Building a Flexible Workforce with Sun Life Financial's Emily Schur

TFI Talent Talks Interview Series: Part 4

Canadians have worked hard to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, adhering to the government-recommended social-distancing and isolation protocols. Employers have supported this effort by embracing remote work and ensuring that employees who can work from home are set up to be safe and productive.

Emily Schur Sun Life

Emily Schur
Senior Vice President, Global Talent



As different jurisdictions turn towards planning for the eventual re-opening of the economy and physical workplaces, employers have also begun to plan for the future. Will work and workplaces merely pick up where they left off? Or will leaders use the learnings from the COVID-19 experience to power workplace change?  What innovations and best practices have we employed during the pandemic that we would like to  embrace as our new working normal?

Emily Schur, Senior Vice President, Global Talent with Sun Life, is here to share Sun Life’s response to the next normal and their approach to building a flexible workforce.

Julie Bryski (Senior Director, Talent Initiatives, Toronto Finance International): Welcome Emily! What is your approach to getting global talent back into the office? Is getting everyone back into physical office space your end goal?

Emily Schur (Senior Vice President, Global Talent, Sun Life Financial): To answer your last question first – it is not our goal to eventually have all employees return to a physical office space. Employee health and safety continue to be our top priorities.  Sun Life has developed a set of principles to guide us in our decision-making for the future state, as the situation related to the global pandemic continues to change rapidly. Our final plan will be based on employee choice and flexibility.

In a recent employee survey, we asked employees for their preferences related to physical workplaces and 75% of our employees reported that they would like to continue to work “all, or mostly from home”. For those who do want to return to the office at some point in time, we will follow governmental and regulatory guidelines to ensure that safety protocols are followed.

Moving forward, we will focus on sustaining and preserving some of the new behaviors and norms that we have adopted during the pandemic. Examples are the continued use of video-conferencing and collaboration tools, as they are important connection points for people.

Our employee survey also indicated that Sun Life employees have a high degree of confidence in our leaders – in fact, the highest that we have had to date.  Our leaders are doing things differently, such as more frequent displays of caring, sharing more information as soon as it becomes available, and creating extra touch points with their teams.  These are the behaviors and norms that we want to preserve.

Julie Bryski: Sun Life has embarked on a trailblazing program to develop a more flexible workforce. What has prompted this journey?
The war for talent has not waned. It has merely changed and taken on a different form.

Emily Schur: The war for talent has not waned.  It has merely changed and taken on a different form. The future of work is here and a number of external factors are impacting the war for talent:

  1. Generational identity differences and preferences - newer and younger workers have different expectations and value systems compared with the more tenured generations.
  2. A zero interest-rate environment makes every person’s contribution count that much more, as we are constantly evaluating expenses and cost initiatives.
  3. Client, customer, and employee demand for choice is at an all-time high.
  4. Requirements for new skills is rapidly evolving, with a continued scarcity of in-demand skills in the marketplace.

Against this backdrop of disruption and increased competition, we need to find, retain, and develop top talent.  We have to be more flexible ourselves, and pivot to be attractive to new talent. Moving towards a flexible workforce is an important component to ensure that we are a destination for top talent.

The external factors combine to challenge us to think in a radical way about how we want to operate.  The pandemic hasn’t changed our talent strategy, but rather has accelerated it, and brought it into sharper focus.  It has dramatically increased the adoption of new ways of working, has allowed us to deploy talent regardless of geography or physical location, and allowed us to move faster on a number of talent initiatives. 

Julie Bryski: Can you describe the current state and your proposed future state for this shift? How will your workforce need to change?

Emily Schur: Our current talent structure is a mix of traditional and innovative components.  We have processes that have been developed, curated, and incrementally improved on over many years.

Talent acquisition is a great example. When a role becomes available, our instinct is to post that job externally, and follow the typical recruitment process, which is lengthy and can take months to complete. Once hired, there is a handoff from the talent acquisition team to the hiring manager. This process helps to perpetuate the norm that firstly, we should look externally to fill vacant positions, and secondly, that hiring managers are then the owners of that talent. 

One of our greatest opportunities is to deconstruct these kinds of standards, norms, and processes, and move toward a more cyclical, dependable, informed, and intuitive set of practices.

One of our greatest opportunities is to deconstruct these kinds of standards, norms, and processes, and move toward a more cyclical, dependable, informed, and intuitive set of practices. We want to move from practices that are industry-standard and process-driven to frameworks that are more cyclical, iterative, and sustainable over time.

To continue the talent acquisition example, we would move away from posting for a job, and instead would identify the skills required for the work. We would shift from identifying candidates with the “right” resume for the role, and instead would look for candidates with the required skill sets for the work. This approach increases flexibility because we are not focused on the years of experience – rather we are evaluating candidates’ skills, regardless of where they acquired the skills.

Many of the skills we are seeking are available in our internal talent pool. We want to broadcast the variety of interesting work that is available across the firm to our internal talent. Employees can be deployed to new projects and teams in non-traditional ways, such as shorter, tenured “gigs”.  A “gig” structure allows employees the opportunity to work on different teams for a few hours a week, tackling interesting problems, while continuing to contribute to their day-to-day work.  

To accomplish this, we need to create transparency. Employees will have line-of-sight and access to opportunities across the organization. Participating in gig opportunities allows employees to acquire and demonstrate new skills – which in turn strengthens their skills resume and internal appeal - leading to deployment on other pieces of work.  This generates a rich experience or series of experiences for employees, which complements our investment in talent.

As employees think differently about their careers and the benefits of participating on different projects, our leaders will also need to adjust their mindset when it comes to talent. We need to move away from leaders viewing talent as an owned resource, to seeing talent as resources that can be shared across the enterprise. When talent is considered a shared resource, managers can think differently about the work being done today, and what skills will be needed tomorrow, as automation and increased digitalization impacts the work we do.  They can identify the higher value work and look for different skills to get that work done. As the work evolves, our employees have the opportunity to build the skills needed for the future.

Julie Bryski: You are describing a fundamental shift in the way we think about talent – everything from leadership behaviours to the way we think about skills, experience and jobs. How will you get there?

Emily Schur: We are starting with a minimum viable product (MVP) approach. MVP is a common agile term and it means that we are testing, learning, and adapting as we go.  We believe that going small and fast is going to be better and more easily digested by our leaders, managers, and employees. 

We’ve talked about the mindset shift required to go from thinking about owning talent to building talent and skills for the enterprise. We've created some small MVP-styled pilots to support this shift and demonstrate the possibilities.

We have launched a skills inventory pilot, to capture skills in our HRIS (Human Resources Information System).  Employees are self-reporting skills which helps to inform the skills ontology. It gives us an early picture of what skills we have now and helps us to think about the best way to group similar skills.

In the second pilot, we launched gig opportunities across the human resources team. A gig is defined as anywhere between a few hours a week, to a few months of intensive project work. This pilot allows us to gauge employee and leader interest, and to test the effectiveness of the skills inventory in matching skills to work.  We have had some good early results.  In Phase 1, we posted 44 gigs targeted to the HR team of ~250 employees.  Over 60 employees expressed interest, and the majority of the gigs had more than 50 skill matches, meaning that they had automatically been connected to skills captured in the skills inventory. We filled 32 gigs within 2 weeks.

This tells us that there is a lot of interest.  It also confirms that the skills employees have identified are relevant for the type of work being posted.  

The third pilot is a review of the talent processes to better align with a flexible workforce.  We have started with performance management and are moving from a “single-manager” process to incorporating feedback from multiple managers and teams over the year.  As talent becomes more mobile and teams more fluid – forming and disbanding throughout the year – an individual’s performance as a team member becomes as, or more, important than their individual performance.   On our agile teams, employees will receive an individual rating and a team-based rating, which will be blended to formulate the year-end rating.

We will use the learnings from these pilots to fine-tune the programs and will launch more broadly throughout the organization. 

Julie Bryski: What do you think the biggest challenges will be as you move towards this new model?

Emily Schur: The first challenge is changing leaders’ mindsets, which we have discussed.  A flexible workforce is a new way of viewing talent, and we will work with leaders to encourage the movement of talent across the organization. 

The second challenge is the operational framework and the way that we manage our financials.  We currently budget investment in work and manage headcount by business group.  We report our financials and our progress throughout the year based on a set number of head count.   These established processes are not conducive to a flexible workforce where people move in and out of teams.  Those teams aren't necessarily aligned to a single cost center or a single business group.   As we become more flexible, we will become more integrated as well.  The backbone of our financial management systems will need to be realigned to support this new way of working.  This change will be a significant undertaking as the current systems are embedded in everything we do.

Julie Bryski: What will success look like for Sun Life?

Emily Schur: The purpose of creating a flexible workforce is to generate true value for the company.  We will know we are successful when we can demonstrate that our people and skills, and the internal movement of talent, align with our critical strategic work streams.  

We recognize that big companies such as ours are complex and it can be complicated to navigate and get work done. When we reframe talent as one pool of skills, where people can move around that pool easily, then we can get work done faster by deploying people to priority work, while maintaining operational excellence in other parts of the business. 

We will be successful when we complete the skills inventory of all the incredible talent that we have, and we can instantaneously pair that talent with new work based on their skills, their learning, and their career development goals. 

...we are striving to create an environment where employees are excited to build their skills and experiences through helping Sun Life get work done and solve interesting problems.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are striving to create an environment where employees are excited to build their skills and experiences through helping Sun Life get work done and solve interesting problems. Employees will have an opportunity to develop a career that feels very different.  They will be able to deploy themselves internally and try out new skills, as opposed to leaving the company to get those skills elsewhere. When employees feel that they can build an interesting career here, our internal retention and redeployment of talent will increase, creating that cycle of continual skill development. That’s success.

About Emily Schur, Senior Vice President, Global Talent, Sun Life Financial

Emily Schur is Senior Vice President, Global Talent, for Sun Life Financial, Inc. She is responsible for directing the global strategy in organizational design, talent management, workforce analytics, talent sourcing, leadership & employee development and diversity and inclusion.  Emily holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut. She is Chair of the Simmons School of Business Advisory Council and a member of the Boston Club, an executive women’s professional network.

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