Thriving in Uncertain Times.

Windhoek, Dec. 1 7- – Old Mutual Namibia opened the doors of its new Windhoek office in 1920. One hundred years—and hundreds of thousands of customers launched on a journey of achieving their lifetime financial goals and securing their financial security—later, Old Mutual Namibia stands as the premier financial service provider in Namibia, and for good reason. 

Throughout the course of a century, Old Mutual has walked its customers through the fluctuating seasons of life, providing timely and tailormade solutions for changing needs and risks to shape their future to thrive. An essential part of this journey entails preparing for challenging inevitabilities like retirement and death as well as the undesirable storms of life like disability and retrenchment.

2020 saw such a storm hit with unparalleled reach and ferocity. Individuals, corporates and nations were forced to weather uncharted waters and unprecedented challenges when a global pandemic without cure brought life as we knew it to a shuddering halt, closing borders, isolating individuals, shuttering businesses and decimating economies. COVID-19 also presented Old Mutual with a unique task: continuing to protect, nurture and grow its customers’ financial future during a season of unheard-of uncertainty, while grappling with the challenges of continuing to thrive in a new reality and present a blueprint for the Namibian industry to follow. 

A Sudden New Reality

The demands of a novel crisis do, of course, require novel solutions. One of the most significant shifts entailed a lightning relocation of operations from a central, fully-equipped location characterised by face-to-face human interaction to working from a remote, decentralised and often ill-equipped location characterised by isolation and virtual interaction—all while maintaining productivity, business continuity, customer service and the emotional and physical wellbeing of staff.

According to Holger Oberprieler, Old Mutual Operations Executive, the key to successfully maintaining equilibrium during times of crisis is continuous, proactive preparation for the eventualities of an uncertain future during times of relative stability. “Old Mutual places a high emphasis on business resilience,” he says. “Every year we review our business continuity plans to ensure they are updated and stay top-of-mind and do scenario planning.”

The painstaking groundwork paid off. When the COVID-19 hit, Old Mutual was able to execute the plans, ensuring a near seamless continuation of operations. “There was that bridging period where people had to adapt,” he acknowledges, but on the whole, “I am pleased to say that it did not affect productivity significantly.”

The new way of working did, of course, come with its own demands for thinking out of the box. “Innovation is often misunderstood as a high-tech solution to all problems,” Oberprieler explains, “but in essence, it is structured change to benefit stakeholders.”

COVID-19, he notes, fast-tracked technological innovation and “has resulted in many years of digital progress having been realised in just a few months, purely out of necessity.” Almost overnight, face-to-face interaction—between employees and with customers—switched to a digital interface, rendering online tools like MS Teams and Zoom essential.

Thriving in a new digital reality does, however, require the relevant tools, such as access to a laptop and sufficient internet connectivity, which proved a challenge in some areas. Old Mutual stepped in to bridge any gaps, providing laptops and upgrading employees’ bandwidth to 4G to ensure uninterrupted connectivity.

Shifting Digital Gears

For Old Mutual, whose business model requires frequent interaction with customers, the shift from face-to-face to digital went well beyond online team meetings and brainstorming sessions, requiring the implementation and utilisation of alternative channels, like drop-off boxes for document submission, WhatsApp and social media like Facebook to maintain exceptional customer access and service. Moreover, Old Mutual’s commitment to maintaining the information security of its customers at all times required a secure USSD channel to safely obtain customers’ consent for a digital transaction.

Old Mutual also rolled out a new flagship life-cover proposition, known as Old Mutual Protect (OMP) during 2020, Oberprieler continues. The ground-breaking product proved perfect for the season, “as it allows for a complete online experience between the adviser and the customer,” foregoing the traditional pen-on-paper signature for consent via the secure Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) channel. 

“This is really innovative,” he holds, “and positions the customer experience at a new digital level.” Moreover, OMP’s success served as the driving force behind the development of a number of other digital channels, which Oberprieler says customers can look forward to in the near future.

Keeping the Home Fires Burning   

Maintaining the physical and emotional wellbeing of its employees was another key focus for Old Mutual during the pandemic. The shuddering shifts in all the details of everyday life, including working from home, meant additional strain and demands on employees as they divided their attention between objectives, deadlines and deliverables and family responsibilities. Suddenly, the foundation of an established workflow, a workplace culture and the support structure of co-workers also ceased to exist, sometimes leading to culture shock. With this understanding, Old Mutual made every effort to walk its employees through the uncertain times. 

“As part of the Old Mutual Limited Group, we are fortunate to benefit from great initiatives available to all 30,000 employees across the African continent,” Oberprieler explains. These include access to professional counsellors and weekly webinars on topics like physical exercise at home, coping with stress, managing personal finances and basic tips to enhance productivity when working at home. Senior leadership also addressed employees regularly on the effect of the coronavirus on the business. “It is important to communicate effectively. Uncertainty causes fear, and that is addressed through good communication.”

Forging a sense of togetherness during the time of isolation also proved crucial, he continues. “We encouraged teams to check in with each other…Some teams found it useful to meet at 8:00 am every day to plan the day.” Another popular avenue of socialising was virtual coffee sessions, where teams met online to connect with each other rather than only to discuss work. “This was an important part of maintaining team cohesion and connecting with each other.”

As with any other major change in life, some adapted better than others, Oberprieler acknowledges. Some enjoyed a solid support structure and a comfortable working environment while other faced the unknown alone. However, throughout the days, weeks and eventually months of working from home, Old Mutual’s Human Capital team diligently surveyed needs, moods and attitudes, providing intervention, assistance and counselling to those in need. The effort paid off. “I am happy to say that most of the employees managed to go through the emotional rollercoaster without long-term despair.” 

The Bigger Picture

Apart from caring for the needs of its customers and employees during the pandemic, Old Mutual also remained committed to the wellbeing of Namibia as a whole, living up to its promise of putting its clients, staff and the community in which it operates at the centre of its operations. The company has a long and proud legacy of giving back to the Namibian society, ploughing back 1% of its after-tax profit and investing more than N$8 million over the past 13 years to facilitate economic and social transformation. COVID-19 was no different. Old Mutual was one of the first organisations in Namibia to make a significant contribution to the COVID-19 relief fund, committing N$5 million to feed the poor and vulnerable and upgrade Namibia’s testing capacity. In addition, Old Mutual employees also donated N$62,409 worth of household goods to poverty-stricken families. 

In a bid to relieve the COVID-induced economic strain, Old Mutual also offered premium holidays on most of its products and offers Business Interruption Cover on a number of its short-term insurance policies.

Towards Tomorrow

As Namibia continues to emerge from the lockdown, businesses are opening their doors and employees are making a sporadic and intermittent return to the office. However, Oberprieler cautions against celebrating the end of the crisis just yet. “We are still navigating it,” he points out, “but I think we are weathering the storm quite well.”

It is likely that humanity will be forced to deal with COVID-19 and its effects for some time to come, bringing with it a new reality that entails working from home, an increased dependence on internet connectivity, digital interaction, functioning as a unified team from a decentralised location, traveling less for business and managing people without looking over their shoulder. Moreover, stringent best-practice hygiene protocols, social distancing and wearing masks have become part of the daily routine.

It doesn’t mean that Oberprieler’ s perception of the future is altogether gloomy. Each of these new realities has both a positive and a negative side, he explains. “It depends on the individual and his/her circumstance on the one hand, and on the other hand on the organization and the way it operates.” Besides, “one thing that Old Mutual prides itself in—given our 100-year legacy, is that tough times help shape us to emerge even stronger.” 

For businesses daunted by the prospect of walking into an unknown future, Oberprieler offers the following advice: “We need to be clear on what the non-negotiables are from a business and output perspective and be flexible on the way to achieve them. COVID-19 showed us that this flexibility is possible. Now we need to embrace and manage it.”  

Robert Maseka