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25 September 2020

4th ITM Student Essay Competition - Kate Butterworth

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?

I’m on the Isle of Man, administering unfunded, public sector pension schemes on a landmass which is not part of the UK and which is now Covid-19 free, so is out of lockdown.  However, as a transfers specialist, I do deal a lot with providers in the UK, which has recently proved… challenging.

Communications

I doubt anyone’s (‘flu) pandemic planning included having to close multiple offices to the public and send all staff home for weeks.  In addition, the recent trend for some organisations, such as Teachers’ Pensions, to refuse to use email really worked against them in a crisis.  This is especially relevant when transfer providers insist on wet signatures, often on their original, hard copy forms.  And how do staff who cannot get into their offices/print off documents on their organisation’s letterhead if working at home/get to a post office if self-isolating, manage to get this physical paperwork to providers?!  (Let alone get someone independent to witness documents if you cannot leave the house…)

Theoretically, those firms with one central hard copy mail handling centre for the whole operation should be the ideal – as long as enough people are well enough and prepared/able to travel to staff it (in PPE).  However, I’m aware that some UK providers using post box numbers had problems, so I suspect people will be reviewing again their use of email and access only through websites.  Whilst providers’ websites may contain hubs for members and employers, third-party transfer cases do not fit into either of those categories, which is something we will need to discuss with the providers with whom we do the most frequent transfers.  And this is only from the organisations’ point of view; many of our older pensioners do not have access to email, and younger ones do not have printers or scanners.  Possible purchases for the future?

Contacting people via telephone suddenly became very difficult, especially as a lot of people aren’t good at leaving concise voice messages with all the necessary information (though at least our members have had more practice at this by now).  With a lot of pensions employees having their office work numbers diverted to their (personal) mobile telephones, there was understandable reluctance to ring people back and give out their personal numbers (as well as bearing the costs for long-distance calls).  Given the problems, we must discuss alternatives with our major telephone provider – this situation is not sustainable.  

Homeworking

Again, a fine concept if everyone has – or can borrow – the technology, has fast enough broadband and few home distractions.  With my organisation, until 4 days before we started homeworking, all employees below a certain grade were not permitted to log in remotely, so it was a mad scramble to find enough hardware for the 2 screens which we all need.  Luckily, I have been doing exams and CPD on-line so already had my own tech, but still suffered from slow bandwidth and connections dropping.  The main problem we all had at home was picking up and returning work telephone calls, especially when clients rang our group number, something that I suspect our IT section will be working on.  Not everyone in my organisation has yet returned to the office post-lockdown and some of us have requested that we have the flexibility to work from home when required around our caring responsibilities, so that will stay.

Meetings

The stand-out success story from the pandemic has been the ‘discovery’ that people do not actually have to be in the same room to hold a meeting!  This has cut down so much time and costs on travelling, as well as being a lot better for the environment.  Committee secretaries also comment that the on-line meetings via Microsoft Teams or Zoom are easier to minute since people do not talk over each other as much.  Whether senior management can resist the temptation longer term to travel or fly to important meetings to ‘press the flesh’ may be a political issue – face-to-face meetings may become a status symbol.

The customer is not always right

Much to some of our members’ disgust, service level agreements had temporarily to be relaxed, and clients’ minor queries could not be answered as quickly as they thought they deserved.  We were able to state explicitly that our priorities were deaths and retirements, and that everything else would be prioritised.  Unfortunately, this is not something that can be maintained post-pandemic – SLA reporting, demands for excellent customer service, the complaints procedures and the ever-looming question of “what would the Ombudsman say?” will put paid to that.

Learning from current practices

Assuming that ‘current’ means Covid-19-era practices, then it really depends on how organised pensions organisations were before lockdown and how good their emergency planning was, as to how different things are now.  If staff were already used to working some of the time from home and technical issues had been ironed out in advance, then current practices in some places would be very similar to how they were pre-coronavirus, except with less human contact.  It also depends on what level pensions staff are; senior management, who do not have to open physical post, man the phones or do intricate calculations, will have had to change their management style but not really their working habits.  Our CEO started sending us weekly emails with updates as to what the senior management team were doing and what was happening in the pensions world, together with jokes and informal news, and this really helped us feel more connected.  Telephone conversations with managers were also really beneficial.  Unfortunately, the more junior staff in my organisation didn’t have access to Microsoft Teams, but Zoom and WhatsApp were used instead.  I caught myself doing a “Zoom wave” to one of my middle managers in real life today – hopefully that habit will die out!

What current practices have really shown up is inequalities.  On the Isle of Man, broadband speeds are generally lower than the UK, particularly so in rural areas of the Island.  And if a junior member of staff is sharing accommodation with children home-schooling via wi-fi, for example, then maintaining high enough connection speeds for consistent remote access is going to be a real problem.  In addition, not everyone can find the space to be able to work, or a quiet enough environment.  Not to mention interruptions by those for whom staff are carers, animals demanding attention, food, postal and parcel deliveries…

I mentioned earlier that in my organisation, the most junior staff had never previously been allowed to log in remotely from home (which is a fairly typical restriction found in a bureaucratic, hierarchical institution).  Unprecedented times required a sudden loosening of long-time boundaries, which hopefully have shown middle and senior managers that we can be trusted.  It also put the spotlight on our pensions software’s work scheduling system (hence a post-lockdown training session this morning as to how to use it correctly and consistently!).  Covid-19 working also showed us the importance of having all documentation accessible on-line (rather than eg working notes stashed in your office drawer), and I had to go in specially to the office towards the end of lockdown to create templates of part-completed pensions option forms which can be emailed to members.

Speed of change

The rate at which things had to alter in March 2020 in particular showed us how quickly long-established cultural norms (such as only middle managers and above remote working) could change in an emergency.  Organisations will have to be more flexible in their working practices and change their preconceptions, not only to cope with future waves of pandemic illnesses, but also with climate change.

The general changes wrought by coronavirus demonstrated how unprepared most organisations were for any longer-lasting, very wide-ranging emergency.  Risk registers will now have to include provisions for almost total shutdown of their organisation – and of most of society – for much longer periods of time.

This pandemic showed that organisations do have to spend consistently on hardware and software updates in quieter times – ie have a rolling replacement plan – to cope with everyone suddenly needing higher spec tech.  (Particularly when most of the hardware urgently being requested is manufactured in the Far East, which is where the outbreak started in the first place and where the factories were already closed.)  On the software side, if we had had enough money to upgrade our pensions software earlier, then we would not have had to rely on an old browser version that was so slow in opening scanned documents that it kept crashing.   This is also a very good argument for testing homeworking at all levels of the organisation to find things like this out before tasks have to be done from home in anger.

A lot of our pensioners also suddenly had to get to grips with unfamiliar technology, from paying by card instead of cash or cheque, to using Zoom.  I can see this triggering requests by pensioners to use VoIP instead of visiting us, particularly if they are not in the best of health.  Whereas for some of our older, active members, going abruptly from office to home-based working inspired dreams of retirement – hence the flood of recent retirement estimate requests!

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Last update: 26 October 2020

Kate Butterworth
Kate Butterworth
Pensions Administrator
Public Sector Pensions Authority

Senior Pension Administrator

Salary: £35000 pa

Location: Surrey / currently working remotely

Pensions Administrator

Salary: £22000 pa

Location: Tyne & Wear

Client Relationship Manager

Salary: £65000 pa

Location: Berkshire, Bristol or Birmingham

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