Canadian Underwriter

Emerging P&C challenges: Building a post-pandemic workplace culture

September 13, 2022   by David Gambrill

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In a dispersed, hybrid workforce, fostering a shared sense of purpose to achieve company objectives will be among the many challenges facing Canada’s P&C insurance industry faces in a post-pandemic world.

Promoting workplace engagement, inclusion, and empowerment will be critical for P&C industry employers moving forward in the world of hybrid offices, according to several panellists appearing in various morning presentations at the Reuters Future of Insurance conference held in-person in Toronto on Sept. 13.

Brigid Pelino, senior vice president and chief HR officer at Definity, noted that pre-pandemic, the P&C mutual insurance company was preparing to demutualize, the first time that’s ever happened in Canada. It turned out to be Canada’s second-largest stock offering in Canada’s history, according to Pelino.

And yet, two years before the company was about to embark on its historic mission, the company conducted employee engagement surveys and discovered that, much to its surprise, only 54% of its employees were engaged, based on the survey criteria.

“Our employees were telling us, ‘We’re going on this [demutualization] journey, but you’re forgetting about us. You’re not bringing us along in this journey and hearing what our needs are.'” Pelino said. “So we stopped and said, ‘You know what? If we’re going to continue that business turnaround and be successful in our IPO, and most importantly, if we’re going to be able to sustain that success, we have to stop and look at what we’re doing around how we’re engaging our employees.’”

And so, the company introduced several engagement initiatives between 2019 and 2021, including a ‘Listening Strategy,’ an Appreciation Platform, the launch of CultureU and ‘Definity Days,’ as well as an Inclusion Strategy. A part of the CEO’s performance review made him responsible for measured improvement in company engagement.

In 2021, the same survey showed 86% employee engagement.

“These are incredible numbers and if you don’t think that translates to productivity, it does,” said Pelino.

After the completion of its public offering in November 2021, Definity raised C$1.6 billion. It recorded an increased compound annual growth rate of gross written premiums of 10% between 2018 and 2021, and the combined ratio dipped 19 points over the same period — from 111.8% in 2018 to 93.1% in 2021.

“Anyone can get great performance in a year or two, but to really get it over the years and sustain it, that’s what’s really key,” said Pelino.

Irene Bianchi, president and CEO of Peel Mutual Insurance Company, said the mutual insurer benefited from its pandemic work-from-home policy (95% of the mutual’s employees still work from home) to attract talent from beyond its small geographic footprint Peel, Ont. Now she works with employees across Canada — two in Atlantic Canada, one in Ottawa and one in B.C.

But the flip side is that she wants to make sure people feel included. And so, the mutual insurer established a more social, water-cooler type of virtual event. The discussion in this virtual forum doesn’t focus on corporate objectives, but rather the type of “office gossip” that acts as a way for the employees to get to know one another better.

Bianchi was one of several panelists who emphasized the importance of supporting employees who speak their mind, so as to create a culture of empowerment.

John Lewis, president and CEO of Frenchurch General, said employees need to be empowered to tell executives their honest opinions. This generates discussions and solutions not only meaningful for the company, but for the clients they serve.

“I find that a real challenge,” Lewis said of empowering people to tell the truth. “I think all of us as leaders probably do.

“People think you want to hear something that is politically correct. Really, what we want to hear is the truth. I have a hard time telling my investors [the company’s reality]: ‘You know what? I need a couple of million dollars.’ [To which they reply] ‘Gee whiz, you know what? We’re not delivering.’

“These are not fun conversations, but they have to happen. I think the younger generation is much better than us [at delivering messages bluntly].”


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