two years, cost control is vital in the organisation, hence things like the cuts in Ireland. But if you do things once and share the way you’re doing things around the world, you can do things so much more efficiently.”

Customer Cup competition

One of the most innovative HR projects that has been brought in since the rebrand at Aviva is its Customer Cup competition. Employees around the world work in teams to come up with and pitch ideas that will improve the customer experience. The top 10 teams compete for a prize in the three-day finals, which this year were held in Switzerland.

The benefit to the company is huge. It has boosted engagement, innovation and recognition, given the HR team an excellent opportunity to spot the brightest talent in the organisation, and the ideas themselves have resulted in big savings for Aviva. Since the Customer Cup was introduced in 2009, 4,500 employees have participated in it.

It is obvious when speaking to Ainley that this project is one that he has a lot of pride in. He explains: “It’s a wonderful occasion, we’ve seen tremendous results. There’s a huge amount of innovation that comes out of it, all focused on how we can do better for the customer.

“The important thing is that all the employees come out of it fired up. A lot of people change their jobs after doing it.”

Software designed and developed by claims department

For example, Ainley explains, one idea came from a group of young people working in Aviva’s claims department in Norwich. They had designed and developed a piece of software that had a dramatic impact on the speed with which they could help customers.

The software was an estimator tool for car crashes. It could roughly describe the cost for every make and model of car in the UK, so when the garage rung up and quoted the price, asking how much the company was prepared to pay, the software was able to answer this question.

The employee who wrote the software has now been promoted to the global intranet team and Ainley says that they would not have necessarily spotted his talent without the Customer Cup.

“Quite apart from the fact a number of them have changed their jobs as a part of the Customer Cup, they have changed them to what they consider to be more interesting jobs and have become advocates for innovation as well. The event itself is all about recognition and it’s all about people feeling valued by Aviva.”

Tangible financial results

And this is an HR project with tangible financial results. The net benefit of running the first tournament is estimated to be in the tens of millions of pounds.

So, are there any more big projects on the horizon for Aviva’s HR team? Ainley explains that the next challenge is making sure everything they have done embeds into the organisation.

“One of the things that I think a lot of HR departments do is that they go onto the next big and fashionable thing but we’ve actually just got to keep pushing what we’re doing.”

In this case, Ainley’s priority will be making sure the introduction of the new HR system, Workday, goes smoothly. He says that all the work they’ve done on things like setting up the same job sizes and job families worldwide underpins what they can now do with the new system.

New cloud-based HR system

Aviva is about 25% of the way through roll-out of the new cloud-based HR system and Ainley says that it is already having a huge impact.

“It’s great to hear line managers saying it makes a big difference. It’s simpler. It does really little things, like telling you when someone who works for you has a birthday. It’s obvious things that are really helpful for recognition but things that a lot of HR systems just don’t have wired into them.”

So while Aviva’s efforts to become a leaner and fitter organisation has meant that some employees’ jobs are at risk, the HR team has not let morale suffer. Efforts to recognise talent on an individual basis and reward those with good ideas seems to have kept many employees feeling valued by the company and have helped the company spot workers with under-utilised talent.

“It’s about doing simple things really well, which is what we try to do in HR. We’re not great theorists, but we try to make things happen for the benefit of the organisation and sometimes, like in Ireland, it can be very tough. Overall it’s been a great journey for us and we have lots more to do.”

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