If the deeply disruptive events of 2020 teach us anything, it may be that we as insurers – and as individuals – should get comfortable with asking ourselves uncomfortable questions.
Can we only suffer from social distancing, or can we instead benefit from the richness of online communication? Can we turn societal problems, or even disasters, into opportunities to help others? Can we transform a crisis into a way to disrupt complacency and spur positive change?
When COVID-19 first made an appearance in Italy, I suggested to my colleagues that it would be better for our office to shift to working entirely from home. Some of us felt overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation and the choices confronting us, and much discussion and debate followed. Ultimately, though, we acted decisively and early to close the office. In doing so, we were able to take control of an uncertain situation. We quickly switched to online operations, began conducting both internal and external business meetings virtually, and were also able to arrange online social activities such as remote coffee dates, happy hours, and team yoga classes.
Coming Together, Operating Apart
Similarly, the world has had to adjust the way we work and communicate. Health authorities required so called social distancing, but I would argue that this distance is only physical and not social. Personally, I began to meet and interact with many more people online than I had when commuting to an office. I became reacquainted with old friends, relatives, colleagues, and clients. I came in contact with far more professionals and virtually met more people with whom I share leisure interests. The technology for telecommuting and social networking has been available for years, but it took a global crisis to inspire my uncles, aunts, and me to show up for a video call. While physical distance divided us, we felt closer to each other.
Lockdown orders, too, were uncomfortable. No one enjoys being physically restricted, but I found that while at home, I was able to quickly discover (and rediscover) relationships that enriched my professional and personal life. People who seemed unapproachable suddenly became available for a chat, and professional collaboration has been at the highest levels in my career, both among coworkers and with clients.
More Problems, More Opportunities
From a business point of view, the pandemic presented three major challenges to life and health insurers in Europe:
- Social distancing has disrupted traditional distribution practices as agents and banks struggled to reach customers who were not able to visit offices and branches.
- Rising mortality rates, especially among people who had one or more medical conditions, are not only tragic, but also force insurers to unravel actuarial problems.
- Even survivors of COVID-19 can experience complications after dramatic days in intensive care.
All these trends have upended expectations and unsettled entrenched business practices in the industry. They have been deeply disorienting and forced many of us out of our "comfort zone."
But the ability to act despite – and even because of – this discomfort, has distinguished so many insurers and opened up new paths of innovation in our industry. Events of the last few months prove that it is possible to rise to even the most extreme challenges. Workers in all walks of life have done so throughout the past year, from essential employees to healthcare providers.
In our industry, we are also finding new ways to support each other and help customers get the protection they need. At RGA, we worked together with clients to develop new processes to enable insurers to more effectively market products digitally. Online distribution has been gradually encroaching on traditional distribution channels for some time, but the pandemic has supercharged this transition, and online insurance sales have seen an unprecedented boost.
In addition, the value of insurance has never been more apparent, especially among populations with one or more conditions. Our underwriters now have an opportunity to use their skills to the fullest to assess risk for these underinsured but more complex applicants, just as our product developers have offered innovative hospital cash covers to support hospitalized patients. This moment, in other words, has empowered insurers to fulfill our purpose and act on our ”raison d’être”: paying life and health claims and protecting people.
Looking back at 2020, it is clear that no single villain caused this crisis; a virus did, and it happened to all of us, together. It forced the entire world to face uncomfortable questions, to challenge familiar assumptions, and to rapidly rethink our way of life, our priorities, and our business practices. It has not been easy, but in so many ways, as individuals and as an industry, we have embraced this moment of urgency and risen to this challenge. We have opened up new opportunities that would have seemed unobtainable before. Yes, it has been a frightening time, but I am inspired by all that has been achieved amid this uncertainty and change. And this leads to a final, uncomfortable question that I ask myself: what else can I achieve that seemed impossible just the day before?