Darren Philp: Covid-19 will give the industry the 'kick up the backside' it needs to move to modernity

Beer and brainfood: How Smart Pension has coped with a crisis

clock • 5 min read

Darren Philp talks about how Smart Pension has coped with lockdown and shares his views on the industry’s post Covid-19 future.

It was Monday 16 March and I'd left work earlier than I would usually do to go and pick up some cash from a pub. It's a long story but they ruined my new Dr Martens so I managed to get them to buy me some new ones, otherwise, it really would have been an expensive night out.

My commute home was dominated by updates from the daily government press conference. It was a pivotal moment and at that point, it was crystal clear that things were going to get radically different, very quickly. We swiftly decided to close the office and invoked our business continuity plan (a week before official lockdown) and communicated with staff to make sure that everyone was briefed on the latest situation and our response. There was uncertainty and, understandably, people were worried about what it would mean for the business and for them personally.

With our business continuity plan activated, the first priority was to make sure that we communicated effectively with our staff and customers. We needed to make sure our staff were safe and also well equipped to work from home. The latter was made all the more easier given that we are a 100% cloud-based business, (including our workplace platform, all IT systems and our phone system) so it was relatively simple to keep things going, and all staff were working effectively remotely within a day.

Our initial and ongoing response

Once everyone was up and running, we then focussed on two priorities. Firstly we needed to make sure that we could support and help all of our customers - advisers, employers and members. Secondly, we focussed on how to keep the Smart culture alive virtually. Our company culture is very important particularly in times like this.

We set up teams to work through employee and employer ‘pain points'. We noticed employers were starting to cancel direct debits as they tried to protect their cash flow position. Also, we noticed an increase in members opting out of the scheme. As concern grew about the impact of coronavirus (Covid-19) on auto enrolment, we began discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and The Pensions Regulator (TPR) to make sure that they knew what was happening on the ground. We were delighted when the government announced that the Job Retention Scheme would cover auto-enrolment contributions and, in turn, TPR extended its reporting requirements.

For our customers we implemented four key initiatives:

  • To help employers who were struggling with paying their contributions we began sending reminder emails at 30, 60, 90, 120 and 150 days with more information about the support available to them.
  • We also introduced a flexible payment plan to allow employers to defer paying their contributions until they received financial support from the government's Job Retention Scheme.
  • To support members we quickly introduced a new feature that allowed them to pause rather than cease their membership. We understood that many of our members would financially be thinking in the short term, so we wanted to create a way that their long-term savings wouldn't suffer if they forgot to re-enrol in the future.
  • To protect our members we ran a scam awareness campaign using nudge messaging on our platform and on our social media accounts, to help our members be scam aware.

These activities were supported through proactive communications and explained on our new Covid-19 section on our website.

Internally, we kick-started a series of communications and activities to support and strengthen our culture. We introduced virtual Town Halls every Friday so that the business could get together and receive regular updates from senior managers. We also launched internal activities like lunch and learn sessions, mindfulness, ‘beer and brainfood' sessions and even yoga.

We also helped our Smart parents by running Sharky & George sessions to help keep the kids entertained. All of these elements have been key to maintain our vibrant culture and help people collaborate remotely. Some of our staff have said that they feel even more connected with the business now, than before lockdown.

We've responded quickly as an agile and technology-based company, but we are keen to keep learning and improving. As our head of engineering would say, it is all about Kaizen (continuous improvement).

The new normal

The current crisis has accelerated the move to better digital ways of working and use of video technology, but it has also exposed the fact that some systems are borderline obsolete or, at best, seriously outdated. It will certainly be interesting to see whether Covid-19 kickstarts a technological revolution in pensions and drives more providers to move away from legacy platforms, thus increasing flexibility and, importantly, security and resilience. In my view, this is long overdue, and Covid-19 might just turn out to be the catalyst that gives the pensions industry the kick up the backside it needs to introduce more modern systems and ways of working.

Digital events will no doubt take off (and have already done so), but how will we balance physical and virtual events to ensure we can continue to have the important discussions that shape the future of our industry?

We are currently running member webinars and the take up of those has exceeded expectations. It is interesting to see the questions that members have, particularly around investments as many are worried and concerned about the performance of their hard-earned pension savings.

It's certainly been a strange time and all businesses have had to adapt. We're all learning as we are going, but we are succeeding at adapting to the new normal. Life and business goes on and we've had some fantastic achievements. During lockdown, we have onboarded almost 50 new members of staff, welcomed two new strategic investors, as part of a wider £40m funding round, gone live with our technology platform in Ireland and Dubai. Yes, it is challenging, but we can all learn from how we've responded to recent events. On a positive personal note, my commute is certainly a lot shorter, every cloud....!

Darren Philp is director of policy and communications at Smart Pension

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