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Hanson Search talks to Rupert Gowrley, Group External Relations Director, Bupa on the impact of Covid-19

Welcome to our ‘Getting Business Back’ series, where we talk to industry leaders from agency and inhouse backgrounds about the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses and the steps they are taking as we move out of the crisis. Here, we sat down (virtually) with Rupert Gowrley, Group External Relations Director, Bupa.

Rupert Gowrley_Bupa

What impact has COVID-19 had on your business and your sector as a whole? How has it pushed you forward?

COVID-19 impacted us from the very beginning of the pandemic. As a global business, we’ve managed it in a number of waves. We've got a large business in Hong Kong and a smaller business in mainland China, so we stood up crisis management teams at the very start ­– back in January when this appeared to be a regional issue. Since then we've seen the virus spread around the world and into the other markets we operate in – Spain in March closely followed by the UK. It took much longer to impact Australia, our biggest business, around July / August time and this was then followed by Latin America, Middle East, India and so on.  And some of our markets have seen their second or third waves.

When we talk about the impact on the business, the answer will vary by the type of services we’re delivering in each country. Across the globe we’re largely involved in health insurance. For the main part the impact on this sector was in terms of access, i.e. how our customers were able to access treatment through our insurance offer, when they wanted. Given lockdowns this was a challenge across many of our markets. We had to pivot rapidly to really dial up  remote access through digital for things like consultant or  GP appointments. We also had to partner with clinicians and other health professionals to maintain the continuity of service for customers. As with many other industries, lots of this wasn’t new technology particularly. We’ve been doing virtual digital health services for a while, but just not at the scale it was suddenly required at. It’s remarkable the pace businesses like ours have been able to achieve in getting everything up and running at such a scale.

Another big impact has been reviewing the services customers require in times like these. Again, it’s not new, but we’ve dramatically ramped up the availability of mental health support services and guidance in areas like psychotherapy. This has of course been an immensely stressful and traumatic period for people for all sorts of different reasons. It’s had a huge impact on people's mental health and overall wellbeing – so we've really focused on getting all of that support and guidance to our customers, our teams, making it more relevant and tailored to the altered living environments people are enduring across the world. That’s not a new service offer but it has become so relevant and valuable to many more people.

In some markets – Spain, being one of our largest – we do run hospitals and more traditional bricks and mortar health services. In these places we’ve been working with regional and national governments to essentially become part of the overall national response to COVID-19, treating public and private patients. In the UK we only have one hospital but also a network of clinics and dental practices. The partnership with the NHS has been strong indeed.

We also have businesses involved with caring for older people, particularly in Spain and the UK. As everyone knows, this has been an incredibly challenging area . They've protected residents and staff through strict protocols, but also worked hard to maintain the connection – albeit digitally – between residents and their loved ones.

There have also been a lot of community efforts - getting local schools engaged in writing to residents, and trying to help provide ways to tackle social isolation.

Stepping back, I think overall COVID-19 has been is a catalyst for accelerating many developments that were in the pipeline such as digital healthcare, but perhaps taking a long time to become business as usual, particularly at scale.

Which of your company values have truly come to life since the beginning of the crisis?

Accountability. It’s remarkable the way we’ve seen people across the business step up and take ownership of things that are not in their space or job description and do so with a great deal of courage and integrity. Authenticity is another. Like lots of businesses we’ve learnt a lot more about colleagues’ lives outside of work just by the nature of working from home. I think it’s made bonds stronger, or at least richer, than they were before when there was more face-to-face contact, but only in a working environment. This has been good for our people, and from a business point of view has helped unite us as a team. Externally this has been important as being open and authentic about things that can't be done in the same way as before, or being honest about mistakes that have been made, I think that’s bred trust among our different audiences and stakeholder groups which is a positive to take forward out of this.

Internal communications has never been more business critical. How has your business engaged with its employees and what changes in culture has it resulted in?

Personally, I’m being more thoughtful about how I can flex my style to work with people on a more individually tailored basis. In the really early days of the pandemic we were in full  crisis management mode, which was a very structured and intense way of working, governed by our protocols. With the team we held many (almost constant!)  virtual check-ins. Over time we’ve changed that to a more flexible way of connecting with times that fit more naturally with people’s personal and family lives. We tend to do a mix of quick ‘scrum’ type team meetings, some more formal ones, and I’ve just been proactive about checking in with people more casually, when it suits them, just to check they’re OK. Particularly if they’ve been quiet for a few days – WhatsApp is really good for those sort of quick, light touch check-ins.

I think these sorts of operational tweaks have had a big impact on our culture too – it’s brought our global teams so much closer together. We used to speak a lot before lockdown of course, but it could be quite formulaic. But the new pace of communication and real need to work on the same global issue has meant a more casual, open and honest exchange of information. Also, I think there’s just an element of everyone being in the same boat which brings people closer together. Home schooling your kids while juggling work poses the same challenges whether you’re in London, Madrid, Beijing, or Melbourne. When everyone is working remotely, no one is!

Any brands or organisations you think have communicated particularly well so far? 

A few brands stick in my mind for particular initiatives rather than sustained communications,  Quite early on in the UK’s first wave, car insurer, Admiral made a fairly small, but symbolic gesture returning some money and it was communicated in a very authentic way – they were open that they didn’t know the answers. All sorts of companies pivoting to making sanitiser - Brewdog’s one I remember. Some of the banks did good things around financial support and major supermarkets were agile around organising themselves.  

For us at Bupa, we stuck to a simple mantra in our communications - focusing on the welfare of people and playing our part.  Those factors shaped our communications across all of our audiences, not just towards our customers, but also our employees, our partners, governments, wider society.

What’s resonated more with me personally are not the big corporates, but more the smaller local brands. I think there’s been great vulnerability in their messaging and people have really rallied round them. These sorts of businesses are gems in their communities and there’s a lot of brand equity there. Hopefully, particularly in the hospitality space, that good will be rewarded when it can.

We’re still in quite uncertain times – still in lockdown but cautiously hopeful for the vaccine rollout – what’s your strategy moving forward for the next few months?

We’ll continue to accelerate digitalisation of our services, products and propositions for our customers. This period has shown there’s real benefit for all, which we believe will remain. The technology works –and it’s effective. I see no reason to scale back rather than scale up in that particular direction. Similarly, I think we’ll continue to develop a more flexible approach to the way we return to work at scale. Obviously in some of our healthcare settings it’s essential we have teams there in a physical capacity, but for so many of our office-based teams I don’t expect to  go back to exactly the way things were before. Again, the technology works, it’s safe, it’s secure, and it works for people. It also opens us up to more talent everywhere if travel and location is less of an issue five days a week. I definitely expect a long-term shift, not necessarily anything radical, but a shift for sure. I think our ways of working – like lots of companies – will remain altered going forward. And I think there are lots of positives to that.

Posted on 07.12.2020

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