Lessons for positive change

What a difference a year makes. When the coronavirus pandemic began nearly a year ago and we first went into nationwide lockdown, no one could have predicted all the knock-on effects beyond the devastating human and economic toll. Businesses had to adapt quickly and make huge changes at a rate never experienced before.

From a customer services perspective, this terrible situation has sharpened our focus. Planning and preparation went into overdrive, and at The People’s Pension we geared up for scenarios which could have an impact on our customers immediately, including further lockdowns and restrictions which we have of course now seen and continue to work through. With more flexible and resilient customer services operations in place, there are real opportunities for long-term improvements.

New technology and digital improvements

That’s all well and good, but what have we actually done?

As in the first lockdown, we’ve maintained a clear focus on our most vulnerable customers, while adapting all our services to meet wider customer needs. The difference this time is that we have fully maintained our full service, and our customers can access our services through their preferred channel. We’ve also equipped, trained and provided the necessary support to 250 of our customer services team to enable remote working from home without needing to travel to work in our offices.

During this time we’ve:

  • Increased the number of customer services staff working from home to 80%
  • Implemented new technology including softphones and blended contact channel management so staff can handle emails and calls from home
  • Introduced and adapted virtual floorwalker technology to provide instant responses to call handlers
  • Set up increasingly sophisticated and targeted recorded phone messaging to triage enquiries and direct customers to information they need quickly
  • Continued to provide up to date information on our website
  • Adapted quickly to customer feedback and demand

A small number of staff (about 20%) remain in head office, providing extra support when needed for customers who have complex issues to resolve. This hybrid model is a major evolution in the way we work and means our staff can work more flexibly, meet our customers’ needs and importantly remain protected when working remotely, particularly important as we experience a third national lockdown.

Changes for the long-term

Contact centres will continue to evolve – this is about adapting to different requirements. The key priority for 2021 is to establish strong and flexible operating models for the post-pandemic world. This must involve retaining the things that we have learned worked well, constantly monitoring to ensure we meet our customers’ needs, having the bravery to think differently and being supported  with the technical knowledge that will help us flex and adapt.

Activities over the last few months show a change in customer behaviours. Analysis of calls reveals up to 13% of people are now using the information provided by our recorded phone messages (IVRs, or Interactive Voice Response Systems) to answer their queries. Guiding customers to information on our website and including digital forms to support simple transactions means issues are resolved quickly and simply – freeing up valuable and experienced staff to speak to customers who need help with more complicated issues. We call this ‘digital first with a human touch’.

The challenges are there, of course, including a reliance on technology. Training and induction processes for new starters must balance the need to minimise the number of people in the office with making sure they have the support they need to fulfil the role to the best of their ability in a remote setting.

The full extent of the pandemic remains unknown. Challenging months lie ahead for employers and our members, and we don’t underestimate the effect this may have on them. But the introduction of new vaccines has given rise to the hope that there’s an end in sight, albeit impossible to predict when this may be.

Opportunities for the pensions industry

Through such turmoil and uncertainty, we’ve all had to adapt quickly and improve our services. Many well-governed master trusts have demonstrated their strength by building flexibility into their servicing capability while continuing to fulfil their ultimate role of protecting members’ money.

At The People’s Pension we’ll continue to invest in our digital capability, equipping staff with the tools they need to deal with customer enquiries in order to achieve resolutions quickly and with the minimum of fuss. It’s key for pension providers to support members to become more engaged and interested in what, for many, may make a real difference to the retirement outcome they face. So, we will of course continue to focus much of our effort here.

The pace of change has presented many challenges but, as the old adage goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.  What I have learned during this time is that when faced with real crisis, people rally and come together to find inventive ways to solve what, during normal times, may seem insurmountable issues.

People always make the difference and are the very reason that The People’s Pension exists. But perhaps just as importantly for us are the people who work here, and who are the real difference in the service we offer.

How UK pensions are withstanding the fallout from coronavirus

Back in March when the world was a genuinely scary place, there was feverish speculation about what the coronavirus pandemic might mean for the pensions industry.

Both privately and publicly, fears were expressed that the economic damage wrought by the both the initial financial shock and subsequent fallout from lockdown measures might lead to a significant exodus from pensions, as financially stressed savers either ceased contributing or drew down on their retirement savings.

In the months that followed, this was a trend that we simply couldn’t see in data relating to our 5 million members. To be sure that what we were experiencing was not idiosyncratic, we commissioned YouGov to conduct a national survey of more than 2,000 UK adults.

We’ve just received the YouGov results and they’re very clear: at this stage at least, those we surveyed with a pension haven’t revised their pension saving habits much, despite the country experiencing its biggest short-term slump since records began and an accompanying rise in unemployment – the largest in 11 years.

Survey findings

According to the survey, the majority (82%) of UK retirement savers don’t appear to have made any changes to their pensions since March 2020, despite the fact just over 4 in 10 of all workers have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Only a very small percentage (3%) have stopped their pension contributions altogether during the past 7 months, while just 2% said that they’ve withdrawn money from their retirement savings.

The survey also indicates that while 2% cut back on the amount of contributions they made, a further 2% have increased their contributions. Of those who took part in the survey, only a minority, 1 in 7 (14%), have even checked the value of their pensions savings since the UK went into lockdown. The same research also reveals that 45% of UK workers have been affected by coronavirus in some way, which includes being furloughed and having wages or hours reduced.

Despite recent research, conducted by a financial services company, suggesting that 1 in 4 people have either reduced or paused pension saving, the YouGov data suggests the effects of the virus on retirement plans appears to be very limited. 1% have been prompted to delay their retirement plans, while 1% of all UK adults with a pension retired earlier than they’d anticipated.

Workplace pensions aren’t of course the only type of pension in the UK and pension organisations may witness different behaviour depending on the type of category of saver for whom they cater. In particular, the experience of those organisations which primarily serve the self-employed might be different from those which cater for employees.

Support from government

Government support for the employed has been an important factor. Subsidising employment has meant that far fewer employees have been confronted with a choice between prioritising short-term needs to generate immediate replacement income over longer-term retirement needs. Subsidy also extended to pension contributions for much of the year. Some categories of the self-employed haven’t benefitted from government support and this may have had an impact.

The survey results indicate how robust the design of auto-enrolment has been. Faced by a once-in-a-century crisis, it has held up very well. Employees who were at an age where they could have withdrawn pots and crystallised nominal investment losses, didn’t do so. Employer contributions and tax relief have helped encourage people to continue to save, even in difficult times.

While the hardship for many is far from over, the early signs suggest that the British public remains steadfastly committed to saving for retirement.

Retirement savers committed to saving for a pension

The majority (82 per cent) of UK retirement savers do not appear to have made any changes to their pension, despite the fact more than four in ten workers (45 per cent) have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in some way, a new survey has indicated.

According to research from leading workplace pension provider The People’s Pension1, conducted by YouGov, only three per cent2 of those questioned who have a pension said they had stopped their pension contributions altogether during the past seven months, while just two per cent said that they had withdrawn money from their pension, even though the country has experienced its biggest slump since records began and the recent rise in unemployment was the biggest in 11 years3.

The survey also reveals that:

  • Two per cent have cut back pension contributions since the UK went into lockdown in March 2020
  • A further two per cent had increased their contributions
  • Approximately one in seven (14 per cent) have checked the value of their pensions savings in the past seven months

The same research also reveals that 45 per cent of UK workers’ jobs have been affected by coronavirus in some way, with 15 per cent of those taking part in the survey having been furloughed at some point during 2020. Eight per cent of those questioned said their hours had been reduced, with five per cent saying that they had to take a pay cut 2.

Phil Brown, director of policy at The People’s Pension, said: “This has been the most difficult year that most of us can remember, with the fallout from the pandemic having an impact on almost everything that we do. Despite the financial hardship that coronavirus has caused, this national survey confirms what our data has shown us throughout; that it has had very little impact on pension saving.

“Even though there were early fears to the contrary, workplace pension saving through automatic enrolment has held up very well during 2020, confirming its status as one of the most successful Government policies of the 21st Century. This research serves as a timely reminder of how much value millions of workers place on saving for their retirement.”

The survey also revealed that the pandemic had prompted one per cent to delay their retirement plans, while one per cent of all UK adults with a pension retired earlier than they had anticipated.

ENDS

Building a more flexible future

The challenges of the coronavirus pandemic required fast thinking and even faster learning about what worked best for our customers and staff.

When lockdown started in March, our priorities were to follow government guidance and provide a targeted and appropriate level of customer service while looking after the safety and wellbeing of our staff. This meant that for a while we had to do things a little differently.

We’ve made significant adjustments to how we work

We’ve listened to customers, we’ve listened to staff and we’ve made improvements along the way:

  • We needed to keep our staff safe, so had to quickly get most of them working from home.  This meant we couldn’t talk to as many customers as usual on the phone so we increased our email and online support.
  • At first we focused our attention on the customers who needed us most (over 55s who wanted to access their money and couldn’t go online), and asked others to contact us via email.
  • This allowed the rest of our team, who were now safely working from home, to help customers via our digital channels.
  • We ramped up our online content, building key support and guidance on coronavirus, improving our contact us pages and signposting so that customers could quickly access important information. We also shared videos to show members how to manage their pensions online and made more of our forms and transactions digital.
  • As government support such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and advice from regulators evolved, we dived into the details and questions being asked by our customers and shared key information on our website.
  • When demand picked up from employers as more businesses ran their payrolls as a result of the CJRS, we created a facility to offer same day callbacks for employers who needed one-to-one phone support.
  • Throughout lockdown we’ve re-recorded our phone messages and included up-to-date information and step-by-step instructions to help people do what they needed to online.
  • We maintained quality phone services for people who couldn’t go online and needed to talk to us or who wanted to access their money.

We constantly monitor the feedback we get and have made incremental changes as government advice has evolved, and as our staff have been able to return to our offices. Since 1 April we’ve:

  • handled over 41,000 telephone calls while maintaining safe social distancing in our head office
  • responded to over 27,500 employer emails, and nearly 76,000 member emails
  • supported the successful upload of over 450,000 contributions files
  • processed in excess of £55m in individual claims
  • processed over 16,000 transfers in and out worth over £57m.

During lockdown, all our staff worked longer and more flexible hours, including evenings and weekends, to meet the demand and level of service required. Many customers have been supportive and have recognised that keeping our phones free to prioritise those in most need was the right thing to do.

Retaining the good

Our response doesn’t end there. The pandemic has accelerated our thinking and we’ve learned valuable lessons about how we should evolve our support in the future. The online changes we’ve made mean people have more choice about how they interact with us and carry out transactions. Many people want the flexibility to do what they need online at a time that suits them, while others want the helping hand of our guidance over the phone. We have listened and want to give our customers choice and flexibility.

Employers thinking about engaging with their staff to help them get the best value from their employee benefits can use our communications toolkit to make sure people know how to access their online account, check their details and consider how pension saving supports their financial future. We’re also planning to run online events for employers in the autumn exploring how best to engage staff with their pension, so watch this space for more details. If you’re interested, email us.

Strength for the future

Pensions are about steady financial growth over the long term and building foundations for the future retirement we all want. Those principles remain true at The People’s Pension and as a master trust we will continue to provide the stability and strength that all of our customers expect and deserve.

Thanks for your understanding and support as we worked through this challenging time. Please be assured that our commitment to high levels of customer service remains as strong as ever.

Read more

You can access further information about what we are doing in relation to coronavirus on our website.

Adapting to a changing world

It’s no exaggeration to say that these past few months have been tough in every way imaginable for everyone.

A unique set of circumstances has consumed our way of life, prompting us all to quickly adapt to a new normal. Most of the globe’s population has had to make significant changes.

As well as the risk to our health, many people have faced financial uncertainty after the government took the unavoidable step of lockdown, shutting off much of our economy to protect the population from COVID-19. At the same time, the government provided some financial support for businesses in the form of furlough and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Support for auto-enrolment

We’re pleased the government has chosen to support auto-enrolment through the crisis, as it has proved to be a success and has begun to help reshape how the UK retires. Some were concerned that auto-enrolment would be one of the casualties of the crisis, but the government deserves credit for taking the long view and supporting it through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

However, we know that in this difficult time, many of our members are worried about the impact of COVID-19; some will have to make difficult financial decisions, including whether they can continue contributing to a pension, while others will be worried about the impact COVID-19 has had on their pension savings.

Pensions are for the long term

Investment in pensions is best thought about in decades rather than months – something that is backed up by the fact that, despite March’s market turmoil, our members have seen an above inflation increase on their savings over the past 5 years.

We have a 15-year glidepath reducing risk for members as they come towards claiming their money, which has protected their pension savings from the worst of the market falls and should give them comfort that their retirement plans are still secure.

Although coronavirus has meant we had to quickly adapt our ways of working to protect our staff, we’ve always been here for our customers.

Pension scams

Sadly, there’s a real risk that scammers will use COVID-19 as a way of targeting people, particularly those who are older, vulnerable or isolated. We urge people to think twice before making any rash choices when it comes to their pension. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Our website lists the available resources for those seeking more information as well as advice on staying safe from pension scams.

We thank all our customers for their continued support and understanding. Our teams will continue to pull out all the stops to meet the changing nature of the pandemic and ensure we provide the service our customers need.

Read more

You can access further information about what we are doing in relation to coronavirus on our website.