Aflac's Keith Farley: 'Belfast is resilient, reinventive and adaptable'

  • Since going into lockdown, tech company Aflac has doubled in size, from 20 to 40 employees all working remotely.

    Headquartered in the US, the health insurance provider set up base in Belfast six months ago with a promise to create 150 jobs here over the next five years.

    Managing director, Keith Farley assured Sync NI that the firm is “sticking to its commitments” and maintaining a strong company culture amidst the coronavirus crisis.

    So Keith, how has Aflac been coping in Belfast since the pandemic lockdown?

    “I’d like to start by saying thank you to our front line services, from our doctors, nurses and all of the NHS staff as well as our essential services and everyone who is helping to battle the impact of this terrible pandemic.

    "With regard to the lockdown, believe it or not, we’ve doubled our employees since going completely remote and we’ve done that through Webex meetings and video interviews. One of the very helpful things that we are doing is distributing laptops to people when they start their career with us. We’ve done virtual introductions to get people up to speed. Aflac is a very employee-centric culture, so it’s been a little bit different in that we can’t provide the personal touches that we like to do when on boarding an employee, but we’re making it work for sure.

    "For some folks this is their second or third job so they’ve had different work experiences but for others this is their first corporate or tech job, so this is certainly a different experience than they may have expected. I can’t imagine what they’re thinking when they are starting their careers in their living room."

    Do you think COVID-19 will change how we live and work forever?

    "I certainly think it will be studied but it could be a little foreshadowing as to what working in the future will be like. I do think that people have become more comfortable with the video-conferencing world we are now living in, but whether it changes forever remains to be seen.

    "As a technology company here in Belfast we’re trying to practice what we preach in that everything should be able to be done remote or online and now we’re having to do that.

    "We have a choice when this is all over; do we go back to “normal” or do we allow this to change us? At Aflac we’re actively looking to see how this changes our perspective for the better.

    "One of the things we’ve said before that we love about Belfast is that it’s resilient, reinventive and adaptable, and we’re proving that right now by doing things the way we are.

    "Having gone from 19 employees to now 40, we have grown quickly and are concerned about maintaining our culture. To that end, we’ve had virtual happy hours and a virtual scavenger hunt where we’ve divided into teams over Webex and had to find different things throughout the house. We’ve encouraged people to introduce their children or pets if they’re comfortable doing that so when their dog is barking in the background or the child walks in the room, just embrace it!

    "On one of our first virtual calls I had my son sit with me because he had just been let off school and I thought it would be good education for him to see how business is done and how a company works. But I also did it to relieve our employees of the fear of a child walking in and being embarrassed about it. We’re all familiar of the BBC reporter where that happened and at the end of the day, it was something to smile about.

    "Next up is a virtual yoga session as a team so we’re still incorporating health and wellness. We’re figuring out ways to connect with each other beyond work."

    How have you been finding incorporating new employees into your company culture in lockdown?

    "We’ve set up a ‘buddy’ system so all the new starts have a virtual buddy and can connect with someone daily to see how they are and what questions they might have. It’s an opportunity for us to show our current employees as well as the new ones what we’re about. It’s sort of an accelerated mentor program, since no one is truly what I would call a “veteran” of Aflac.

    Character isn’t built during times of struggle, character is revealed. This is an opportunity for us to reveal - as a relatively new player in the tech market here in Belfast - what kind of company we are and how we keep our commitments."

    Are you staying connected in the same way with your US colleagues?

    "In the US the company is based in Georgia and in some sense, it’s removed a barrier. We used to be the people that were 3,000 miles away and could only be reached via video chat but now even someone that’s three miles away can only be reached that way too. It’s almost a great equalizer because the whole company is on video chat now. It’s naturally how everyone is getting used to working.

    "The whole reason we brought this company over here was to build software and work on cybersecurity solutions to protect customers in their time of need. What we sell in the US is accident and illness insurance. What we do here is protect that business.

    "When we launched the company in Belfast in 2019, we were creating this virtual customer experience here so our clients could interact with us however they want, whenever they want, and get 24/7 access to their information and policies. Now that we’ve gone remote it’s made it even more important for the mission that we have here in building these customer digital solutions and protecting their data."

    RELATED: Plans in place for US firm's Belfast Harbour cybersecurity centre

    What are your growth plans for the rest of the year?

    "We plan to have one Assured Skills Academy a year. Our 2020 academy just wrapped up and we did some hiring from that so we will have another one that will likely launch in January or February 2021 -- so all that stays on plan as normal. When we return to the office (hopefully) at the end of the second quarter, we will have 43 employees. We’re hoping to build to approximately 50/55, so we are well on our way to the first-year growth target.

    "We did have some conversations around how we will all get used to this life and then we’ll return to the office and there’ll almost be a readjustment period back into the workplace.

    "We do have jobs posted now and are actively interviewing every day. Things really are continuing as we were."

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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