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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Managing change at Swinton Insurance


As part of Working Transitions regular ‘5 minutes with…’ series, Zoe Bull, Head of Marketing, talks to Hilary Burns, People Director at Swinton, about a recent change programme at Swinton.

Zoe Bull, Head of Marketing, Working Transitions: Hi Hilary! Can you talk us through the change programme that you have been involved in recently?

Hilary Burns, People Director, Swinton: Swinton is an insurance business – Financial Services in general has been through an awful lot of change over the last decade or so and insurance is now very much under the spotlight from both a customer and a regulatory perspective. And rightly so. Our change programme was needed to enable us to continue to support our customers’ changing needs.

At Swinton, we have just celebrated our 60th anniversary. Our business has grown exponentially, largely through acquisitions, and as a result many of our ways of working were hampered by legacy issues and systems.  The change programme focused on simplifying systems and processes to deliver great customer service and support colleagues in the most effective way – we needed to find a professional and modern way of working.  

As an insurance broker, we provide insurance advice to customers either face-to-face via our branch network, via telephone through our contact centre and through our digital and online presence.

Traditionally, a large amount of business came through our branch network. As customer needs have changed we are finding, like many other businesses, that customers want to access our products and services via the phone and digital technology.

There is still a requirement for meeting face-to-face but much less so than in the past. We needed to adapt and ‘future proof’ our business to anticipate and meet our customers’ needs.

Our change programme predominantly impacted our branch network and has sadly meant the closure of a number of our branches. This has also had a knock-on effect on the teams that provide support to customer facing areas – namely HR, finance and technology.

We’ve gradually adapted and addressed the need to evolve and this year has seen a significant impact on colleagues across the organisation, while at the same time investing heavily in our digital and data capabilities.

During 2017, we invested £45m in our digital and technology capabilities. The framework we put in place was integral to our change programme. It was essential that we were really clear upfront about our people principles. We agreed on a set of principles that were key to the design of the programme.

For example, we wanted people experiencing these changes to feel that we handled their exits with sensitivity and empathy and that they understood that their service had been valued. A lot of impacted colleagues had long service and were loyal and valuable members of the team.

The key thing for me was that people felt that they were treated as individuals – not as a number.  

Zoe Bull, Head of Marketing, Working Transitions: What were the biggest challenges you faced?

Hilary Burns, People Director, Swinton: Our branch network is geographically dispersed – we don’t tend to have ‘clusters’ of branches.  Trying to engage with colleagues who aren’t in one central space is always a challenge.

We were keen to ensure that our messages were consistent and also that wherever they were in the country, branch colleagues were able to get their questions answered quickly and accurately, and face to face where possible

A lot of time and energy went into trying to overcome the challenge of communicating to these colleagues.  All managers were equipped with a ‘toolkit’ – this ensured an aligned message and full support regardless of location.

A colleague forum was set up with representatives from each area – this allowed questions to be answered quickly and issues to be aired. It also allowed us to conduct a ‘temperature check’ and assess how people were really feeling.

We found that leading and managing the change was extremely difficult emotionally for some of our leadership team. We needed to think about how to equip leaders to address and manage their own emotions whilst trying to manage ‘business as usual’.

It was important for leaders to come to terms with their own feelings about the change before they started to deliver to their teams.

The emotional challenges as well as the logistical challenges were quite significant for all involved.

We were also very conscious of ‘survivor syndrome’ – the impact of the change on those remaining within the business.

We wanted colleagues who were staying to feel that the change had been handled sensitively and that there was a positive future for them within Swinton.  

Zoe Bull, Head of Marketing, Working Transitions: What were the measures of success?

Hilary Burns, People Director, Swinton: The key measure for us was affected colleagues’ views and perception of the change process.  We wanted to know:

  • Did people feel that they had received the information that they needed?
  • Did they feel that they had been handled with sensitivity and empathy?
  • Did they fully understand the rationale behind the change?
  • If they left the company did they feel that they had been properly supported?

Exit interviews – both face-to-face and via survey –  and focus groups helped us assess how colleagues were feeling.

The feedback from this exercise was so valuable and enabled us to get a colleague’s perspective of what went well, what could have gone better and what support was truly valued will help us to shape any future programmes

Zoe Bull, Head of Marketing, Working Transitions: What went well?

Hilary Burns, People Director, Swinton: Our leaders told us that they felt well equipped and were given time to absorb information and think about how they needed to act within the change programme.

Colleagues fed back that they fully understood the need for the change – they appreciated why it was happening.  Communications during the consultation process worked well – we gave people comprehensive packs that they could take away.  People are still in shock when they hear the news – having something that provides further details and next steps is so useful and can help avoid confusion.

By ensuring that everyone across the business understood the rationale behind the change and being transparent about who was and wasn’t affected, those remaining in the business could go about their role whilst responding sensitively to their affected colleagues.  It also meant that rumours and gossip were reduced and concerns could be addressed openly.

Support for leavers, both from managers and our external outplacement support provider, Working Transitions, went well. Lots of our colleagues had been in the business for many years and were fearful about being back in the job market.  The face to face support and the excellent written and online materials available allowed people to access the support that was right for them.  They were able to come to terms with the change in their own time.

Zoe Bull, Head of Marketing, Working Transitions: How beneficial did you find using external support?

Hilary Burns, People Director, Swinton: I’ve had experience of managing change both with and without external support.  We used Working Transitions for Outplacement Support and the key benefits were the immediate professionalism, dedication and confidence that they bought to the situation.

They are experts in what they do. 

People often feel that change is being ‘done’ to them – therefore being supported by someone within their organisation can feel too ‘close’ and can prevent them from opening up.

Being able to take a step back and get support from an independent third-party can help people to understand that this is not personal – it happens to people across lots of companies and a successful outcome is possible.  

I was really interested in touching base with the people who didn’t feel that the support was going to be beneficial to them.

Beforehand they would tell me that they could write their own CV and the support wasn’t necessary for them – as soon as they had been to a workshop or had a coaching session they could really see the value in spending the time focusing on their skills and strengths and thinking about the next step in their career journey.

Our colleagues really valued the support.

Zoe Bull, Head of Marketing, Working Transitions: What would you do differently next time?

Hilary Burns, People Director, Swinton: I’d ensure that there is always someone available to provide emotional support – it takes a lot of energy to support colleagues through something like this, so it is vital that managers can have regular check ins.

We underestimated how uncomfortable some managers would feel delivering the message and supporting their teams through the change – an emotional outlet for their fears and concerns really helped.  

Zoe Bull, Head of Marketing, Working Transitions: If you could give one piece of advice to an organisation facing change what would it be?

Hilary Burns, People Director, Swinton: Never underestimate the power of the grapevine. No matter how well you plan and how well you think you’re getting the message across, everyone interprets things differently.

It’s so easy to get the ‘wrong end of the stick’ or check out of a meeting and hear something incorrectly. Bust the myths and correct any inaccuracies continuously as it can help alleviate unnecessary worry. 

I’m a big fan of asking ‘what’s the latest rumour?’ If you can tap into that quickly you can help people start to move through the change process. Communication boosts trust – without trust the whole process is so much harder. Keep reiterating the facts!

Communicate, communicate, communicate – if you don’t, people will fill the vacuum with their own version of events!

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence