Trusting People with Aviva Canada's Danny Davies

TFI Talent Talks Interview Series: Part 5

COVID-19’s silver lining – how building trust has accelerated employee empowerment at Aviva Canada.

As governments and employers continue their planning for a staged re-opening of the economy and physical workplaces, we continue our discussion on the lessons learned through the COVID-19 crisis and the implications for people in the next normal.

Danny Davies AVIVA

Danny Davies
Chief People Officer

8647_Aviva Primary Logo and Tab - full colour - RGB - png


The old saying that necessity is the mother of invention has proven to be true as financial institutions find themselves conducting business and interacting with their people in ways that were unimaginable and frankly, thought to be impossible, pre-COVID-19. While there have been challenges to overcome, there have also been some unexpected positive aspects of working through a pandemic. New ways of working together have changed our understanding of what is possible in the future of work.

Danny Davies, Chief People Officer with Aviva Canada shares his perspective on how trusting people has led to increased employee empowerment and leadership accountability, and accelerated aspects of Aviva’s culture.

Julie Bryski (Senior Director, Talent Initiatives, Toronto Finance International): Welcome Danny! As a bit of background for our readers, please tell us how Aviva Canada initially approached the global shift to working remotely.

Danny Davies (Chief People Officer with Aviva Canada): When it became apparent that there was a big change coming for the way we work, I immediately called my colleagues based in Singapore and Italy. I got really helpful insights from the people who were further along the path. As no one has been through this before, it was brilliant to be able to speak to people with knowledge of how the pandemic was playing out in their jurisdictions. They were able to share their view of what we could expect regarding government and healthcare directives, the need for social distancing, and other pandemic protocols implemented in their regions. They shared how the guidelines might work and allowed us to leverage and build from their good work. I was lucky to have the expertise of those further into the changes caused by the pandemic.

When building our response to the pandemic, Aviva Canada’s CEO, Jason Storah, and I agreed on two important principles.

Number one - we wanted to be a bit ahead of healthcare advice. I know that sounds strange - but we didn't want to be constantly reacting and responding to the next government directive. We also didn’t want to alarm people unnecessarily, so it was a balancing act.

Our second principle was that we were going to trust people. We didn't always know what that meant when we talked about it upfront, but we knew that it was going to be a very different work environment, with a lot more people working from home. We made a conscious decision at the very beginning to trust people.

Julie Bryski: How have you brought the guiding principle of “trust people” to life?

Danny Davies: It has evolved over the course of time and some if it has happened to us. I was glad that we had the conversation upfront and were able to use the principle as a guide post.

In the first week, we moved people to 50% occupancy in the office or less, then very quickly moved to just essential workers in the office. We established All People calls and All Leader calls and the CEO set a great tone. His message was simple: Whatever you do, look after your family, or personal situation, first. After that, we appreciate what you can do for Aviva, for our customers and brokers.

We never had a conversation about mandatory work practices or expectations, such as individuals guaranteeing their ability to work 35 hours per week, or needing to explain their child care arrangements during work hours, as some organizations have done.

None of those conversations happened with us. We established an adult environment and reiterated, “we appreciate what you can do”. I think that we ended up with more discretionary effort using this approach. Our people wanted to do the right thing, because Aviva was doing the right thing by them.

During the Q&A session of the first All People call that we had, we heard lots of family life in the background – kids, dogs, etc., and that became normal. It became a topic of conversation, rather than something to be ashamed of, or to hide when working with customers or brokers.

The tone that we set, and the acknowledgement of people’s new everyday life really helped to build trust. Trust is a big topic, and I think that to show trust, you have to be mindful of the little proof points and how you respond to those just as well as the big issues.

Julie Bryski: What are some examples of the little proof points?

Danny Davies: Some of the proof points involved changing our everyday work practices. One small example - prior to COVID, we used an automated telephony system to manage our customer service calls. The system sends an alert to people when it is time for them to be available to be active on the call queue. That's the last thing people need when they're dealing with the stresses and strains of family, or loneliness, or whatever their personal situation is. We removed the automated reminders and prompts, and let people work when and as they were able.

You have to work through the proof points as each one comes up, based on strong listening. By applying the principle of trust to each situation as it arose, the proof points began to slowly build up, and the result is a much more adult environment.

We have also noticed a positive shift in our people's engagement during our All People meetings. In some ways the pandemic has been an equalizer as people at all levels of the organization are struggling with some similar challenges. In one All People call our CEO shared that his 9-year-old had cut his hair the night before. People appreciate a bit of humility.

This process of robust challenge is how we will get things right for our customers, and will enable us to go a lot faster.

As our CEO and senior team were seen to be more approachable, people became more comfortable challenging the CEO about the approach we were taking to support customers. This process of robust challenge is how we will get things right for our customers, and will enable us to go a lot faster. There is no point employing 4,200 really smart people, and then having the same 15 executives coming up with all the answers.

Julie Bryski: How has Aviva adapted your approach to support leaders and people and embrace new ways of working together?

Danny Davies: We knew early on that well-being was going to be an important piece. Fortunately, Abilities (including well-being) is one of our diversity and inclusion pillars and we have a very strong well-being community in the organization. We have well-being champions allocated to each of the sites and major teams. We accelerated the availability of materials — including free apps focused on well-being and meditation — and improved access to our employee assistance program. We spent a lot of time with our leaders, making sure that they knew how to ask the right questions and check in with people. The leaders and well-being champions have provided a two-pronged approach to support our people through this challenging time.

Another network that we have implemented that has been very successful, is the creation of site leaders across our 14 Canadian offices. The site leader is the person on point for that location, bringing the community together through a variety of work, social and well-being activities. It’s a great chance for leaders to step up and demonstrate their leadership and community-building skills. This is an idea that we had talked about before, but never implemented. The pandemic propelled us to move forward on this initiative and it has worked out really well.

Overall, I would say that our 575 leaders have really stepped up. We conduct weekly pulse surveys with our people and in a recent survey, 90% of people report that they feel connected and supported by Aviva, and 81% feel that they have good work/life balance. This means that 4 out of 5 people feel that work/life balance is okay, despite the fact that we are all dealing with a changed and complicated environment. This is a difficult time for everyone, regardless of your personal circumstances. For me, 4 out of 5 people reporting a good balance is really important. It's not perfect because we want to get everyone there, but it’s a strong start.

The outcome is that the leaders and their teams who are closest to the customers are creating better solutions than we might have done previously.

Our leaders have been critical to our success. It’s my observation that when a situation is unprecedented — like this global pandemic — leaders look around and wonder whose accountability the new tasks are, and who will make certain decisions. And then they realize that it is them. This is uncharted territory. Our business becomes complicated when claims-handling professionals can’t go into customers’ homes to assess damage or go to garages to ensure that cars are fixed and customers are back on the road. Leaders have done an amazing job thinking through the problems, and devising fantastic plans to get people back working safely in the field. The outcome is that the leaders and their teams who are closest to the customers are creating better solutions than we might have done previously.

We quickly recognized that while the situation was tough for everyone, it was especially difficult for leaders. They were balancing their stresses and strains, their own work, their home life, and all of the extra activities that we asked leaders to do to ensure that the people on their teams were safe, and feeling connected and supported. They needed some extra help. In response, we do a separate call just for leaders to talk more specifically about the supports they need and we provide tools to help them be effective managing the competing priorities and pressures.

Julie Bryski: Has working through the pandemic accelerated or changed certain aspects of the Aviva culture?
We are having a more honest and open dialogue across the organization, and we will keep that, moving forward.

Danny Davies: Yes, I think that it has. We are having a more honest and open dialogue across the organization, and we will keep that, moving forward. We have made decisions faster. As an example, we moved 250 people out of the job that they were doing before the pandemic, and into another job where our customers needed them more, within a week. People have supported the changes and have had an opportunity to learn about a new job. By thinking about a problem differently and moving people around, we have been able to maintain a job for everyone. We would like to keep this fluidity of resources because it's been an amazing benefit.

We have also seen an increase in accountability. People listen better. People feel more accountable on an All People call to contribute their ideas. There is a greater acceptance of different views, as they are not intended to be critical, but offer a different lens to make the business better. People are making decisions closer to the customer, as I've described, and they have done a good job.

We have created an environment where anyone can say anything to make our business better. Problems are no longer filtered and minimized as they move through the management hierarchy, where a seeming disaster at the first level of management can appear to be nothing by the time the problem reaches the executive team. Now information is coming directly from the front line, and it's our job as a business to make it easier for our people to look after our customers and our brokers.

Overall, these are the culture shifts that will stand us in better stead for the future.

Julie Bryski: What does this evolution mean for the future of work at Aviva?

Danny Davies: It is critical that the lessons we have learned during the pandemic about speed, accountability, genuine listening, trust, and resource fluidity, stay with us as we move to a new normal. We have done things in days that would have taken years to accomplish previously. We have to ensure that we embed these mechanisms in the way that we do work going forward. And by doing so we will continue to make the business better for our people, customers, and brokers.

Danny Davies, Chief People Officer at Aviva Canada 

Danny Davies is Chief People Officer at Aviva Canada and joined the team in 2013. He began working for Aviva plc in 2008.

Danny is a strong HR and business leader with extensive experience in M&A, Human Resources and Communications. He has accountability for all people and communication activities. Before joining Aviva, Danny worked at Deloitte in London and North America consulting for clients such as Barclays, Morrisons, Nissan, Farmers Insurance and Adobe. Prior to this, Danny was head of Human Resources at Lotus Cars - having started his career as a professional bridge player.

Danny is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and has an MBA.

Join Now