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25 September 2020

4th ITM Student Essay Competition - Andrew England

Covid-19 has changed the way people and companies in the pensions industry are working. Will these become permanent changes in working practise, operational delivery and communication or will old habits and methods return? What can we learn from the current practices and what does the speed of change since restrictions were imposed tell us?

2020 is certainly a year that will not be forgotten by the world and will bring about many lessons learnt for both government and industry for the future. Whilst it is unclear when things will return to normal; the new normal that does evolve will change how we interact and conduct day to day business.

There are many new terms that have come into place this year Working From Home (WFH), furlough, social distancing, isolation/lockdown, video conferencing i.e. Zoom. Most of which were unthought of and the term “furlough” was a brand new word to many.

If we think about WFH, this was not uncommon as certain individuals already had the ability to do this. It was not thought of as being feasible for it to be done on a mass scale especially with an administration team who deal with phone calls as part of their communication method. What has become apparent is that people can adapt to WFH and that email communication is becoming increasingly used.

What this has enforced is that having sufficient data on members is key to enable them to be contacted during uncertain times like this. Whilst being able to communicate by email is important the option for telephone enquiry should not be understated as email communication may be misinterpreted and a number of people may not have access to an email facility.

A lesson that will be learnt because of this is the importance of holding full member data to allow for communication across different mediums. Due to not having access to a printer and post facilities communication is being encouraged to be sent by email. This is fine so long as there are proper encryption processes in place, email addresses are held and up to date. This can also save companies money in the future by using less paper and less post going out meaning a reduction on expenditure.

The advantages of WFH include flexible working, where with manager’s approval staff can start and finish at times which more suit them and can also work around childcare. In addition, no commute so saving time and money; and less distractions from other work colleagues which may hinder productivity.

The disadvantages of WFH include lack of productivity where there is no one to monitor you and focus may waver; mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to not being able to socially interact with others. It has been key for employers to remain focused on employee’s mental health and find ways to reassure employees and help them to remain focused on the task in hand as well as supporting them if they are struggling. Humans by nature are sociable creatures and having that taken away from them can have a detrimental effect.

Some people have found that WFH has increased their productivity which could allow for this to be something employers consider using going forward. However as there is no manager around to monitor what they are doing, it could also allow for employees to abuse this trust and in fact do less work than they would do normally and take more frequent and longer breaks. If this was to be allowed to happen in the future managers would need to be vigilant on the amount of processing that has occurred during this time.

Video conferencing has been key to keeping in touch with others during this time, whether it be used for team/management meetings, client meetings, interviewing or for socialising. On the platform that I have been using Zoom, it allows for the sharing of screens, which can make it extremely useful for meetings by enabling information to be shared electronically rather than having the need for it to be printed or having to send out meeting packs in advance. This also reduces the need for face-to-face conversations.

By using this platform it can reduce on the cost and time of travelling to meetings, the cost of printing information and the flexibility of where and when a meeting can take place. I can see this becoming a continued business tool being used in the future, as who wants to spend their day travelling to meetings when they can get the same job done at home or in an office meeting room?

Aside from the business side of things, Zoom and other video conferencing platforms can also be used for social interaction which can include activities such as quizzes, cooking classes, exercise classes and even having a post work drink and catch up. This enables people to not only keep in touch but gives them something to do in order to keep their minds/bodies active.

These social activities will reduce once people are able to be fully interactive with one another, but it is still useful for employers keeping their employees engaged. In addition, it can help with mental health, by allowing people to know that they are not alone and they do have the option of interacting with their colleagues if they so wish as you can’t beat the atmosphere of going to a pub or the coffee shop environment.

Client interaction should be high on a company’s priorities and it is important during times of uncertainty that clients are appraised of what the situation is and what the company are doing to look after their interests. Clients will remember how businesses treated them during this time and that could be key to any future relationships that are had.

If clients are still happy with the service which is being provided, then they will be interested in using the company for their pensions services going forward and perhaps will recommend the company to others. Transparency to clients is key and it is important to let them know what measures the business has put in place to enable practises to run as smoothly as possible. It will help build on the relationship you already have with them.

The speed of change from one week working in the office to the next working from home may not allow for a suitable office environment to be set up. This can also be referred to as ergonomics. Not all employees may have access to a proper desk, a movable chair, sufficient lighting which could lead to health problems down the line.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees and must allow employees to undertake medical checks to ensure that by working from home it is not having any adverse effects such as back problems or visual issues. Employees may opt to work from their beds which would not provide sufficient comfort for their backs. If the current climate is to go on long term, then not only should people’s mental wellbeing be taken into consideration but also their physical wellbeing.

As with the amount of information being brought to our attention because of mental health concerns, so too are environmental issues such as transport pollution and plastic usage. One thing that has become apparent is that by having fewer vehicles on the road, less rail and air travel, the pollution levels have decreased allowing nature to flourish, smog reducing and greater appreciation for what we have around us. Businesses should take this on board in the future and do all that they can in order to protect the environment around them. The change that has resulted during this time is clear and should not be ignored, nor allowed to return to the levels it once was.

Going forward, Trustees may consider sending out mailings by email rather than post. A benefit of this would be a reduced cost in postage therefore saving the Trustees money; however it would not allow for returned post if the member has moved, meaning that records would not necessary be up to date with correct contact details for the member.

The speed of change since restrictions have been imposed reminds us how flexible the pensions industry can be, whether it be adapting to WFH conditions or taking on new legal limits such as the annual change in Lifetime Allowance. Previously it would not have been considered that an administration team could effectively work from home however it has been proven that this can be done with minimal teething issues.

This could help in the recruitment process, because by not requiring people to be physically located in the office on a daily basis allows for recruitment opportunities to look further afield. As mentioned before video conferencing can assist with getting people interviewed to ensure that the best people for the job are found.

It also helps to emphasise how important member data is and what drawbacks poor member data can have. By ensuring adequate member data is held it could potentially allow pension companies to work with a smaller or no office environment.

The level and speed of adaptation in the industry means that excuses can no longer be given for things not being done. For example transfers not being done due to IFA advice not being given. IFAs would have the ability to do their member discussions by phone, email or video conferencing allowing for the member to have access to all the advice they would normally be entitled to but just not in a face to face scenario.

As mentioned before recruitment can be done virtually, however once the new member of staff has joined them, how are you meant to train them? Traditionally it would be face to face training at their computer or in a meeting room. Video communication training may give the same output, but not present the new colleague with the reassurance that they can go to their fellow colleague for help/guidance if they are unsure of anything, as they will not be in the same vicinity as them.

It can also impact their ability to bond with their team if the team are not physically there to bond with. By having a team working closely together it can also help in identifying where key skills can be found or where future development needs can be identified.

It has been shown that staff appear to be more productive working from home. This can be due to them having greater focus in the task in hand and not getting distracted by things such as phones, other colleagues or pondering whether to go into the kitchen for another snack.

Staff WFH may also have the ability to vape/smoke at their workstation which can cut down on time spent away from their desk. By having fewer distractions this can also reduce the number of mistakes made which in turn can reduce potential errors and omissions occurring. This will return back to some normality once offices begin to allow their staff back in, but this will partly be down to human nature, as mentioned before with the natural social interaction that is desired in everyday life.

I feel that the Covid 19 situation has provided a much needed shake up to the industry, that has required some quick thinking and innovation, which has set some companies apart from the rest. The benefits I can see from this is greater WFH for staff, more video based meetings and less expenditure with increased communication going by email, and reduced travel costs. The disadvantages would be if employees continue to WFH, then an increased mental and physical awareness presence would need to be ongoing to assist in employees wellbeing and engagement.

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Last update: 1 October 2020

Andrew England
Andrew England
Pensions Administrator

Client Director, Trustee Executive

Salary: £80000 - £130000 pa

Location: Work from home, with travel to client meetings/office as required

Senior DB Pensions Technical Admin., 2-3 days from home

Salary: £25000 - £38000 pa

Location: East Sussex, 2-3 days work from home

Pension Administrator (Hybrid Flexible Working Option)

Salary: £27000 pa

Location: South Yorkshire (with Hybrid Flexible Working Option)

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