Interviews

Aflac NI: Lessons learnt

  • Aflac’s Keith Farley discusses what positive outcomes will emerge from everything that has happened over the previous months

    Back in April, Sync NI spoke to Keith Farley, the managing director of Aflac’s Belfast office about the city’s resilience and adaptability during lockdown.

    While unfortunately many sectors within Northern Ireland and across the globe have been suffering due to Covid-19’s impact, our tech industry here has thankfully continued to thrive, and Keith assured Aflac was a part of this. 

    Providing supplemental health insurance to customers in the US and Japan through its parent company, here the tech firm has doubled in size, from 20 to over 40 employees now all working remotely during the pandemic.

    More recently we spoke to Keith about his thoughts on what the world and work in tech will look like now we are coming out of quarantine.

    For Aflac specifically, what lessons do you think you have learned that you could bring forward coming out of lockdown? 

    One thing we learned is how quickly we could react and mobilise to something. Essentially when we made the decision to go remote, within an hour we executed it. While it was good for us here with about 20 employees at the time, it was especially impressive for our parent company in the States, who also made a decision within 48 hours to completely shut down campus and have everyone working from home. It took roughly two weeks to execute the plan. I think as a large company with 5000+ employees, sometimes decisions have to go through lots of levels and conversations and this has shown that when a decision does need to be made quickly, we can not only do that but also execute it quickly. 

    Coming out of Covid-19 companies will learn that if you need to, you can react quickly and it will filter into other aspects of work as well. For example, it will hopefully teach firms how to parlay these lessons into other things, enabling them to operate with the same speed and agility that we’ve learned to do with this pandemic.  

    There’s a lot of data coming out of some NI tech firms that productivity has maintained a steady level during lockdown and even increased in some cases due to working from home and hence a more flexible way of working. A survey in May by tech recruiter Corvus Recruitment shows that 88% of NI tech staff may be working from home, and 61% expect home working to continue post-lockdown in some manner. Do you think this productivity will remain coming out of lockdown? 

    I think after what everyone’s been through, if we don’t make some changes coming out of this then shame on us for missing an opportunity! God willing the virus will be gone at some point, but what adjustments can we make coming out if the pandemic that are longer lasting, not for fear of a pandemic but more in realising the increase in productivity and flexibility?

    From our standpoint, we were not focusing on introducing flexible working until our second year, because in our first year we wanted to build a culture in the office. We’re a brand new company in town and it’s very important for us that everybody gets to know everybody. A few months in though, with the pandemic, that changed for us and now we’ve proven to ourselves that we can all work remotely and get the job done. 

    We did an employee survey and the majority of our employees want to come back to work and work with each other. We’re going to look at a hybrid so maybe a couple of days a week you’re in the office and doing collaboration and innovation, but the other few days you’re at home getting the work done. So when you’re getting back to coding and developing things you probably don’t need to be around other people, but when you’re defining what the requirements are and having discussions, that might be a great time to be in the office. We’re looking at offices now as places to have meetings instead of a place to just go do work, because some people probably might be more efficient just doing their work from the comfort of their own homes. 

    Have you had any new plans for development come to fruition since the lockdown began? 

    We broadened our view of where talent comes from in Northern Ireland. We actually just made an offer to someone from the North West, which was an interview and a job offer that may not have happened before lockdown, because we were previously focused on having everyone in the office. We were looking at just people from in and around Belfast. 

    Now we’re all working remotely it’s widened our view and we’re looking at hiring more people from the North West. We have doubled (and then some) our workforce and we want to continue that. We’re taking on a summer intern and a couple of graduates and we still plan to have an Assured Skills Academy once a year, with our next one being in 2021 as our 2020 cohort has just finished. 

    I also learned that there are things that happen in the office that I always thought were just ‘extra’ little things, like going to lunch with someone or grabbing a coffee with some colleagues, or having a conversation in the hallway. What I’ve now realised is those moments weren’t just extra, they’re actually necessary for relationship building and understanding, and they made the project better and work more desirable as well. You don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s been taken away. 

    I am more aware now of these many parts of work that don’t involve formal meetings or sitting at the computer with a mouse in your hand. The constructive collisions we have from being in the same physical space can be just as important as the planned work. Some people would say maybe, ‘oh that’s just time-wasting, water-cooler chat’ and I would argue that those informal conversations lead to better relationships and therefore better results.

    What is considered as bonus time or ‘non-productive’ time is just as vital. It was definitely a subconscious important part of work. I knew it was a part of culture, but I didn’t realise how important it is to the work too. Now that we don’t have that we have to be creative because we can’t have those corridor conversations, so we’re definitely keen to get back to work for those reasons.

    Aflac announced back in October 2019 that it will be creating over 150 jobs in Northern Ireland over the next five years, offering opportunities in IT and cybersecurity with its new technology innovation centre. It currently employs around 5.300 employees in the US and 11,000 globally. In 2018, Fortune magazine recognised it as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in America for the 20th consecutive year. For more info, visit Aflac’s website or Aflac’s Company Hub on Sync NI.

    This article first appeared in the summer edition of the Sync NI magazine and it can be found here.

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