We spoke to Herman Scheepers, general manager of risk and technology at Renasa Insurance Company, about how technology helped the industry progress over the last 18 months.
COVER: 2021 has been a challenging year in 2021 driven by ongoing fallout from 2020. From your responsibility perspective, what were the main challenges that Renasa had to deal with during 2021?
Herman: 2020 was indeed an emergency response plan in action. The initial challenge really was to ensure uninterrupted processes and workflow given the change in the work environment. But subsequent to that, after this big change, we had to now learn to manage and deal with new challenges that we encountered. The main things that come to mind is the business interruptions due to lockdown and the civil unrest experienced this year.
All this had to be dealt with in a virtual environment. There was still a lot of the, shall I call it pre lockdown momentum, in 2021. This carried the existing initiatives and relationships forward. But in 2021 the challenge was really to learn to kick off new projects, find your new opportunities, employing new staff and strategise etc, in this so-called “new normal” environment, which I personally think, for many of us, felt like anything but normal.
So the reality of that changed world was finally sinking in for all of us. I think it had quite a big impact on staff morale, communication within the organisation as well as with our brokers and Uma’s and clients alike, affecting different people very differently. So, of course, we had to try and manage this year, as best we can to ensure continued efficiency, continued communication, and keep on doing what we were doing well before. Right now, I think the challenge that we are dealing with is finding the balance between office attendance and working from home. We only started returning to the office officially this month, on a rotational basis. There is an enormous amount of change management required over the next few months.
COVER: Technology was the crucial element in assisting most businesses to cope, especially the insurance industry. A lot of that was people working remote which needed updated processes, everything having to be run remotely. From your perspective, where do you think technology made the biggest difference in the life of insurers as well as brokers?
Herman: I think the last 18 months was a very interesting time to see how impactful technology can actually be in a very short space of time. To my mind, I think the biggest impact was around communication. It was really around maintaining our communication channels on very short notice in a different way, of course, through the various online video communication tools that we all became very accustomed to the last couple of months. That change from face to face, which became a virtual face-to-face and document exchange. Everything became virtual, both between the insurer and the brokers on the one side and the broker and his clients, on the other. All of that could be maintained efficiently, and we could continue operations and fulfilling obligations to our clients.
From our point of view, I think a huge advantage was shown by the use of cloud-based systems, which of course Renasa deploys across our entire business. The sudden restriction and movement of people did not disturb the accessibility to systems at all. So we were able to maintain our service levels to brokers and clients pretty much unhindered throughout the various levels of lockdown, the different levels of returning back to the office and going back home. It was really due to that cloud based technology that exists today.
COVER: Before lockdown and before COVID, in many areas and in a lot of the conversations that I have had with other insurers, is the adoption of technology was sometimes a little bit slow. I presume that the lockdown and COVID assisted in increasing that willingness to adopt. What lasting benefits did you see from the adoption of the technologies and the transition people made?
Herman: I think the future is really the interesting part in all of this, because the work environment has definitely changed for good. What we really saw in the last 18 months was just an accelerated formal adoption of technology that was already available. In other words, we were starting to properly utilise a whole lot of modern tools that existed already, but we were all slow to adopt into our work environments.
A couple of benefits of this accelerated adoption I can mention and have experienced so far are, first a simple one, a truly paperless environment. Many companies thought they had a paperless environment before, including ourselves, but you still found yourself going through reams and reams of paper within the business, mostly just due to habit. I think that habit was very much broken during their work from home environment. The advantage of that is for the environmental impact, but there is also huge improvement in productivity, and data security, because the secure electronic documents that we required now, through the POPI Act, was a real risk in the not-truly-paperless environment.
A second example is awareness around cyber risks. It is important to understand that a lot of these cyber risks existed long before we heard of COVID, or lockdowns, but it was not as top of mind. The work-from-home environment brought this top of mind for a lot of companies. The real risks involved are due to cyberattacks, and a lot of companies have sharpened up on their cybersecurity. That is of course something that will stay with the company. Improved security will be embedded within the company from now on.
A third, I think nice benefit, is that companies have realised that the talent pool is much wider than they realised before. You do not only have the ability now to employ worldwide, if you want to go that far, or perhaps across the country, but you also now have the ability to deploy some of your skilled resources throughout your branch network, quite effortlessly. This is something of course that you could have done before, but with a physical presence. Having to send out people to branches now becomes quite routine in the normal way that we work.
Lastly, something that is perhaps a little bit less tangible but also important, is that there seems to be a bit of a change with the way staff collaborate. There is somewhat more sharing of a previously restricted and private electronic work environment. In other words, people are able to actually share quite easily, through platforms like Teams, Zoom and WebEx, what they are doing on a day-to-day basis, what problems they are experiencing, the way they work on systems. All this, and not just with people in their immediate physical vicinity. You can now actually share this with anybody, anywhere within your organization, or in the world for that matter. This mindset promotes learning among staff, sharing of ideas, and hopefully then also the general efficiency within the business.
In conclusion, the last thing I want to say is about the lasting benefit and I think the biggest impact. Despite the fact that we never know what the future will throw at us, the experience we have had in the last 18 months gave us a bit of faith in the adaptability of our people and the processes and, of course, the reliability and flexibility of the technology that really underpins our business. This gives us hope that we will be able to deal with whatever the future throws at us next.