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My first year at Aviva: leading through coronavirus


When I joined Aviva in February 2020, no one knew what the year ahead had in store. I’d planned to be on the road, getting to know our people and the business… I made it to one site before we stopped travel. 

Getting under the skin of Aviva and how to transform the business through our people, all from a screen at home, has been a fascinating challenge.

As the reality and enormity of COVID hit, our first task was enabling people to work remotely, and safely, from home. We often talk about the power of organisations that align people to a simple and aspirational purpose.

Saving lives and keeping Aviva operating for our customers was a clear, positive goal and the way that colleagues from across the business including IT, communications, property and facilities and the people function pulled together to achieve this was amazing. We became better at decision-making at pace, using delegated accountabilities and clear ownership to help us supported by total trust – because everyone wanted the same thing. 

There’s a lesson here for business: when we focus together, there’s no time for bureaucracy or politics.

The practical challenge of working from home was solved necessarily quickly. But the behavioural, emotional and cultural challenges – helping all our people feel connected and supported, despite physical distance, and maintaining what makes Aviva ‘Aviva’ – was not a quick fix. 

Our initial instinct was to leverage internal communications. We produced great content to support our leaders and colleagues on everything from leading remotely to home schooling and wellbeing. But another lesson is how the role of the leader, which we all knew was important, is a critical relationship.

The varied impacts of remote working, COVID and lockdown mean that one size rarely fits all. Organisations can have the best programmes, content and support mechanisms in the world but only leaders have the deeper understanding needed to really connect with and help their teams. 

We’ve also seen that a physical office can be a refuge. When lockdown increased the risk of domestic abuse a team, led by one of our graduate trainees, acted quickly to support colleagues and customers with training.

On Christmas Day a leader hosted a conversation on our internal social platform, offering virtual company for anyone spending the day alone. Around 20 colleagues joined – not a big number but it made a huge difference to them.

Another lesson: given the space and forums, humans will do, and can achieve, the most amazing things. Do we sometimes stop them with a perceived need to ask permission?

As we ease out of lockdown moving to hybrid or ‘smart working`, capturing the best of remote and office working and optimising outcomes for customers, organisations and colleagues is a crucial focus area for HR.

While we may be able to work effectively at home, collaborating, innovating, building relationships, learning about a new role or organisation or just feeling part of a business happen when we are together. 

The physical office will need to adapt as will leaders and businesses; consciously choosing between remote, hybrid and face to face interactions and approaches. Our profession sits front and centre to this. 

We are the team that should be anticipating the challenges and opportunities hybrid working could create. For example, will those electing for a higher proportion of remote working be carers (who tend to be women) and could this disproportionately affect promotions for them? Along with considering the benefits, such as being able to attract talent from wider pools.

We need to be ambitious about smart working as an enabler for the workforce of the future, while creating a better employee experience. I’m excited that our profession is integral to solving the biggest workplace challenge of a generation – let’s grab it!


Danny Harmer is chief people officer at Aviva