In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, Holly Roach looks at the contingency plans activated by key pensions administrators to ensure business continuity.
A number of firms have already put a range of measures and contingency plans in place to ensure vital work continues during this period, while many are considering the next steps should significant disruption increase.
Aon partner Gary Cowler said: "Within our pensions administration business, our payroll function, the day to day administration teams and our Pension Service Centre (member contact centre) are fully operational. We have over 650 pensions administration specialists across three locations and have successfully transitioned to a home working model for over 95% of colleagues (each exceptions, working in an Aon office, agreed and signed off at a business leader level).
"The transition was capable of being implemented in just a few working days as a result of: the longer term planning Aon does to respond to disruptive events and the Covid-19 specific planning in recent weeks; the investment in IT infrastructure across the teams (from laptops for all staff, to flexible contact centre technology to a robust network); the robustness and consistency of the operating model built over recent years.
"For the avoidance of doubt, the Pension Service Centre which handles front-line member calls, is also operating successfully with colleagues based at home. The upgrade in our contact centre technology in 2019 has supported our resilience in this important member-facing service. Together, these points mean that we are maintaining service, and members can continue to access our team and their scheme through the same range of communication channels; web, phone and mail."
He added: "We're proud of how our operating model has held up and the whole team has rallied to support clients and their members but clearly we may be in the very early stages of this challenging period. There is a long way to go, so zero room for complacency; along with the wider Aon team, we will continue to monitor all aspects of experience and our model in light of emerging circumstances and government advice."
Barnett Waddingham partner Julian Mainwood said: "As you would expect we continue to monitor official government guidance to protect our staff and ensure we can continue to provide pension administration services to our clients. The spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19) is unpredictable and so our specific business continuity plans need to be agile in response to this threat and as such our measures are constantly evolving.
"Clearly the spread of the virus, and the effect it will have on the ability of our staff to work, continues to evolve. In terms of specific measures, at the moment it is very much a case of business as usual albeit with many staff working remotely. Should it not be possible to function on a business as usual footing over the coming weeks then we will look to utilise staff in other teams and offices to alleviate any pinch points. Fortunately our fully integrated systems means it is straightforward to allocate work to other teams and this is something that has been tried and tested.
"Should it be needed we have identified a prioritisation order of tasks to ensure ‘critical' tasks such as paying pensioners continue uninterrupted. Other less urgent tasks or projects may have to be temporarily put on hold. As mentioned earlier though our intention is to deliver pension administration services on a ‘business as usual' basis.
"In line with latest government advice we have moved to a position of home working where possible. Fortunately all staff have laptops, headsets and chargers and can work remotely while also maintaining contact with clients and other team members through secure instant messaging groups. We expect to adopt this approach for the foreseeable future until such time the official guidance is that it is safe to return to office based working, be that on a phased or some other approach.
"We also plan to maintain an office presence on site, where it is safe to do so, to receive post, scan items as well as arranging printing and posting. For those staff working in the office they will be positioned so not to be in close proximity to other work colleagues, e.g. not next to or directly opposite anyone. To make this effective we also need to ensure ‘social distancing' where applicable at lunch times and breaks.
"To make sure staff do not feel isolated and continue to feel part of a team we are arranging daily video conference calls to catch up and discuss work priorities for the day."
He added: "These are challenging and unprecedented times for everyone and so there is a sense that ‘normal' rules may have to adapt to the changing circumstances. For instance we plan to continue meeting our contractual service level standards (SLAs) where possible but there may be occasions where we have to prioritise other work items and so usual SLAs may not be achieved. This is necessary to ensure urgent and ‘critical' tasks such as maintaining pensioner payments and death cases are worked on first and we hope clients will appreciate and support this approach, should it be required.
"The ability to continue paying benefits is critical and so we are working with our investment teams to make sure we can ensure a flow of cash should circumstances change and normal authorisation channels are not accessible. This may mean alternative arrangements where ‘wet signatures' are required. We are very aware though that any change in process can introduce risk and we are reminding our staff to be extra vigilant around potential scams.
"Where possible we will also want to direct members online to their ‘member self-service' account so that they can access information and their documents from there. Over the coming months we do anticipate a heightened demand from members who want to access their information online and we are keen to get them set up do this. However, we recognise not everyone will have access to the internet and we will continue to provide information to them in the usual ways.
"Finally, we are very aware of our staff's wellbeing at this worrying time. We have set up a page on our intranet where staff can get information whether that is tips on working from home or asking questions about anything coronavirus related. To avoid staff feeling isolated we are also encouraging ‘virtual coffee breaks' to allow teams to catch up via video link and discuss how things are going for them."
Broadstone chief executive Grant Stobart said: "While Covid-19 is new and some of the challenges it poses are unique, our commitment remains the same; we remain a trusted partner to our 1,500 clients. We are monitoring the coronavirus situation very closely and continually evolving our response to make sure we still provide appropriate levels of service to our clients and also protect the wellbeing of all our staff.
"Where possible we have moved as many of our staff across all of our locations to a remote-working model. Our investment in platforms over the past few years has enabled most of our staff to work from home and will ensure, that we are able to meet our clients' needs.
"Data security remains of utmost concern to us. Employees working remotely will be using our Virtual Private Network (VPN), ensuring that private, sensitive, and protected information remains secure.
"In some necessary instances, to ensure service levels are maintained, we will be moving to a rotating team model to balance working remotely and providing necessary in-office services. This is to limit the number of people working together at one time and taking into consideration advice provided by the government in relation to social distancing. The teams involved will be rotating on a weekly basis."
He continued: "Our senior management team continues to convene on a daily basis to ensure that we are continuing to put the necessary protocols in place to minimise disruption to our services."
Hymans Robertson head of third-party administration (TPA) Gary Evans revealed: "We have been monitoring the developing situation closely and have business continuity plans in place. This includes a pandemic plan which has been specifically reviewed in relation to the Covid-19 virus and we are now in the process of invoking it. Given the ever-changing nature of the situation our dedicated crisis management team is meeting on a daily basis to oversee the delivery of the plan in line with every development.
"As a result of the government announcement on Monday, we have asked all our people to work from home. We have robust and secure systems in place to allow this as we support an agile workforce. Many of our administrators have been successfully working remotely for two years. We have recognised that a small number of our administration employees are required to be in the office to performing business critical tasks. They are in the office but maintaining social distancing processes.
"We have arranged for the secure printing and posting of documents to members to be carried out by the small office based team or by our third party printing supplier. All correspondence will be transmitted by the remotely working administrators and is via secure and compliant methods."
"If, for example, large numbers of staff find themselves unable to work due to the spread of the virus or external actions, such as more widespread social distancing, we have procedures in place to prioritise processes based on the severity of the situation. Key processes would be payrolls and benefit payments, with highest priority being given to death and serious ill health lump sum benefits.
"We have carried out a successful business continuity plan scenario to test a full office closure on 12 March in preparation (inclusive of TPA, payroll, accounting, cash management and systems support teams)."
"Recent events have shown that we are exceptionally well-equipped to function as normal for our clients while working remotely. We are also encouraging our clients to highlight the benefits of engaging their scheme members with online self-service as an efficient and secure means of corresponding through member web services. We are also advising our clients to be confident in telling their members that their pension payments and other pension benefits will continue to be made in a timely manner."
XPS Pensions published a planning update which revealed the firm is "continuing to monitor the situation arising from the threat of coronavirus and its impact on our staff and business".
It continued: "Our multiple offices, and IT infrastructure which supports remote working as part of business as usual mean that, at this stage in the pandemic, we are confident that we can continue to operate with little disruption. However, this note is aimed to update you on what actions XPS Pensions Group is currently taking to prepare for potential disruption as a result of staff illness, locations being inaccessible, wider government restrictions or supply chain issues.
"We recognise that this is a fast moving and unpredictable situation, and the business is adopting a flexible approach in response, in conjunction with regular meetings of our executive committee.
"We have also reviewed our supply chain to ensure we understand our reliance on key third parties and have identified appropriate contingency plans e.g. alternate approved suppliers. We are in advance stages of planning to ensure high levels of service if the disruption were to continue over an extended period."
Premier Pensions head of pension administration Girish Menezes revealed: "Most TPAs have made arrangements for administrators to work from home via work laptops or remote connections to virtual machines. This will enable employees to continue delivery of services while avoiding non-essential contact and travel.
"There are some ramifications, such as the unavailability of dual screens for administrators, restrictions on printing, dependence on the quality of home internet connections and background noise during telephone calls.
"There will also be employees who will have caring responsibilities if schools shut down. This will impact productivity and clients will need to relax expectations in terms of service level agreements. Administrators will prioritise work based on a well-trodden path: pensioner payroll, deaths, defined contribution transactions, retirement settlements and forthcoming retirements, in that order, or similar."
He added: "On the positive side, working from home should mean that the risk of illness is lower and so staff strength should be high. Also, a number of functions (consultants, accounts, etc) should quite easily work remotely with little or no impact to overall services.
"We continue to monitor the situation closely and are especially concerned about the more vulnerable within our workforce, due to underlying health conditions, or within their families"
What are your plans for business continuity during the outbreak? Let Holly Roach know at [email protected]